Lots of thunder but no visible lightning (yet): Report of February 2016 APA Council meeting

Highlights from the February 2016 APA Council meeting.

By J. Bruce Overmier, PhD

This meeting seemed long in part because of the extensive parliamentary wrangling in which it felt (personal reaction) as if the president simply wanted to block reasonable considerations from the floor. Motions to consider whether to consider something that then required additional motions about whether a 50 percent or 66 percent vote was required became tedious and wasted time.   However, when the president wanted to introduce an item not on the agenda, the parliamentary issues were ignored until one wanted to suggest a motion rising out of the “new” issue.  And then it started again.  Worse for this report, hours of discussion were in “executive session” so I cannot even tell you about it.  Do not let my frustration here reflect negatively on the good intentions of all. But it was less productive that it might have been, and in the end, the Board failed to assess after their explanations whether the Council supported them or not.  A mistake, in my view.

We did learn things that are important to Div. 3. For example, awards were made to eight universities (70 applications) to support 32 undergraduate research summer training award opportunities; there is to be a new award for interdisciplinary team science research; and 40 graduate students have been awarded Dissertation Research Awards to support doctoral thesis researches. We learned also that the Science Directorate has five full-time government relations officers (advocacy persons) informing the various agencies (Department of Defense, National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation [NSF], NASA, National Institute on Drug Abuse, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, etc.) how psychological research can facilitate their missions.  APA, Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences and other cooperation national organizations fought hard and stopped the scheduled 40 percent cut in NSF funding for behavior sciences.  They are also weighing in on the selection of the new director for the National Institute of Mental Health; as we know from the last director, this selection is critical for psychological researchers.  APA’s Science Directorate also weighed in on the new proposed Common Rule that will govern future research with humans (IRBs), supporting its strengths but noting some critical weaknesses.  All these are real values for us that we hear less about than we should.

On the other hand, acting CEO Cynthia Belar carefully and properly noted to both scientists and practitioners that APA, as a 501(c)(3) organization, is not a guild organization just for the benefit of its members, but rather a charitable scientific, educational and service organization that must advocate for those things that advance the discipline and benefit the public. A search for a new permanent CEO is underway.  Who gets to select (Board or Council) is up for debate.

There was a proposed action item to remove use of the GRE scores from admission decisions—especially as cut-off GRE scores.  The idea is that such cut-offs are a barrier to admission of selected disadvantaged groups.  It is an intriguing argument that seems not to recall that Conant at Harvard and others devised and promoted SATs and GREs as a way of avoiding preferences typically given to children of alumni at the Ivy League schools; it kept out those legacy applicants who lacked the competencies needed to succeed at the Ivy school and opened places to persons from socially disadvantaged groups who did have the necessary competencies.  Now we are seeing the claim that these tests are barriers to the groups for whom they were devised to aid.  In all events, the item was withdrawn until August.  If you have views on this graduate student selection item—pro or con—you, your chairperson or others should contact the Council of Graduate Departments of Psychology, APA’s Board of Educational Affairs or Darlyne Nemeth, PhD (Louisiana).

In planning for APA moving forward, it is clear that APA cannot assume an infinitely growing budget.  Indeed, journal growth while still positive is only slightly so, and APA income has asymptoted.  We have tapped our audience. 

There was, as you who have followed the news may guess, some discussion and submitted documents about the so-called Hoffman report (or Independent Review [IR]) by Sidley-Austin law firm.  Some believe they have found fatal flaws and think it needs review/revision. The IR was never formally accepted by APA, but its influence has been broad anyway.  As you may recall from my previous report, I thought then that Council was over-trusting of the opinions expressed in the report. [On the positive side, it was clear in saying APA never supported torture.]  Nonetheless, well-intended actions were taken in August 2015 by Council.  It seems they may have reached too far in preventing needed services to be provided by psychologists.  We shall see; this topic is not going away soon, despite our fondest hopes.

One concern and a Council action I voted against was to prioritize human rights and social justice and ethics in all aspects of the next strategic plan.  I have no objections to —and do endorse—using psychology and psychological science to foster human rights and social justice and ethics where psychology has scholarly evidence that is relevant.  The difference is whether we use our discipline or just change APA into a different kind of organization. We shall have to see how this plays out.  Fortunately, the use of the word “prioritize” does not mean what the movers of the motion think is does.  To prioritize is to consider in a ranked order; the movers thought they were saying to give priority to x, y, z over other considerations.   We shall have to see how this plays out. 

The end of the meeting included a couple of hours of emotional accusations of ignoring minorities of all sorts and pleading for enhanced civility.  Expression of the genuinely felt emotions was cathartic.  But it would have helped if substantive arguments were presented as to why more attention should be given.  There are good reasons such as reflecting the emerging diversity of the discipline; different social views engage different research questions and approaches; having a wide array of psychologists in governance attracts young people into the pipeline of majors and graduate students, etc.  But the appeal on Sunday was primarily emotional and ignored that they had gotten there to be heard by the actions taken by the majority to invite and engage the various minorities (persons of color, genders, LGBT, ethnographics, etc.).  And, it seemed to ignore that we in Div. 3 feel ourselves to be an ignored minority.  Intellectual diversity is one form that seems to be ignored even when talking about diversity.

There will be an election for a new APA president this summer.  Some who share the values of Div. 3 are running.  There are also some running who seem to prioritize other values.  I note this now because my next report will get to you after that election.  I tell you now: Choose carefully and do vote.