Upon returning to blogging, I told myself I would not write posts about the main professional organization for American sociologists. Nevertheless, the front page of the ASA website currently links to a letter hosted in the “Advocacy” section folder of the site that is presented on ASA letterhead, which opens with the following statement:

We write as elected leaders of the American Sociological Association to express our support for your decision not to hire Dr. Steven G. Salaita as a faculty member at the University of Illinois.

This is not the association expressing a concern about the perceived importance of either protecting free speech or protecting students from speech-of-certain-sorts, but instead this is ostensibly the association straight-up taking a position regarding a decision made by the Chancellor on this question. The letter does proceed to note that “some” in the organization may not agree with this position. Likewise, subsequent text–as well as the fact that it is signed only by a Vice-President Elect and one Council member of the association–creates some ambiguity about its status as an official Association document. In this respect, one might also wonder about the preceding letter signed by persons including the outgoing, current, and incoming presidents of the association. At least in that case, the standing of these persons as “leaders” of the Association is stronger and the letter is carefully framed as a statement of concern about a particular principle and not as an explicit position on a decision.

I have known of instances in which individuals make unauthorized use of organizational letterhead to make statements of personal opinion that are not statements made in their official capacities. But of course being presented on the website would suggest this was, in some sense, authorized by the organization (see response from ASA president). Regardless of whether one believes the University of Illinois did or did not do the right thing in this case, the process by which this organization has come to issue its statements on the matter appears peculiar, to say the least.

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

11 thoughts on “letterhead”

  1. Jeremy, I posted this in the other thread, but it’s just as relevant here:

    The ASA needs a formal policy on position-taking. I’m surprised there isn’t one already, as many other professional associations have one. I am uneasy with Council’s approach of handing the issue off to the Presidents League, and with the ASA website featuring the two letters. If the letters don’t represent an ASA position, why is ASA letterhead being used, and why is the association publicizing them? The prudent thing to do would be to formulate a policy, and only then start taking positions consistent with that policy. In the meantime, individual members can write letters singly or in groups, but not under the guise of representing the association.

    How about “We write as elected leaders of an organization that has no policy authorizing us to write as elected leaders”?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah, I agree with this. When I was department chair, I wrote no end of letters that started with “I write as Chair of the Department of Sociology to …” This means, “I’m writing in my capacity as Chair to…” It’s not, “I’m writing as also someone who happens to be Chair…”

      Another way of putting the matter is that Wise could certainly take the letter and show it to others as a statement by a professional organization supporting her decision. That it might read differently to someone who is aware of the full body of correspondence sent on behalf of ASA is beside the point.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I feel sheepish that I don’t know whether there is such a policy, but I do know that there was a lot of discussion about these matters just prior to my joining the Council, and something of a consensus was reached, if not a full-fledged policy. I am once again away from my desk, but the place to look is in the Council minutes on the ASA website. I would start with the August 2012 meeting, or maybe February 2013.


  2. Can I, a lowly liberal arts prof, advocate a policy position and have my letter–on ASA letterhead–linked on the association’s front page?

    I pay dues. Is that enough. Or, do I need to be elected to something first? Would it be okay if I were the former secretary of one of ASAs 54 sections?


  3. That Member News and Notes showed a hotbed of disfunction. In addition to the Advocacy issue, the “Council Responds to Petition on Annual Meeting Locations and Dates” announced that a subcommittee had been formed that will look into whether or not a task force should be created, and “ASA Annual Meeting Announcements” noted that thematic sessions proposal for the 2016 ASA meeting are due 615 days in advance of the meeting.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A radical proposition: If the officers can’t reach a consensus (or super-majority, or whatever) position to articulate ex officio then they shouldn’t issue statements at all rather than issuing (what is in effect) an official majority report and an official minority report.

    Of course the problem with my proposal is it violates the two basic principles of ASA governance:
    1) we see every sparrow that falls
    2) A.B.K. A- Always. B- Be. K- Keystone Kops. Always Be Keystone Kops


  5. According to the ASA bylaws, Council can take action between it’s official meetings, provided all members of Council sign off on the action.

    Section 6.

    Any action required or permitted to be taken at a meeting of the Council may be taken when the Council is not in session, provided all members of the Council consent in writing by signing their name and set forth in the same writing the action or decision taken or made. Consent in writing shall have the same force and effect as a unanimous vote, and may be described as such in any document executed by or on behalf of the corporation. Requests for actions by members of the Council may be submitted to members by mail, electronic mail, fax, or by other means.


    1. So, it’s a unanimous consent system of decision-making stapled on top of a winner-take-all system for who gets to be the decision-makers. The rational choice prediction is a single party capturing every seat and nevertheless that party has a maximally difficult time accomplishing anything collectively. This is the system that sociologists have designed for themselves.


  6. Staying agnostic about the dysfunction in position-taking and speaking only to the title “letterhead”, may I say how anachronistic the whole “official letterhead” thing is. Once upon a time, letterhead was a big deal. It was engraved and expensive and was seen as difficult to counterfeit, and was taken as the sign of authenticity. Even in its heyday day it wasn’t impossible to create fake letterhead. And I knew someone in the 1970s who routine stole letterhead from every employer he had so he could write his own letter of reference on letterhead and send it to his placement file. Still, once upon a time it had some meaning.

    But today, where letters are sent electronically and anybody who wants to can create a letterhead setup, the idea that “official letterhead” has some kind of special status is ridiculous. Even as some institutions that have not made it out of the 1970s still demand that letters be “on letterhead” even as they also ask that they be emailed.

    The matter of whom you speak for and when it is appropriate to mention your institutional affiliation or status as an elected or appointed leader of some affiliation when taking a position, that’s more complicated. And I suppose the “letterhead” business is about the symbolism and so I shouldn’t be calling it ridiculous. But still . . .


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