History of MSSA, by Marc Matre
History of the Mid-South Sociological Association
(May 22, 2017)
The Mid-South Sociological Association was founded during a professional meeting in Monroe, Louisiana. The host institution was Northeast Louisiana University, now The University of Louisiana at Monroe. Most of the founders were sociologists from colleges and universities in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Oklahoma, and Texas. Participants gathered in Monroe to participate in professional activities, but also with the specific intent to found a new regional association.
The organizational meeting took place on November 6, 1975. The first order of business was to adopt a temporary constitution and bylaws to facilitate business during the first year. This accomplished, amendments were passed to assure that the organization would operate in an open and democratic way. Five standing committees were established: a Nominations Committee, a Membership Committee, a Committee on the Profession, a Committee on Women, and a Committee on Minorities. Chairs of standing committees were to be elected by the membership and become members of a governing body, designated as the Executive Council.
Once basic organization structure was established, it was agreed that the Executive Council would make changes necessary to produce acceptable permanent documents. In particular, it was suggested that the Constitution be free of sexist terminology. All of these actions reflect enduring concerns of many members of the organization. The paramount concern is to keep the organization open and welcoming to all sociologists, especially those who are members of various minority groups.
Basic principles for appointing members of standing committees were established. This included a requirement that committees be composed of persons selected from all of the states in what became known as the “Mid-South Region.” This region was defined as including the states of Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Kentucky. Committee chairs were authorized to appoint members of their committees, but instructed to make these committees geographically representative. This requirement became problematic as the “Mid-South Region” was expanded in later years, but subsequent practices have been in keeping with the spirit of the organizational meeting. Now members continue to refer to the Association as “the Mid-South” or “the MSSA.”
Many founders of the MSSA were members of the Southern Sociological Society (SSS) or the Southwestern Social Science Association (SSSA), each a highly prestigious organization. The SSSA, a multi-disciplinary organization, appeals to only some sociologists. The SSS and SSSA, being large organizations, typically meet in metropolitan settings distant from the original “Mid-South Region.” Few schools in the “Mid-South” have had budgets to support professional participation in such places. Many in the “Mid-South” found the cost-to-benefit ratio discouraging. This fact of life did not translate into revolt, secession, or abandonment of the SSS. Instead, most founders of the MSSA were seeking a workable alternative for professional participation. Those who could manage it have remained members of the SSS. They have continued to participate, particularly when annual meetings have been in New Orleans. Meanwhile, the MSSA has become a somewhat different kind of organization.
Creation of the MSSA can be seen as a response to pressures affecting higher education in the 1970s. Social changes in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s profoundly altered American higher education. Colleges and universities expanded, first to accommodate returning veterans, and then baby boomers. Ever larger cohorts of students were being admitted. Programs and faculties were expanded. The move from an industrial to a post-industrial economy encouraged elaboration of curricula, including the creation of additional graduate programs in sociology. During the middle stage of this expansion, many graduate students were employed to help teach the baby boomers. Even first-year graduate students were used as teaching assistants and some advanced graduate students were given their own courses to teach. These conditions contributed to optimism and a false sense of security. Some graduate students even yielded to the temptation to take faculty positions before completing their doctorate, the “terminal degree.” Even persons with doctorates were busy coping with heavy teaching loads. Then things changed again.
By the mid-1970s, college and university administrators were anticipating the passing of the baby boom. Competition for enrollments increased. More attention was given to recruiting non-traditional students and improving student retention. Faculty evaluation was made more systematic and greater emphasis placed on non-teaching activities. When economies faltered budgets tightened. Vulnerable faculty members were let go as positions were lost. Tenured faculty anticipating retirement sometimes stayed on because their departments might not be allowed to replace them if they retired. New hires were systematically made aware of expectations for teaching, research, service, and publication. True to American values, tangible evidence of performance counted most, even if intangibles still mattered to faculty and students. Faculty were motivated to find ways to more convincingly demonstrate competence. Activity in professional associations provided ways to become recognized, seek advantageous professional bonds, and keep up with the profession. Everywhere, competition became more intense.
These pressures extended into the realms of graduate and undergraduate education, eventually reaching the point where success in the job market could depend mostly on evidence of accomplishments prior to graduation, rather than promise only. In response, departments and professional associations sought ways to facilitate student participation. This served to intensify pressures on programs with fewer resources. One adaptation was to carpool and use the highways to transport both faculty and students to meetings. Some schools made vans available to departments, allowing them to get larger contingents on the road. In this way, even undergraduate students could be shown the significance of professional participation.
All of the ramifications of these developments could not be anticipated when the MSSA was launched, but the sociologists who gathered for that first organizational meeting were looking for ways to survive and prosper in more demanding academic environments. Having a regional association with meetings closer to home looked promising. It offered the prospect of shaping an organization to enhance opportunities for professional participation. In subsequent years, members of the MSSA would take many initiatives to advance both faculty and student members.
Given its origins, sustaining the MSSA presents three major challenges, sometimes at odds with one another. To serve its members in the competitive world of American academics, the MSSA must validate professionalism. A tint of elitism helps with this. On the other hand, to facilitate careers of persons who might be excluded or lose out, the MSSA must remain open and supportive. Tolerance and resources are needed manage this. And finally, costs must be controlled keep participation within the reach of members. The MSSA must allocate its resources to meet these all of these challenges.
The standing committees of the Association reflect matters of enduring importance to the Association. The Nominations Committee, Committee on the Profession, and the Membership Committee are focused on sustaining the organization and fostering professionalism. The Committee on Minorities and the Committee on Women, and the Committee on Small and Community Colleges are focused on inclusiveness and equality. The Committee on Small and Community Colleges was added in 1986, after it was realized that the membership included a number of persons whose professional lives were centered in institutions fitting this designation. Over time, actions of Council, annual meeting programs, and administrative policies were progressively more influenced by committee initiatives. Mainly, the Association was induced to provide more opportunities for women and minorities and to find ways and means to support their participation.
Members of these committees have strongly influenced the content of meeting programs. By means of their caucuses and through wider contacts they have encouraged persons to organize sessions, submit papers, attend meetings, and seek offices in the Association. These effects have been cumulative, as evidenced by the increasing visibility women and minorities, as well as greater importance in the business of the Association.
Society records have been used to monitor participation on the part of protected groups, with white males taken as a tacit reference group for comparisons. It became standard practice for program chairs to include events designated as of special interest to minorities, women, and persons from small and community colleges. Open sessions and caucuses have been regular features of programs. These events provided venues where committee chairs could encourage communication, elicit suggestions, and strengthen bonds between interested parties. In keeping with the Association’s spirit of openness, all persons have been welcome to attend, the only requisite being interest.
In general, the Council has been receptive to at least discussing initiatives to increase participation of minorities and women. With respect to minorities, issues have often turned on using Association resources to support participation. For example, measures were taken to reduce the cost of attending meetings. A new registration category was announced, enabling faculty members to sponsor groups of students. Some faculty members even arranged bus transportation and housing arrangements for their contingents. Consequently, the Association became part of a larger effort to include more students. Over the years, many students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities attended in this way.
Because historic inequalities by sex, gender, and sexuality operate somewhat differently in American society, women’s issues more often turn on matters of status and inclusion. Officers are expected to work in favor of achieving acceptable levels of participation on the part of members of protected social categories. Mostly, this has taken the form of assuring that every position is open to minorities and women. In particular, nomination committees have tried offer balanced slates of candidates.
Efforts of the Committee on the Profession have focused on activities during annual meetings. This has taken the form of providing employment services. Sometimes the Committee organized sessions on the profession, especially ones featuring discussions for the edification of graduate and undergraduate students. The Committee has also given attention of professional ethics. When questions about conduct have arisen, troubles have been resolved by informal means, referred to committees, and/or reported to outside authorities.
Another matter of importance to the Association is the official journal of the Association, Sociological Spectrum, which is owned and published by Taylor and Francis. The journal is edited by an editor or co-editors serving on the Executive Council of the Association. The Association sponsors student paper contests. Winners of student paper contests have been given opportunities to publish edited versions of their papers in Sociological Spectrum.
Membership and participation in the MSSA have fluctuated over the years. Totals have never exceeded a few hundred persons, with most members coming from relatively smaller and less prestigious schools. The organization prospers with the steadfast support from sociologists at all levels in the academic world. Support takes the forms of both generosity and devoted service. The MSSA continues to provide opportunities in sociology for many who would otherwise lack them.
The values and intellectualism of sociologists can put them at odds with people who dominate in America. When MSSA members advance Enlightenment ideals such as humanism and democracy, they are out of step with politics in their region. Unpopularity invites being disadvantaged. To compensate, firm loyalty and extra effort are required. Association members have been succeeding with that since 1975.