13th PRSA Biennial Conference Presidential Address

PRSA XIII Biennial Conference

Presidential Address

Salvador Mercado
October 26, 2018

As incoming president of PRSA, my purpose today is to share with you a bit of my perspective on where we are as an organization and what I believe we can do within the next couple of years. I will be brief.

I am not going to outline a definitive plan but to highlight areas where I see opportunities or a needto take action.  What we do as an organization during my term as president may be influenced by the ideas I will talk about now, but ultimately it will be only through the participation and collaboration of the members that we will develop an action program. And any objectives on such a program will only be accomplished to the extent that a good number of members make a commitment to work toward them.

PRSA was founded 1992 by a group of researchers and intellectuals that had been collaborating since the eighties. They began the series of conferences that to this day are the main feature for which the organization is known. Conferences such as this one, for which we can be rightfully proud. [By the way: we are looking for a host for our next conference in 2020. If there is anyone interested in doing this, please let me know.] Then, at some point in the middle of the first decade of this twenty-first century the leadership started taking steps toward what some of us have been calling “institutionalization.” One important step toward that objective was formalizing our non-profit status with the IRS in 2010.  I am not sure I like the word “institutionalization,” but I do like the idea. The idea is to give shape to an organization that is more robust and more stable, and organization that still runs a solid conference and does other things as well.

It is interesting and challenging to me to realize that in many of the conversations that I have had over the years and to this day with fellow members of PRSA I still find a tension between two models of what PRSA is or could be. Some are quite satisfied with attending our conference every two years and connecting with a regional network of colleagues located mainly on the east coast. Others would like to see the organization develop other projects beyond a biennial conference and see it reach out to build a network of members extending over the whole country. (When I talk like this, please understand that I am not trying to leave the colleagues from the island out of the picture. They are equally considered in both models.)

My take on this is that if you are happy with only attending a conference every two years there is nothing wrong with that, and you already have what you want. But if you want more from this organization, we have some work to do. Even though many in our Boricua diaspora are not yet connected to us, it is a reality that PRSA membership is already geographically extended across the country. There is also real interest in offering our members things that they can look forward to during those alternate years when we do not have a conference. Some recurrent ideas include publications, summer seminars, and events in collaboration with similar organizations. It is often the case that when such ideas come up they are quickly put aside for maybe discussing them further at another time. I wonder why that happens, and I come to a few possible causes: (1) people have either resigned themselves to accept that PRSA only does a biennial conference (and a symposium) and nothing more or they expect resistance from others who may have that mindset; (2) these things will require time commitments from members, and PRSA is not their primary professional association; (3) these things will require financial resources that we do not have.

I could not quickly dismiss these objections, because there is merit in them, but I do not believe that they present, separately or together, sufficient reason to discourage us from strengthening our association and expanding our work. If not all of us are enthusiastic about new developments and further institutionalization, there are enough of us who are. And there does not have to be contradiction between the more and the less enthusiastic. If we start new projects that require time investment there are enough of us to share the burden and make it lighter. Also, the new ventures could raise the profile of the organization and make the effort even more worthwhile before the eyes of the academy. And it is true that we do struggle financially, but this too could be overcome.

In a moment I will return to the matter of finances, but before I do that, I will mention some of the things I would like to see happening in the near future.

  1. I believe that we should start publishing works presented at the symposium that we organize every other year alternating with the conference. This would be a serial publication, each number focusing on a theme relevant to the state of our field.
  2. I believe that conditions are ripe for PRSA to start publishing its own journal. We have a healthy relationship with the Centro Journal, but we should not believe that one and only one journal should exist in the field of Puerto Rican Studies. I do expect to count with the blessing and the collaboration of our colleagues at the Centro Journal in creating a PRSA journal.
  3. Awards: We currently give the Frank Bonilla Book Award and the Dissertation  Award, now named to honor Virginia Sánchez-Korrol. These not only acknowledge and celebrate scholarly achievements but are useful in enhancing the visibility of those receiving them. I believe that introducing new awards will be beneficial. We could have an award to the best journal article of the year. We could consider separate awards for books on the humanities and books on social sciences. There are, for sure, other ways to focus attention on the meritorious work done by our peers.

And now, let’s return to the theme of finances. This is one of the main areas where we need to focus. Mainly, we need to change the way we think about finances. PRSA has never been rich. It is an organization created and run by scholars, educators, community activists, and students. The kinds of people known for their intellectual curiosity and their commitment to worthy causes, not for their wealth. We have more humanists than accountants. And when the funding for higher education is being cut, or when we get hit by a hurricane, we are shaken in our spirits and in our pockets. But we can and should do better in sustaining the financial health of this organization.

For too long we have barely made it from one biennial conference to the next; at times building a modest reserve that soon after we end up spending to cover conference costs or operational expenses. We are organized as a non-profit, but we do not have to operate as a non-income, a non-reserve, or a non-solvent organization. As a non-profit, our books have to be open to scrutiny by law, they should be public. But we are still not in the habit of openly sharing our financial statements. The main reason for this is that we are chronically broke, and that is embarrassing.

Let’s be clear, I am not blaming anyone in particular, nor am I accusing anyone for any wrongdoing. I am talking about the internal culture of PRSA as it regards finances, the practices that have become entrenched. We recruit members and collect membership dues, we charge for conference or symposium registrations, and we seek donations. And then we go and spend all or most of it in the next conference. Actually, we do all of those things so that we have enough money to run a conference and we do not stop to plan beyond that.

These habits need to change. The current Executive Council is fighting them and doing what can be done to restore and rebuild our financial health. But if we are to achieve stability in the long run we have to make sure that our expenses are consistently below our revenues, and we have to learn new ways to increase those revenues. We can only move in that direction if we stop thinking about revenue as a mechanism to fund conferences. Creating a reserve fund should be a priority. It is also required by law from any non-profit organization. And our financial statements should be readily available to members and to the public.

PRSA is already an academic society with a prestigious trajectory. We are poised to take it now to a new level of organization and to offer our members a wider spectrum of resources and opportunities. Let’s do that.

Thank you.