Farewell, Oona Schmid

No, it’s not the title of a whimsical new Wes Anderson movie, it’s news of changes within the American Anthropological Association’s publishing program. Ed Liebow, the executive director of the AAA (i.e. the big boss) announced in early January that Schmid will be leaving the AAA to become the Director of Publishing at the Association for Psychological Science.

During her time at the AAA Schmid had the unenviable job being the person in charge of saying ‘no’ to open access advocates who sought to change the AAAs publishing strategy. This wasn’t because she was a mean-hearted person, but rather because she became the face of an institution that was unable to live up to its values of openness and freedom of information because  those values were in conflict with the association’s interests — especially its need to make money through the sale of its publications.

To be sure, Schmid developed a number of new programs during her time at AAA, including several open access initiatives like Anthropology Book Forum and the AAA’s faux-open access journal Open Anthropology. But during Schmid’s tenure the organization was never able to overcome the fundamental institutional imperatives that drew it closer and closer to closed access publishers like Wiley Blackwell.

Although I didn’t have much direct contact with Schmid over the years, I did feel that she was genuinely committed to open access for many reasons, including the fact that it is what most AAA members want. It was probably impossible for her to perform a revolution inside the AAA, and I have no doubt that she did the best she could with the hand she was dealt. Nevertheless, it was during her tenure we saw the rise of open access projects like HAU and Cultural Anthropology, both of which demonstrated that that open access was a space in which anthropology could feasibly innovate.

Schmid’s departure also highlights one of the fundamental dynamics of scholarly societies: Our members have made a commitment to our role which is more than just a career choice. It’s a vocation, a lifelong commitment to scholarship, and to furthering the institutions which promote scholarship. Tenured professors dedicate tremendous amount of time to service work, while members of the precariate rightfully demand a place at the table, and a commitment from their institutions that they will have enough job security to fritter away their free time on peer review and curriculum committees.

Association employees, on the other hand, do not have this deep, values-driven commitment to their calling. Frankly, they may be on to something since being a professor is sort of ridiculous and exhausting. But it does mean that we tend to stick around long after our employees have moved on to another job. How many times have I had editors of Anthropology News tell me it was their journal and not mine, and I had to rewrite my piece to suit them, etc. etc. only to have them leave a few years later? Of course, the flip side of this is that people like Schmid take jobs were entrenched cliques of obsessive freaks argue endlessly over a small set of unresolvable issues, and then kvetch endlessly when you end up being yet one more person who can’t resolve them.

So I thank Schmid for her hard work and patience with the AAA for the last eight years and wish her well working with the psychologists. But at the end of the day, even as we thank Schmid for her service we, the members of the association, remain in place, advocating that the AAA act in accordance with its values as it seeks to fulfill its mission as a scholarly association. We are not just the institutional memory of the association, we are the association in a way that much of the staff is not. What can I say? It’s a blessing and a curse. So farewell Oona Schmid, and I hope that psychologists treat you well. Good luck in your new endeavors!

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org