What should SPSP do about APA and the Hoffman report?

I am a member-at-large in the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. We will be having our semiannual board meeting in a couple of weeks. On the agenda is a discussion of the Hoffman Report, which details collusion between American Psychological Association officials and the U.S. military to enable and support abusive interrogations.

I have had several discussions with people about what, if anything, SPSP should be doing about its relationship with APA. But I’d really like to open up the discussion and get feedback from more people, especially SPSP members. In this post I’d like to lay out some background about SPSP’s relationship with APA, and bring up some possibilities about what to do next.

What is SPSP’s current legal and financial relationship with APA?

It’s easy to get confused about this. Heck, I’m on the SPSP board and I still find it a bit confusing. (If I get any of this wrong I hope somebody corrects me.) Here goes.

SPSP is legally its own organization. We have our own articles of incorporation and bylaws. Membership in SPSP and APA are separate processes and you can be a member of (and pay dues to) either one without joining the other. We operate our own annual conference and our own non-APA journals.

So they’re totally independent, right? Well, not totally.

SPSP also operates APA Division 8. That means that if you are an APA Division 8 member, the SPSP Board is in charge of running your division. And conversely, 1 of the 11 voting members of the SPSP Board of Directors is the APA Division 8 council representative, who is elected by APA Division 8 members under APA’s bylaws. So our governance is at least somewhat intertwined.

And the APA website certainly blurs the distinction – if you navigate to their Division 8 page, it says that Division 8 is SPSP, and it links to SPSP’s website. (Contrast that to the SPSP website’s page about Division 8, which goes to pains to emphasize the difference.)

Financially, some money changes hands. On the income side, we get a bit of a cut from [corrected] APA Division 8 membership dues and from the fact that some APA Division 8 conference programming provides continuing education credits. On the expenses side, SPSP spends money on the APA conference. We pay to send the SPSP president, SPSP-selected APA program chair, and the Division 8 council representative to the APA conference, and we pay for some APA conference programming (a social hour and travel for an invited speaker). In our 2014 budget under “Division 8,” the numbers were roughly $3k in income from APA, and $13k in expenses, for a net of $10k being spent. On top of that we reimburse some travel expenses for the Division 8 representative and program chair to attend SPSP board meetings (these travel expenses are in a different part of the budget and not broken out, but it’s probably a few thousand bucks a year). In the context of SPSP’s overall budget those are modest numbers — SPSP’s total revenues for 2014 were over $2 million. If you are an SPSP member, it would technically not be correct to say that exactly $0 of your membership dues goes toward APA-related stuff. But the percentage is small.

So like I said, it’s easy to get confused. Legally and financially, SPSP is largely separate but not 100% independent. And by operating Division 8 for APA, we certainly have a real, ongoing relationship.

What are the reasons for maintaining our relationship or for ending it?

That’s really what I’m hoping to hear feedback from people about. I’ll summarize some of the arguments I’ve heard so far, but I hope people will elaborate on them.

On the “keep it” side, people point out that APA is the only organization that represents all of psychology in the United States. APA thus connects us to other psychological disciplines, including the practitioner disciplines. And they are going to continue to have influence on policy and lobbying (including things SPSP members are likely to care about like social science funding). Another thing people bring up is that many of the top-tier journals that SPSP members publish in (JPSP etc.) are APA journals, and we should keep our involvement and influence in that. And lastly, as a result of the Hoffman Report APA may make some fundamental reforms – so this may be an important time to stay involved to shape those reforms and make sure they are implemented.

On the “end it” side, people argue that APA is drifting further and further away from relevance to psychological scientists (aside from its journal publishing business), and that we have relatively little influence with them anyway (a single Division 8 member on the APA council). APA gets its credibility and influence in part from being associated with scientific organizations like us, and they have leveraged that credibility to do great damage. And this wasn’t just a few individuals abusing their offices – it was organized, institutional corruption. So maybe SPSP (as an organization and members as individuals) is getting too little and giving up to much from our relationship – materially, reputationally, or morally.

These are just brief statements of the arguments, in part because they are not all my own. And like I said, this is what I want to hear people discuss.

Realistically what might SPSP do in the immediate future?

As I see it there are 3 avenues:

1. Decide we should stay involved and keep our relationship.

2. Decide we’re past the point of no return with APA and end our relationship. As I understand it, the SPSP Board is not empowered to end our relationship at our meeting. Doing so would require amending our bylaws and articles of incorporation, and that requires a referendum of the SPSP membership. But such a referendum could be initiated by either the Board or by a petition of 100 SPSP members. [UPDATE AND CLARIFICATION: The SPSP Board has budgetary authority to stop spending money on Division 8-related expenses, without a full referendum. Removing the Division 8 representative position from the SPSP board would require amending the bylaws via referendum, but not the articles of incorporation. Thanks to Chad Rummel for the corrections.]

3. Wait and see. Many of the individuals implicated in the Hoffman Report have resigned, but the fallout continues to fall out. Many questions remain to be addressed: How (if at all) will APA change its governance system (which, according to the Hoffman report, was able to be manipulated and circumvented pretty easily toward horrific ends)? Change its ethics policy? Change its stance toward military and operational psychology? Will it reopen and investigate old ethics charges? Will it make restitution for the damage it has done? These questions are likely to be taken up at the APA conference and especially the council meeting in Toronto next week. And the SPSP board meeting will be immediately afterward. So if you think our continued relationship with APA should be contingent on any of those things (and if you view APA’s rehabilition as a still-open question), it may be too soon to make a decision just yet.

In addition to the 3 items above, there may be other things I am not considering. If so, I hope people will bring those up.

Like I said, I would like to hear from SPSP members – and any others who have a stake in SPSP’s relationship with APA. You can comment below. I’ll post a link to this blog post on social media (Facebook, Twitter) in places where SPSP members are likely to see it and have a chance to comment. If you would like to reach me privately, my email is my first name AT uoregon DOT edu.

8 thoughts on “What should SPSP do about APA and the Hoffman report?

  1. SPSP is no stranger to institutional incompetence unfortunately. How many hundred of thousands of dollars were embezzled because an officer literally handed signed blank checks to a staff member? In some ways, I think APA has at least been more open about their problem (which is also more severe) than SPSP was about the embezzlement case. Read the articles by local newspapers in Ithaca for examples. How many heads rolled at SPSP as a result? No one other than the people criminally charged. Meanwhile at APA, they basically cleaned house at the top.

    It would be a bit hypocritical for SPSP to take a stance given that situation. I say let’s give APA a chance and see how their reforms are working out.

    1. Hi “Jim” – I wasn’t on the SPSP board when that was uncovered, but I do remember getting email updates as a regular member. You can find those emails on the SPSP website, they document quite a few organizational changes that SPSP undertook with respect to accounting controls, management, etc.:

      I also find the hypocrisy argument a little strange. They’re 2 different issues, both should be dealt with on their own terms. If SPSP members were unhappy with how the organization handled the theft of its funds and felt that more should be done, I would hope to hear from them. But I wrote this post to ask SPSP members what they’d like us to do about our relationship with APA. Attempting to dredge up the embezzlement just comes across like a way to derail the conversation away from APA, quite frankly.

      1. Hi Sanjay,

        Yes, “Jim” isn’t my real name. I hope you don’t mind me doing that — I was critical of an organization similar to APA and SPSP, and they retaliated against me. I’m now banned from attending their conferences.

        Regarding SPSP, your link above is all the information SPSP provided to members. Now compare that to the level of detail from a local newspaper in Ithaca (where SPSP was based) on the incident: http://ithacavoice.com/2014/08/woman-working-cornell-prof-steals-365k-psychology-society-gets-90-days-prison/

        Yes, SPSP (well, the prosecutor) went after the people guilty of outright theft and embezzlement, but it seems like there were no repercussions for the other members of SPSP who I’d say were negligent or incompetent. I’m not saying send them to jail or even charge them criminally, but I think there were guilty parties there and they faced no consequences.

        I don’t really intend this to be a discussion about the SPSP incident though. My point was that SPSP may be on shaky ground if the idea is to take the high moral stand against APA.

        I’m no APA sympathizer either. If you want a good read, check out APA’s IRS form 990, which all non-profits are required to file: http://www.apa.org/about/finance.aspx

        I give kudos to APA for posting them on their website, which many organizations don’t (SPSP does), but check out some of the numbers there like salaries, investments, and just general finances. It’s clear APA is run as a _business_ and this was confirmed in my dealings with them as well. I think that can lead to poor decision-making in non-profit organizations with a specific mission.

        If you don’t mind me straying from the main topic a bit — I think governance is an issue many of these organizations face. They were founded by academics, and for academics, but then they face a few choices as they grow and can no longer survive being run by just volunteers:

        A. Have it run by professional association people, with a board of academics to oversee
        B. Have it run by academics

        The problem with B is just what SPSP faced with the incident above, and probably accelerated the move to A. You can’t really expect a bunch of professors to have that much time to run an organization with a multi-million dollar budget.

        The problem with A is it really comes down to the board. Unfortunately, I think that a lot of the boards at these organizations are filled with “yes-men” (and yes-women) who see being on the board as a way to add another entry to their CV. Not all organizations are like this, but I’ve seen it a lot — it’s clear from talking with the professionals that they are rarely worried about any push-back from the board, and operate with a large amount of autonomy. I’ve worked with many of these organizations, and the professionals are much more concerned about “image” than an academic would be — most academics would invite dissent or controversial topics.

        I’m not really sure if there is a solution either — maybe have academics take a 1-year sabbatical to hold a management position at the association? The sad truth is that most of the membership doesn’t really care much about the internal governance. As long as the annual conference runs well, and the journal remains respected, the membership isn’t going to complain much — they just don’t care. This isn’t unique to these associations of course; I can think of plenty of social organizations I’m a part of where it’s exactly the same. The difference is that not all organizations have the impact on society of APA or SPSP, nor the budgets to go along with it.

        Sorry for derailing the topic. It just seemed like a good time to bring up the issue of governance that many of these associations do not seem to be doing well at.

      2. Fair enough, Jim. Just to close out the SPSP tangent, there were other changes after the theft of funds was uncovered that weren’t advertised in those emails – things I knew about as an ordinary member, even before I joined the board. Maybe you think there should have been more public flogging. I haven’t heard that from other SPSP members. Anyway, I don’t want to keep going down that path here. What happened at APA is very different – not just in scale, but in kind. And no organization is perfect, and I would like to think that SPSP’s past shouldn’t paralyze it. I’ll take a punch over supposed “hypocrisy” if I think we’re doing the right thing now.

        As for APA now, I think you can look at this issue through different frames. One frame is as a reaction to what’s happened — moral outrage at the wrongdoing described in the Hoffman report. Another frame is more forward-looking — asking whether APA has changed in ways that will make it a better organization in the future, the kind of organization that continuing our relationship with will advance SPSP’s mission and goals.

        I don’t disagree with people who take either frame, and you can certainly take both to some degree (I probably do). From a more outrage-at-the-past frame, what happens next may be less important. Instead people may ask themselves, was this a deep and awful enough violation that there’s no going back? I think that’s a fair question.

        From the more future-looking frame, I think the questions I posed in the “3. Wait and see” paragraph above are relevant. Obviously you’ve doomed the decision if you expect perfection. Or certainty. But I think it’s reasonable to want some assurance that enough has changed at APA that something like what happened before could not happen again. If you think some individuals at APA abused their offices, then replacing the individuals may be enough. If you see organizational practices, governance structures, unresolved competing interests, etc. as part of the problem, then you might want more.

        As I said, parts of me connect with both ways I’ve described of looking at the issue. (And other ways too.) And I am interested in hearing other people’s perspectives.

  2. I don’t know much about the situation on the ground in either organisation, so these remarks are kind of reflections on the meta-problem:

    One of the problems in this kind of situation is to determine who or what is “the APA” (and, indeed, the SPSP). Is it the constitution and rules of the organisation, or the membership, or the leadership team (elected and salaried), or some combination of the above, and if so, in what proportions? Different people will give different answers to this. It seems to me that withdrawing from the APA would reflect, to some extent at least, a desire to express disapproval of “the APA”. But to what extent will “the APA of which you disapprove” still exist with a new CEO and (assuming more heads roll) other top executives?

    Having overcome that question, if you think that “the APA” is inherently incapable of reform, even with a completely new leadership team (elected and salaried), then walking away means that you are in effect saying, “Sorry, new leadership team, we know you have the best intentions, but we think you will fail, where we define failure as not being able to implement X, Y, and Z by the end of 2016” (or whatever). An alternative is to issue a statement saying “If the APA does not implement X, Y, and Z by the end of 2016, we will walk”.

    There are disadvantages to both alternatives: if you walk now, the barrier to coming back may be higher (will the SPSP membership agree that X, Y, and Z have been met, since these are likely to be fairly messy targets?), and if you stay, you might get to the end of 2016 and find that X is met, Y is nearly there, and Z had to be postponed but for fairly legitimate reasons – what then?

    Jim’s point has some relevance here, not necessarily in terms of the specifics (again, I have no clue about that), but to show that all organisations are imperfect. There may be solutions to this, although I tend to resign myself to the inevitability of bureaucracy, laziness, and venality eventually taking hold, like some abstract form of entropy. To the extent that solutions are possible, however, I would have naively imagined might involve the application of psychology. I am constantly amazed(*) at the degree to which psychologists, in their daily individual and collective behaviour, appear to ignore a great deal that they claim to know or believe about human behaviour. Where are all the business and organisational psychology specialists who should have been able to see this coming?

    (*) I am not really “amazed”, but I didn’t want to appear too cynical.

  3. Hi! I have a question rather than a comment at this point. Should we end our relationship with APA, how will that impact the Social Psychology relevant journals published by APA? In particular, I am wondering about JPSP but that is not the only APA journal social psychologists publish their work in.

  4. The relationship between SPSP, Division 8, and APA is very complicated; and making any decision without input from competent and informed counsel would be unwise. For example, SPSP may think it owns PSPB, but would APA agree, and what would happen in court and what would SPSP legal costs look like? If SPSP severed ties with APA, would Division 8 simply disappear? What happens if Division 8 APA members unhappy with APA resign while retaining their membership in SPSP. Then Division 8 has no members–what then?

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