Retiring President's Address - 2004

Charles H. Holbrow
Announcer, Vol. 34, Iss. 1

Gratitude, Strategic Goals and Road-Kill

Departing the office of AAPT President I would like to leave behind two messages. The first is a message of gratitude; the second is that we need to pursue strategic goals that will help us avoid becoming a squashed â??possum on the electronic highway.


Thank you for the chance to have been President of the AAPT. It has been a fine experience for me. It has been stimulating and a pleasure to get to know and to work closely with the dedicated, talented people of the AAPT Executive Board, the Associationâ??s numerous committees, and the staff of the AAPT national office. Their hard work, imagination, persistence, and skill make the AAPT a vibrant organization with a wide range of capabilities for fostering an appreciation of physics through teaching. AAPT is an organization its members can be proud of.

Strategic Goals

Serving in AAPTâ??s presidential chain â?? Vice President, President Elect, President, Past President â?? is an education of the sort widely advocated these days: You learn by doing with lots of hands-on activities. However, there is not much time to get a large perspective. The moment you become Vice President, you are Program Chairman charged with overseeing a national meeting that must be organized within eight months. You do this twice, and just as you begin to comprehend whatâ??s involved, you become President Elect and responsible for recruiting and appointing some thirty-six committee members and committee chairs. Before you can pursue the larger possibilities of this responsibility, you have moved on to become President with the job of running the four annual meetings of the Executive Board. Along with the immediate duties of your AAPT office, you serve on sundry AAPT committees, and (surprise!) you become special advisor to the Council of the American Physical Society and a member of the Governing Board of the American Institute of Physics.

Although this whirl of swiftly changing responsibilities leaves little time for the thoughtful formulation of broad policies, Ruth Howes â?? as one of her several outstanding achievements as AAPT President â?? managed to arrange some time for the Board to formulate, contemplate, and adopt a set of long-term goals for the Association.

Itâ??s time to revisit these goals. We need to understand why they have been so difficult to convert into actions. Why have we been so unsuccessful in influencing science curriculum and achievement standards? Why have we done so little to build useful connections to sister organizations in mathematics, chemistry, and biology? Why does there continue to be a serious disconnect between the AAPT national organization and AAPT regional sections? But there is another important reason to look at our goals: They do not correspond well to some serious problems we face, particularly those associated with the electronic revolution in publishing.


The electronic revolution is an eighteen wheeler rushing down the highway towards AAPT. Access to journals through online library subscriptions is easier every day. I sit in my study in Cambridge, Massachusetts, log in to Colgate Universityâ??s virtual private network, and work as though I were at my desk in Hamilton, New York. With my broadband connection I can quickly obtain and read articles from the American Journal of Physics, The Physics Teacher, or a hundred other journals.

â??Ho hum,â?? you say. â??Another digital wonder.â?? Yes, but this apparently benign wonder brings with it the prospect of a catastrophic drop in AAPT membership. To see the reality of this prospect, consider that AAPT has about 10,500 members. Of these roughly 2,000 attend one or both of our two annual national meetings. About the same number vote in Association elections. And most members of AAPT committees, leaders of local sections, and those taking an active interest in AAPT affairs come from a subset of this 2,000.

What about the other 8,500 members? Why have they joined AAPT? The most plausible answer is â??for our journals.â?? The Physics Teacher has 8,121 individual subscribers; the American Journal of Physics has 4,162 (the numbers include the 2,094 people who subscribe to both). It seems clear that a great many of our members are not especially interested in the Association and its programs. I have talked with enthusiastic AJP subscribers who did not even know that it is published by AAPT.

You can see the problem. Electronic accessibility to our journals diminishes the need for their subscribers to be members of AAPT. If you can get conveniently and for free from your library the principal service our association offers you, why pay for it? For a decade now our library subscribers have been slowly shrinking in number. In part this is because large institutions that once had multiple subscriptions can now use a single on-line subscription to serve all their users. As broadband connections become more common â?? and the number is growing swiftly, we face the prospect that individuals with ever more convenient access to library subscriptions will drop their AAPT membership.

Back to Goals

â??Service our association offers youâ?? is a key phrase. What services does the Association provide? We provide forums for interaction and exchange of information: the national meetings, the sectional meetings, the journals. We support enterprises such as PTRA and PIRA that foster improvements in physics teaching. We manage undertakings such as comPADRE that serve the entire community of physics teachers, and we run programs such as Physics Bowl and the U.S. participation in the Physics Olympiad that publicize physics. But notice, except for our journals, most AAPT programs serve only small numbers of members, or they serve the larger physics community of which AAPT members are only a small part. For AAPT to flourish, we need to become more self-conscious about what we do for our members.

This is a powerful reason to review our goals, particularly because most of AAPTâ??s current strategic goals do not focus on service to members. We need goals that focus our attention on how the Association serves its members. We need goals that can be turned into actions. And we need them soon, so that we do not become road-kill on the electronic superhighway.