17 Jun

Changing of the Guard

The American Geographical Society (AGS) has been around since 1851, and for its early history pick up John Wright’s classic, Geography in the Making: The American Geographical Society 1851-1951 or check out the timeline on the AGS website. But if you want to hear about the last forty years in all its glory, trials, and tribulations, grab a seat next to John Gould, the outgoing Council chair, and get him talking. Gould first encountered AGS in 1976 as a young lawyer at the firm of Webster & Sheffield. He’d been assigned to defend the Society’s transfer of stewardship of its library to the University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee as part of downsizing the headquarters located in pre-gentrified Washington Heights. Go back in time to full-graffiti 1970s New York of movies like Taxi Driver or Serpico and the Daily News headline [President Gerald] “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” Visits to the library had dropped way off, but upkeep remained high. The Society carefully managed to find a home that would keep the library collection intact and get more use, but the City of New York bristled at the relocation. Gould successfully defended the decision, but his efforts were not without drama. Imagine his meeting with then-mayor Ed Koch at City Hall. Second to none in geographical passion (or maybe lawyerly strategy), Gould hit a table with such force that it broke. Koch relented.

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Mr. Neil Armstrong (left), Mr. John Gould (Center) and Dr. Jerome Dobson (right)

Gould can tell of Council meetings and globe signings, additions to the AGS globe that already featured signatures appropriately placed for their extraordinary feats by people like Amelia Earhart (the Atlantic Ocean), Edmund Hillary (Mt. Everest), and Robert Peary (the Arctic). Let him tell you of the thrill of meeting astronaut Neil Armstrong in 2000. The night of the signing there was a blizzard. Armstrong was flying in, but no one had heard from him, and they were worried he wouldn’t make it. But he did, and as he exited the elevator he told the waiting group how the pilot announced that Neil Armstrong was on the flight, and if he could get to the moon then their plane was going to get him to New York.

The Council that Gould first encountered clearly recognized talent, and they tapped him to be president in 1980. He held that position until stepping into the Council chairmanship in 1996. Any and everyone with whom you talk will say the same things about the man—he is as steady as you get, loyal, thoughtful, generous, and wise. He has brought his lawyerly skills to the organization to keep it fiducially and legally responsible. Gould describes his biggest contribution as hiring Mary Lynne Bird as executive director, and she returns the admiration. Bird, who was executive director from 1983 until 2010, says Gould supported her year in and year out in all she did, always positive, but regularly and seemingly neutrally putting a question that kept her from heading in the wrong direction. Together they faced any number of crises, from the 1987 and 2008 stock crashes and 9/11 with AGS then housed on Wall Street not far from the World Trade Center. Across the years Gould has provided sound advice. He may be turning the chair over, but the organization won’t let him go far.

For the last decade Gould has shared leadership with President Jerome, “Jerry” Dobson. Dobson joined the Council in 1997, then a research scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory doing pioneering work on Geographic Information Science. By the time he took office, he had joined the Geography faculty at the University of Kansas. The two have steered the organization through rapidly changing times, times that demand responses without signaling clearly what direction to take. They could bask in past accomplishments, but the 19th and early 20th century world much more comfortably ceded geographical leadership to a small coterie of well-placed, well-connected, and well-financed men who could meet and put their collective energy to selecting the new transcontinental railroads’ routes or fund exploration. AGS director Isaiah Bowman from 1915 to 1935 was close to presidents, and the planning for the Paris Peace Conference to end World War I took place in the AGS building that was sold in the late 1970s. The organizations’ scholarly publications had few competitors, and anyone interested in their information was glad to pay to get them in print. Its post-world war II Around the World book series for young people had few competitors in the quality of information and ambition, as its brochures explained, to “stimulate young minds to dream of other lands, cultures, and the people who lived there.” You can still find ardent collectors assembling the series from sites like Ebay.

Gould and Dobson’s years at AGS were hard ones for the field of Geography. The world has always demanded geographical expertise for solid decision-making, but the post-World War II proliferation of academic and highly specialized fields temporarily overshadowed geography with its interdisciplinary strength. Dobson especially deplored the erosion of Geography in public policy. AGS’ three pillars of academia, business, and government no longer found many venues to meet as equals. Instead disciplinary specialization and sectoral segmentation grew. Dobson felt the changes had been a fertile source for poor public- and private-sector decisions. As AGS President, he sought to reinsert Geography into public discourse and to create bridges between groups. As Jefferson Science Fellow in the US State Department in 2009, he buttonholed as many people as he could to make Geography’s case. Dobson describes himself as loyal and steadfast. Others agree, and go further, describing him as creative, a president able to identify opportunities where others hadn’t bothered to look. Just as Gould can point to hiring Bird, Dobson was instrumental in hiring the current Executive Director John Konarski in 2013, whose considerable international business and organizational experience is so beneficial to the Society.

Dobson’s own exposure to the military—in the reserves during the Vietnam War, a son and daughter-in- law who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan (his son in both, his daughter-in- law in Afghanistan)—especially sensitized him to the country’s foreign policy and military needs, including obligation to address problems left in our wake. For example, decades after the Vietnam War ended, people in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam still lost limbs and life to landmines buried in the ground. To protect and address this long-term human and environmental problem required mapping and a universal standard for representation so that everyone could grasp where the dangers lay. Dobson got AGS involved with developing such a code. Bird lauds Dobson for reviving AGS’ research legacy, dropped for a generation. He proposed projects around the world that relied on open source mapping and collaboration between US and local academics and their students. He continually engaged in advocacy for geography, for geography’s powerful geospatial tools, and for clear-eyed skepticism about their potential benefits and harm. He was an early voice worrying how access to GPS information could be used.

Just as AGS counts on keeping Gould involved, so too it sees important roles for Dobson. His own agenda includes promotion of the AGS Globe and possible research collaboration on aquaterra, a term he coined for lands repeatedly exposed and submerged as the ice sheets extended and receded, and about which we know very little.

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The American Geographical Society’s new Chairman, Christopher Tucker.

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The American Geographical Society’s new President, Marie Price.

Christopher K. Tucker will be stepping into Gould’s seat come June 2016. Tucker is a Washington, DC-based businessman and social entrepreneur. After serving as CEO of a geospatial technology company from startup to acquisition, he is now Principal at Yale House Ventures with a portfolio of early-stage technology startups, non-profit social ventures, and public entrepreneurship initiatives. He is also the founder of MapStory.org, a non-profit open educational resource, an atlas of change that everyone can edit. Tucker will team with Marie Daly Price, Professor of Geography and International Affairs at George Washington University, who specializes in Latin America issues, especially immigration, urbanization, resource use, and uneven development. Her widely cited publications make her an important voice on immigrant communities. Price brings a wealth of experience to the presidency having joined the Council in 1995. She has played significant roles in almost every aspect of the AGS, especially its publications. She has been a strong advocate for introducing AGS to new and young geographers, and a few years ago spearheaded a new Councilor’s Fellowship to support graduate students’ fieldwork. Tucker too has been a driving force for widening AGS to a broader group. He has helped bring onto the Council several new members from the geospatial technology community. He and Konarski worked tirelessly to develop the highly successful annual Geography 2050 Symposia, with the inaugural one in 2014 broadly laying out the agenda of geographical issues that must be negotiated on our way to the future. In furthering that agenda, the 2015 symposium focused on urban issues, and 2016 is slated for conservation and environmental issues. Each symposium has delivered on AGS’ mission of creating useful, challenging, and high-level conversation between academia, business, and government.

Looking ahead, both Tucker and Price share a vision of building on what AGS has always done but in ways that reflect 2016. As Tucker says, AGS’s mission has always been to apply geography to the pressing problems of the day. When railroads were the prime movers, AGS took on the question of railroads, and its Council included industry leaders. As air transport developed, AGS looked upward and added airline and petroleum industry concerns. AGS hasn’t dropped its attention to these, but also embraced those bringing the latest skills and concerns to the Council. Smart technology and digitalization are at the heart of our world’s connectivity, information flow and organization. The AGS Council increasingly draws membership with expertise in these fields, people trained as geographers who work as professionals putting geographic thinking, information, and understanding to direct use in industry, government, and the social sector. Today there are new non-profits and for-profit companies bringing geographic technology, data and methods that were not available not long ago to tackle challenges at every scale. Tucker sees AGS as a “platform for participation” that will allow all of them to learn from each other and to share information.

Price is especially interested in building AGS’ membership and diversifying its community and concerns, making it more directly reflect the US and world’s population and issues. She is looking forward to a new symposium feature, a mapathon that will tap a broad spectrum of geographically informed participants. She is pleased that AGS obtained funds to bring AP Geography teachers to the 2016 Geography 2050 symposium. As far as Tucker and Price are concerned, everyone needs geographical knowledge. AGS should be the center of geographical community—where specialists share knowledge, businesses turn for information they need, non-profits launch new ventures, younger and older enthusiasts register their growing mastery by acquiring GeoBadges certifying geographical skills, and new geographical initiatives sprout regularly.

The last word here goes to the extraordinarily able John Konarski, who as executive director has to translate and execute all the initiatives Gould, Dobson, and now Tucker and Price toss his way. As he has said in announcing the election results, “AGS has been lucky to have the leadership of John and Jerry for so many years. Both of them have been absolutely instrumental in ensuring that AGS continue its geographical leadership of over 164 years…Drs. Tucker and Price will find that the foundation built by John and Jerry will serve them well as they lead AGS in new endeavors.”

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Deborah Popper (left) is AGS Vice President, Professor of Geography at the CUNY’s College of Staten Island and the Graduate Center and Visiting Professor at Princeton University. She has immensely enjoyed working with the outgoing and incoming officers.