Commentary

Sponsors: ‘No Real Barrier’

Rick Fritz
Rick Fritz
Toby Carleton
Toby Carleton
Clint Moore
Clint Moore

The issue of sponsorship for the full “Member” membership class has been considered by the House of Delegates (HoD) many times in recent decades, as well as past Advisory Councils and Executive Committees. To date, the only HOD consensus two-thirds majority vote to alter the time honored process was a change just four years ago, to allow one non-member reference, as the third sponsor for a full Member membership. Now, it’s coming back again.

For decades, a large majority of past and present AAPG leaders and Members have affirmed the value of sponsorship, and intentionally created the “Associate” class of membership specifically to allow professionals “associated with geological science” to join AAPG in a non-peer reviewed process, as well as rename the Junior members that did not desire to upgrade to Active. In fact, any potential member who does not wish to pursue sponsorship can go to the AAPG website and instantly become an “Associate” member. Thus, there is no real barrier to membership in AAPG. This class of membership was specifically created to provide an alternative for both geoscientists and geoscience-related professionals who do not wish to be peer-sponsored Members. Membership is virtually instantaneous, and the only standing they do not have in AAPG are:

  • To vote in elections.
  • To serve in the HOD, EC or AC.
  • To join DPA.

All can be members of committees, as stated at the end of Bylaws Article VIII, section 2, “Committee members shall be Association members of any classification.”

To become an AAPG Associate member, it is as easy as signing up for a magazine subscription. Should we now throw out sponsorship, and make full Member membership as easy as signing up for a magazine subscription? Many past leaders and members do not believe so.

Why? Because sponsorship is a key base foundation of our Code of Ethics, as codified in our Constitution. Article IV, Section 4, where it states in paragraph a) “Members of the Association shall aid in preventing the election to membership of those who are unqualified or do not meet the standards set forth in the Code of Ethics.” Since AAPG’s inception, sponsorship has always been the first and foremost method of ethical review of a potential member.

Should we care about ethical review of a potential member? Well, if we are a professional association then we should, but if we are just a trade association, then maybe not. What are we? Clearly, a professional association of petroleum geologists.

So why do some leaders place so much emphasis on eliminating sponsorship? Over the years, many advocates of elimination have repeatedly expressed their belief that there are thousands of international members that would join, if we just eliminated sponsorship. Supposedly, these thousands refuse to join instantly as Associates, but insist on not joining unless they can become full Members, so we should eliminate sponsorship for all of them. Does that make much sense? Is that a real, widespread problem, or just a theory from a few anecdotal statements, or wishful thinking? Interestingly enough, an examination of the membership statistics of our current Associate class of members, dispels that assumption. Recently, the AAPG membership department analyzed the current Associate class to see how many were degree qualified for full Member class, if they were granted amnesty to that level. There were actually 3,675 degree-qualified U.S. members, and only 1,931 International degree-qualified Associates, for a total of 5,606. Additionally, Students and YPs are about equal data. So is eliminating sponsorship going to unlock a great international membership opportunity?  Not likely. Remember too, the promise of graduated dues from similar proponents was thousands of new members. Today, there are only about 750 international members paying graduated dues, and a nearly similar 650 U.S. members paying them, as well. Even worse, roughly two-thirds of the 1,400 graduated dues members appear to have been existing members that converted, resulting in lost revenue to AAPG. What happened to that theory of significant international membership growth? Changing our focus from constantly tweaking bylaws, to improving and creating new products and services, would be more attractive to potential members. In short, if we build more value, they are more likely to come, than ever from eliminating sponsorship.

Clearly, many longtime members involved in sponsoring members, or reviewing applications, have experienced reviews where ethical concerns were a factor in whether a person became a member or not.  Peer review is the tool we use to recommend someone as not only “ethical” but also “professional”—that they have something to add to the society either through their scientific knowledge or their understanding of our industry. Please review the testaments in support of sponsorship from four unique past presidents below.  These four are unique past presidents, because they were also Chairs of the House of Delegates, and have had great experience in wrestling with Bylaws and policy issues.

Dan Smith
Dan Smith

From Dan Smith: “My opinion is based on a lot of experience regarding simplifying the qualifications for membership, including chairman of the Membership Committee for many years, foreman of the Houston HOD Delegates, chairman of the House of Delegates and president of the Association. We should not eliminate entirely the sponsor provision from membership qualifications. I could support reducing the number to one. I fully understand the reasons for complete elimination, but it’s part of a big objective to radically change the Association. I have been personally involved in several attempts of applicants to falsify information, including outright unethical behavior. It doesn't occur often, but it definitely happens. In one case an applicant threatened to sue AAPG and me personally. He was persuaded by the sponsor to withdraw at the last minute. The sponsor screening process works to identify bad applicants. It should be noted that nearly all professional societies worldwide require a sponsor … a time honored method of keeping a society “professional.”

Pat Gratton
Pat Gratton

From Pat Gratton: “Having listened to a lot of debate regarding the supposedly burdensome nature of securing sponsors for Member classification in AAPG, I believe retention of at least one sponsor as a requirement is important. If an applicant is really interested in joining the Association, obtaining one sponsor should not be a burden – and, in fact, would demonstrate motivation. If any candidate is not that motivated, Associate category is available. I found three sponsors fairly easily and I have sponsored many applicants over the years. Also, there have been a few applicants I declined to sponsor due to direct experience with them connected with ethics questions.

I am very much aware of the difficulties in the EC when expulsion needs to be considered. Sponsorship is designed to minimize chances of expulsion, and perhaps it has worked better than generally recognized.”

Will Green
Will Green

From Will Green: “I am in favor of reducing the required number of sponsors required for AAPG member applicants from three to one. This should relieve the burden for those living in remote areas. If an applicant claims he/she cannot find a sponsor, then HQ could supply the names of members living within 100 miles of the applicant. If that doesn't work, then the nearest AAPG delegate could be asked to research the applicant. I think it is important to retain the system and have at least one member sponsor an applicant, so at least one person would have an idea that the applicant's ethics are OK. We are a scientific organization and need to maintain a standard of professionalism.”

Steve Sonnenberg
Steve Sonnenberg

From Steve Sonnenberg: “I do not support the proposed bylaw amendment to do away with sponsorship for AAPG members. I think a reduction in the number of sponsors is OK.

Reasons:

  1. It is not hard to find a sponsor, I do not buy the argument that this is holding up membership.
  2. By removing this aspect of membership requirement, we become just another scientific society. AAPG is both a professional society and a scientific society.
  3. This is not the magic bullet to increase membership; this may actually drive some of our existing members away.
  4. This is not costly to AAPG to maintain this requirement. We have been doing this since 1917.”

Recently, proponents have raised new issues, such as the supposed “financial burden” at HQ, or “ethics aren’t enforceable,” etc. etc. It is easy to throw up theories and opinions as facts, but where is the documentable evidence of their statements? Should we simply discard this nearly 100-year-old practice, and just sign up full Members like new magazine subscribers?

In the end, some have said that we need to eliminate sponsorship to grow membership. Truly, there aren’t any barriers to AAPG Associate membership, and it’s just a mouse click away from anyone worldwide. If having the Associates voting in elections is important to proponents of this idea, then why are the same proponents trying to eliminate AAPG elections, as well as the HOD, in the same proposal? If as much time as has been spent debating this issue were to have been spent on improving AAPG programs and services, the existing membership would have been far better for it. Let’s move on to what really matters in becoming indispensable to geoscientists worldwide. Sponsorship is not a hindrance to our growth, and definitely places a good emphasis on our Code of Ethics. It makes us more professional, and being a professional association emphasizing ethical standards has always been attractive to geoscientists worldwide. Sponsorship for potential members is where it all starts. Let’s not throw away one of the fundamental foundations of our emphasis on Ethics and Professionalism.

Thank you for your consideration.

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About the authors...

Pat Gratton, Will Green, Dan Smith, Steve Sonnenberg and Toby Carleton are all past AAPG presidents and former chairs of the House of Delegates; Rick Fritz is a former AAPG executive director; and Clint Moore is a former AAPG treasurer and chair of the HOD Constitution and Bylaws Committee.

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