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Communications of the ACM


An Association of the Members, by the Members, for the Members

CACM Senior Editor Moshe Y. Vardi

Contrary to what many of my non-U.S. colleagues believe, the "A" in ACM stands not for "American" but for "Association." An association is a group of individuals who come together for a common purpose. An incorporated association is a legal entity that can do things in its own name, such as enter into contracts. So, ACM is a legal entity representing all ACM members. In other words, ACM is us!

But an association of about 100,000 members cannot be run directly by its members. ACM's Constitution and Bylaws specify its governance structure: Council, Executive Committee, President, and the like. Furthermore, an association with annual expenses of close to $50M requires the affairs of the association to be run by professional staff. The ACM Bylaws state that "There shall be an Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer who shall be a paid employee of the Association, … and shall be responsible for the general administration of the affairs of the Association."

In May 2021, I wrote about "The Agency Trilemma and ACM,"a referring to the gap between the members, who constitute the association, the elected officers, and the staff. I argued this gap may be partly responsible for the fact that the younger generation of computing professionals does not seem to feel the need to join ACM. While the tech industry, together with computing-degree-program enrollments, have been booming over the past decade, ACM membership growth has been modest at best. Accompanying the stagnant membership is, I suspect, the aging of the membership—a threat to the long-term viability of ACM. (Other professional groups face similar challenges.)

Aware of this demographic threat to ACM's future, ACM announced in January 2017b the launching of the ACM Future of Computing Academy (FCA) with the expressed purpose of harnessing "collective action to define and launch new ACM initiatives that will carry us into the future." This initiative created a fair amount of excitement, both among the younger computing professionals who joined FCA and among older members, myself included, who saw this as an opportunity to revitalize ACM. Today, sadly, one can find no trace of FCA on ACM's website. Apparently, after two two-year cycles, ACM's leadership decided to dissolve FCA. Unlike the publicity blitz that accompanied the formation of FCA, its dissolution was done quite stealthily. The only statement I could find on this is from a 2021 blog post by the FCA leadership:c "The ACM Council approved of the dissolution of the Future of Computing Academy effective September 2021 with the understanding that the Executive Committee will work towards establishing the best way of involving early career computing professions into ACM."

How did such an exciting initiative by ACM come to a disappointing denouement within just four years? Talking to different people, one hears different explanations, yielding a "He said, she said" picture. But my own experience with trying to change ACM leads me to my own conclusion. In January 2018, I wrote about "Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility,'d arguing that "ACM must be more active in addressing social responsibility issues raised by computing technology." In response to that column, ACM leadership asked me to convene a task force and formulate recommendations on how ACM can become a leading voice on social responsibility of computing professionals. I presented the task force recommendations to the ACM Executive Committee in April 2019. The response to these recommendations from ACM leadership was a thundering silence.

An old cliché states that "Everyone wants change, but no one wants to change." I believe this is the common thread underlining the disappointing end of both the FCA and social-responsibility initiatives—both launched by ACM leadership. The FCA announcement explicitly referred to "new ACM initiatives that will carry us into the future." So, ACM leadership did recognize that change is needed. But change is hard, and ACM leadership let both initiatives fizzle out. Yet the FCA and social-responsibility initiatives are both very important to the future of ACM, and ACM should not give up on them.

When this column is published, ACM will have new elected leadership. The 2022 election is already unique as both candidates for ACM President worked together to solicit and answere questions from the membership. I believe the top priority for the next elected leadership of ACM should be to make ACM an association of the members, by the members, for the members.

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Moshe Y. Vardi is University Professor and the Karen Ostrum George Distinguished Service Professor in Computational Engineering at Rice University, Houston, TX, USA. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of Communications.

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