Amending the IEEE Constitution: Two Sets of Views

Representatives of both sides weigh in on the suggested revisions

19 September 2016

The amendment to the IEEE Constitution being presented by the IEEE Board of Directors on this year’s election ballot is hitting headwinds. Several individual members and a number of IEEE societies and sections have publicly opposed the proposed amendment.

One area of contention involves the possibility of providing all eligible voting members of IEEE with an increased role in selecting the Board of Directors. Making up the 31 voting Board members are the current president, the past president, and the president-elect, the treasurer, the secretary, and presidents and vice presidents of IEEE’s six major boards, plus directors of its 10 geographic regions and 10 divisions, which represent technical societies. The president-elect is elected by all voters. Five of the Board members are selected by the IEEE Assembly; the others are elected by members of their constituencies. For example, members in Regions 1–6 elect the IEEE-USA president. Members of the IEEE Computer Society vote for the Division V and VIII directors. Only IEEE Standards Association members vote for its president. And members of all societies cast ballots for the vice president, Technical Activities.

Opponents say the proposed amendment could alter the makeup of the Board to its detriment. Technical and geographic representatives, who generate more than 95 percent of IEEE’s annual revenue, will find it harder to have their voices heard in favor of the organization’s top leaders.

But supporters say regions and societies could end up having more, not less, influence. They also say that to lead IEEE in today’s competitive environment, the Board needs more members with expertise in business strategy. A broader perspective is required that goes beyond technical and geographic concerns, they say.

The amendment also calls for adding the IEEE executive director, the organization’s most senior staff executive, to the Board as a nonvoting member. Opponents say this change diminishes the value of IEEE being a volunteer-led organization. Besides, the change is unnecessary, they say, because the executive director already attends every Board meeting. But supporters see no harm in adding the person to the Board; the executive director still would have no vote.

To provide some context to the debate, The Institute interviewed amendment proponents and opponents.

IEEE Fellow Kent Choquette and Member Eddie Custovic support the revisions. Choquette is president of the IEEE Photonics Society. Custovic is a member of the IEEE Young Professionals executive team and sits on the IEEE Publication Services and Products Board (PSPB).

Life Senior Member Marc Apter and Senior Member Tony Ivanov oppose the amendment. Apter was the 2013 president of IEEE-USA and the 2004–2005 vice president of Regional Activities, now Member and Geographic Activities. Ivanov is chair of the IEEE Washington (D.C.) Section.

WHO SHOULD ELECT THE BOARD

According to Apter, approving the proposed amendment would give the Board of Directors complete control over the governance of IEEE. Ivanov points out that the current constitution does not allow the Board to control its own makeup. The only position the Board has a say in today is IEEE president-elect, for which it nominates candidates. The IEEE Assembly elects the secretary; treasurer; vice president, Member and Geographic Activities; vice president, Publication Services and Products; and vice president, Educational Activities. (The Assembly consists of the IEEE president, president-elect, and past president; the 10 region delegates; and the 10 division delegates.) Candidates for directors of regions and divisions are chosen by those respective groups, not the IEEE Board.

Choquette disagrees with Apter and Ivanov. “Societies will still have the ability to influence IEEE, just like the U.S. states have the ability to influence the federal government,” he says. “If the IEEE Photonics Society believes it needs something to happen, then we communicate this to all our members, encourage them to vote on the issue, and those votes will be made known to the Board.”

Ivanov says he believes in the current bottom-up approach, whereby people move up through the organization’s ranks, possibly to become Board members. “I think the new top-down approach will be bad for IEEE as a whole,” he says. “Our organization is from the members for the members.”

For Custovic, the bottom-up approach no longer works as IEEE competes with for-profit organizations. “People in IEEE are currently elected the way candidates get elected in some countries,” he says. “Candidates can come out of nowhere, get elected to a regional position or to a director’s role, and make it all the way up through the ranks to the Board of Directors.” They then must make “big” decisions, he notes, “yet they are often unaware of all the activities IEEE is involved with, just like I was until I joined PSPB.” They could slow down the decision-making process, he says, or allow themselves to be influenced by people “who know only slightly more than they do.”

“Instead, people who lead our organization must have serious managerial and decision-making experience, as opposed to just having someone represent a region or technical society,” Custovic continues. “Given the competitive nature of IEEE’s businesses, it is imperative we have the right representation on the Board. Otherwise IEEE could easily be pushed out of existence by its competitors.”

Amendment opponent Ivanov says he does not believe that voting in the new way would be more democratic. In reality, he says, it will be an unwieldy process because there could be dozens of candidates running for each of the 31 positions that voters would have to consider. Moreover, they would be asked to elect people outside their geographic region.

“I doubt a voting member will spend the time to read all those biographies to educate themselves so they can make informed decisions,” Ivanov says. “To be an informed voter, you have to know something about the people you are voting for.

“In the United States, we don’t ask people in Alaska to vote for a congressman from Florida,” he says. “If people are presented with tens of candidates they know nothing about, it will end up just a rubber stamp of the Board’s selections.”

And, Apter notes, under the proposed amendment, the Board would have final say on every candidate who is running for a position.

Custovic disagrees. “The reality is that our membership counts for everything,” he says. “If members decide not to support certain people, they are not going to get elected. And if they don’t do what we want them to do, they are not going to get reelected. We will still have the power.”

Custovic and Choquette also say they believe decreasing the size of the Board should be considered. “In some ways, the size makes it very democratic, but the decision-making process is very sluggish,” Custovic says. “We have to find the right balance so decisions can be made more quickly.”

“In some instances having a smaller Board with members elected by the membership, rather than geographic units, is important,” Choquette adds.

LOSS OF INFLUENCE

Ivanov says 26 technical societies oppose the amendment because they believe the proposed changes to voting for division directors means they’ll have less influence, despite being responsible for generating most of IEEE’s revenue. But Choquette, the IEEE Photonics Society president, doesn’t see it that way.

“The revenue generation comes from our members,” he says. “While it’s true that IEEE’s publications and conferences generate revenue, it’s not necessarily the societies but IEEE members who are responsible for this. The societies are just a way to focus publications and conferences around certain areas.”

Choquette says IEEE needs to focus more on its global and societal responsibilities “and less on geographic and technical areas.”

“By having the full membership elect directors, we’ll actually have more representation from our membership,” he says.

As a section chair, Ivanov says he believes the sections know more about members’ issues than the IEEE Board of Directors. “We know what the problems are, and we want to come up with the solutions,” he says. “Changing the way the current Board is selected will not fix the problems members have.

“I think the Board is trying to elect like-minded people so they can push forward with structural changes,” Ivanov says. “And that’s dangerous, because if an organization gets into a groupthink, with no dissenting opinions, there’s a risk that the directions it takes will not benefit the members.”

“Currently the Board has seven seats reserved exclusively for the U.S regions, but Region 10 (Asia and the Pacific), which has more than 25 percent of IEEE's members, gets only one,” says Custovic, a member of the IEEE Victorian (Australia) Section, which is in Region 10. “That’s not fair in an organization that is global. Regions outside the United States deserve to have more influence than they get now.”

ELEVATING THE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR

Apter says he believes there’s no need to make the executive director a nonvoting member of the Board. “The executive director has been participating in strategic planning for more than 10 years and provides the staff to carry out the plans, so why this change?” he wonders.

“I haven’t seen one genuine concern expressed about why this change would be good or bad,” Custovic says. “So why not make that person an official nonvoting member? I don’t see the harm. The influence such a person has would be outside of Board meetings. I see that all the time: People have discussions to convince someone that their view is the right view.”

“Not having the executive director more involved with the Board makes no sense to me,” Choquette adds.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Apter says he has seen no detailed explanation of why the current constitution isn’t flexible enough to deal with the issues the amendment is trying to address. “New wording could have been included in the bylaws or in the policies of IEEE and any subordinate units without having a constitutional amendment,” he maintains. He says that if some people believe that to lead IEEE in today’s competitive environment the Board needs more members with business strategy expertise, why hasn’t the leadership added that to the job description of Board candidates?

“That top-down mentality is what is worrisome to me,” Ivanov says. “When the Board controls the budget, the bylaws, and its own composition, it then has total control of the organization; it can do whatever it wants. With no checks and balances, it’s not really a democratic organization.

“When you read the dry legality of this amendment, it doesn’t sound like much, but what is at stake is the heart and soul of IEEE,” he says. “Are we going to be a member-driven organization or are we going to be a top-down bureaucracy?”

Custovic says he believes the organization needs a way to stay relevant to IEEE’s 100,000-plus Young Professionals members, because “they are the next generation of IEEE’s leaders.”

“In many ways,” he says, “the organization is aging, and young members are finding it difficult to justify spending $150 annually on dues.” Unfortunately, he says, the Board spends far too much time debating issues that are not really relevant to young people.

“From the looks of the proposal coming from the IEEEin2030 Ad Hoc Committee's archive, which is available to all IEEE members, the new Board structure could be much more relevant in the future,” he says. (To streamline and calibrate IEEE’s governance structure to the evolving requirements of the coming years and decades, the Board formed the IEEEin2030 Ad Hoc Committee last year.)

Says Choquette: “IEEE today is as strong and important in society as it’s ever been. But I think there’s been a recognition that it is wearing out—that how we’re organized might not reflect the business conditions that exist today. People who I respect have put a lot of thought into it, and this is where they came down on the issue. So rather than wait for something to break, we should make changes now. That’s why I support this amendment.”

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