James M. Dubinsky is an associate professor of Rhetoric and Writing in the Department of English at Virginia Tech (VT). He was the founding director of the department’s Professional Writing program and of VT Engage, the University’s service-learning and civic engagement center. He is a past president of the Association for Business Communication (ABC), and since 2011, he has been serving as its Executive Director. Equally important, Jim is retired from 28 years of service in the U.S. Army and has been working to build a Veterans in Society focus at Virginia Tech. He is the founding Chair of VT’s Veterans Caucus and served in that position from 2014 to 2019. Jim has been honored with awards at the college and university levels for teaching, scholarship, and outreach. His work has appeared in scholarly publications such as Business Communication Quarterly, Technical Communication Quarterly, Issues in Writing, the Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, and Present Tense. He is the author of Teaching Technical Writing: Critical Issues for the Classroom. He is currently working on a book on the history of business communication as a discipline with his colleague, Kristen Getchell.
Sushil: What does it mean to be the Executive Director of an international organization in these times of the COVID-19 pandemic? How has this crisis added to your role as the ABC administrator?
Jim: To be honest, the COVID-19 pandemic has not dramatically altered my role; instead, it has caused me to focus more intently on some essential tasks.
In a membership-based, academic-oriented organization, the leadership team, to include all members of the Board of Directors and the Executive Director, have specific responsibilities related to the organization’s fiscal well-being and operational success. Usually, this means finding ways to ensure we have sufficient income to provide opportunities for members to gather, to share their research about the discipline as well as scholarship about teaching and consulting—how the discipline is applied by practitioners. The most common ways are through events and publications. The pandemic has not changed what we do, but it has created additional challenges and stresses.
What I have had to do differently involves monitoring a more comprehensive range of data sites: those associated with COVID-19; those associated with higher education; and those related to nonprofit associations. I have spent quite a lot of time on webinars about virtual conferencing, the status of venues (hotels, conference centers, etc.), and fiscal issues related to higher education faculty. I am also attending as many relevant, virtual conferences as possible.
My goal is to work with ABC’s staff and leadership team (committees and Board of Directors) to ensure we can provide as much stability as possible related to our publications and events. We also have to work to provide our members with updates and be attentive to issues they face related to the impact of the virus on their and their families’ lives.
Sushil: How is ABC as an organization adapting in these uncertain times? Could you please describe some of the efforts you have participated in during recent weeks?
Jim: ABC is facing challenges due to the impact of COVID-19. All nonprofit, membership-based organizations are facing similar ones. These challenges are not insurmountable, and most are due to uncertainties linked to the dangers of physical interaction and to the financial impact related to the current remedies of social distancing. Our leadership and administrative teams are doing what we can do to ensure our organization remains solvent and relevant and available/accessible to its members.
- Conference Planning. We’re working on conference planning, trying to determine whether, and if so, in what format(s), we will hold conferences this year. We’ve put out updates via email, the newsletter, or video from our current President, Geert Jacobs. We’ve extended deadlines for conference proposal submission to ease the pressure on our members (due to radical changes in teaching situations that have occurred for many of them). The EC asked our President to create a task force to look at virtual conferences from as many angles as possible (Marilyn and I are, of course, on it).
- Video Series. The EC, led by our President, created a video lecture/talk series to offer members teaching online. See https://tinyurl.com/slxe2zb
- Financial. We’re staying in close contact with our key committees (Finance Committee) and our accountants to ensure we maintain a stable reserve fund.
In a nutshell, my work is collaborative: I work with
- ABC’s staff—Marilyn Buerkens (our business manager and one, full-time employee) and Stephanie Smith and Andy Cavanaugh, our part-time staff, who help with technology and communication (they also are involved in the task force related to virtual conferencing).
- Our journal editors and our publisher (Sage) in my role as Managing Editor
- Other communication association’s organizational leaders
- ABC’s Conference Planning Committees (2020 and 2021)
- ABC’s Board of Directors, usually through the Executive Committee (EC), as I sit on the EC. The EC meets regularly (at least once per month) and holds a meeting (1.5 to 2 days) at mid-year, so we have had a lot of opportunities to talk.
Sushil: What does it mean for the ABC leadership to work remotely? What are the challenges, and what are the major changes happening in the day-to-day working of the organization that membership might not be aware of from a distance?
Jim: ABC’s HQ and its EC have been working remotely for many years. When I took the position of Executive Director in 2011, ABC’s office moved with me, and my department at Virginia Tech provided plenty of space and support. However, in 2016, due to the size of the student body growing at Virginia Tech (and concurrently, the need to hire more faculty), my chair decided she could no longer afford to give office space to ABC.
Marilyn and I had to move ABC’s operation to our respective homes, and we had to add a storage unit. She and I, and, as a result, all of the critical folks who work with us, had to become Zoom experts long before the advent of coronavirus.
In addition, to support the implementation and changes linked to our strategic plans, ABC’s Executive Committee have been conducting meetings (at least quarterly and, since 2015, monthly) using Zoom or, before that, Skype. All of ABC’s EC members are and have been well-versed on Zoom as a platform, long before COVID-19.
Sushil: Organizations around the globe are struggling to remain viable. Where do we stand as an organization?
Jim: I would say, so far, so good. Our membership numbers have dropped slightly. I believe that drop is due to uncertainties – mostly linked to those members who have relied upon their universities/colleges paying for membership. With declining revenue this past semester, many schools cut funding. Some members have chosen to put off renewal, waiting to see if their schools will continue to fund or pay for association membership once new budgets are announced.
I also expect some membership pressure will also result from decisions the leadership team makes regarding this year’s conferences, particularly whether or not we’re able to meet physically in Vienna, Austria, or San Diego, CA. Some members place the most value on our physical meetings, and, if we cannot hold them, they may not renew.
My hope, however, is that members will continue to stay with us through this challenging period, recognizing that ABC’s membership fee, being tied to salaries/income, is very fair and that the benefits we offer are valuable, even if we have to hold the conferences in virtual or hybrid form.
Sushil: Both as an administrator and as a scholar, what are your major dilemmas—ethical, as well as, social—at this time in this organization’s history?
Jim: I am working on a history of our discipline with one of my friends and colleagues, Kristen Getchell (Babson College). Given that ABC began in 1936, it isn’t a stretch to imagine that the organization has weathered tough times before (although nothing quite like a pandemic of this scope). The most important tasks we face are those linked to staying solvent and relevant, ensuring we can continue to provide a forum for our members to share their work and network.
Those of us who teach BComm, because we do not have a single academic home, often consider ABC to be that “academic home.” I want to do my best to keep the fires lit and the lines of communication open so that, when we can meet in person again, we come back both informed by what we’ve learned during this crisis and better prepared for the next one.
Sushil: Philosophically speaking, as a professor, how has your relationship with students been affected by this pandemic?
Jim: I have been teaching hybrid or online courses since 2000, and my students have had access to me via a variety of platforms during that time. I offer a mix of synchronous and asynchronous opportunities to share drafts, discuss issues, and to address questions/solve problems. Your question implies that this particular period has created some special or unique challenges. I don’t disagree. However, perhaps because I suffered several losses in my family linked to COVID-19, I have been able to understand, more intimately, the challenges my students and colleagues continue to face.
Sushil: What else would you like to add?
Jim: Thank you for the opportunity.
Sushil: Possibly, we could conclude this conversation with a message from the headquarters to the Western Region ABC membership?
Jim: ABC depends upon vibrant and active leadership from a wide range of individuals, including its regional vice-presidents and their “staff,” all of whom are volunteers. On behalf of ABC, I want to thank the Western Region’s leadership for its vision, its energy, and its innovative approaches to conferences and communication. This Bulletin is a brilliant addition to ABC’s publications. Bravo!
Recommended Citation: Sushil Oswal with Jim Dubinsky. (2020). Organizational Focus: a Conversation with Jim Dubinsky. the Western ABC Bulletin, 2.1.