It's hard to find an institution or entity in higher education -- academic publishers, faculty groups, individual colleges -- that is not grappling in one way or another with how to survive and thrive in an era of emerging technology and intensifying competition. The scores of associations and advocacy groups in higher education aren't immune, as last year's demise of the American Association for Higher Education  revealed.
Officials at the American Dental Education Association, which represents dozens of dental schools and hundreds of other schools and programs in related fields, watched with some trepidation as the group's roster of individual members -- mostly professors and students, who faced annual fees of $125 and $40, respectively -- stagnated in recent years, at about 2,500.
Officials worried that the lack of growth meant that the association would not be able to replace its rapidly aging membership with younger (and more diverse) members as time went on, with potentially damaging ramifications for the group itself (financially and in terms of clout) and for the future of dental education. Too few new members might well mean few future leaders in the field, they feared, especially from cultural and ethnic groups that make up a greater proportion of today’s students and new instructors than was true of the previous generation.
What to do? ADEA officials considered a range of options, but early in 2005, after much internal debate, the association decided on a rather radical solution: throw open its ranks by dropping all individual fees. Under the new policy, which took effect January 1, any individual faculty or staff member or student at one of its institutional members (which pay anywhere from $1,000 to $25,000 a year) could become an individual member at no charge.
At risk was more than $200,000 a year that the association has taken in from individual memberships, a small but not insignificant part of the group’s annual budget. The other potential risk, ADEA officials acknowledged, was that they opened the door and no one came.
To the group’s delight, however, current and future dental educators have flocked to join in response to its "Open Wider" campaign.  As of yesterday, 8,352 individuals had signed up, a more than threefold increase over the membership as of December 31. The growth at some individual schools has been stunning: At New York University’s College of Dentistry, for example, the number of ADEA members shot up to 351 from 32 among faculty members and to 584 from 9 among students.
“We were willing to put our money where our mouth is, and say to our institutional members: Your membership really does mean something to us,” says Jane Hamblin, the dental group’s associate executive director for member services. “We’re inviting everyone to engage in this really important work, and it’s been exciting to see the response.”
There are dozens and dozens of associations and other groups  that represent colleges or their employees or students, and like any entity, they offer their members a set of services, usually at a price. The American Dental Education Association’s mission -- which it carries out through publications, lobbying and other methods -- is to help improve the education and training of dentists and, by extension, the quality of dental care for the public. So involving as many dental educators -- and potential ones -- as possible is a key goal.
For their membership in ADEA, individuals receive access to all of the association’s publications, most notably its monthly Journal of Dental Education  and a monthly newsletter, the Bulletin of Dental Education, and participation in its annual conference, among other things.
The lack of growth in individual members had ramifications for both the association and for dental education. Having fewer members -- now and especially in the future -- would diminish both the association’s clout with lawmakers on dental education issues and its ability to improve the quality of dental education itself, because fewer current and future educators would be involved in the conversation.
As association officials examined the stagnancy in individual memberships, they found that cost was a major barrier. “Cost was definitely the big issue, and a barrier,” says Hamblin. “$125 was simply more than a lot of people wanted to pay. Even the lower fees for students ($40) and retirees ($62.50) were perceived as generally out of reach for those groups. “All of a sudden a light bulb went off: Let’s give it to them free,” she says, “as long as their institutions are members.”
That idea had appeal, but potential downsides, too. Each of the dental group’s “sections” -- on subspecialties like prostodontics or subject areas such as academic affairs -- received a small portion of each of its member’s annual dues payment. And while the $200,000-plus in dues represented a tiny fraction (about 3 percent) of its overall budget, it wasn't pocket change.
To replace those funds, the ADEA decided to stop publishing the monthly newsletter in print; it is now available to all members, but only online. In addition, members who want to continue to receive the Journal of Dental Education in print, which used to be included in the $125 annual dues, must $70 extra for it.
From March, when the association made its decision to drop the membership fee, until year’s end, its officials worked with administrators at its member institutions to craft strategies for encouraging individuals to join. For many deans, it was an easy sell, particularly in terms of staff development and curricular improvements.
“Open membership is a great idea,” says Catherine M. Flaitz, dean of the University of Texas Dental Branch at Houston. “With my team of faculty and staff, it sometimes feels like we’re each in our own world doing our own jobs. This presents a unique opportunity to bring people together, for them to learn from others, share ideas, not just within the school itself but at a national level.”
Michael C. Alfano, dean at NYU’s dental school, sees huge advantages for his institution, for ADEA, and for dental education. “It’s wonderful to know that our faculty will have access to the latest thinking coming out in dental education, and even more important, that our students now will have that information,” he says. “From the association’s perspective – and this is where the magic comes in – it will become more influential when they speak to Congress, because they’ll have more members.
“And as a profession, like nursing, we’re having trouble identifying adequate pools of people to be faculty to teach in dental schools,” because of the wide gap in pay between practicing general dentists and dental school faculty members.
Less than 1 percent of NYU’s students now express interest in academic dentistry as a possible career choice, he says; that figure needs to double if dental schools are to have a sufficient faculty pool down the road. “ADEA membership will give more of our students exposure to information about dental education and different methodologies being used at other schools, and that might turn students on to it as an alternative path, even as a part-time faculty member.”
Dental schools have adopted a range of tactics to encourage their professors and students to join ADEA; Flaitz’s institution, for example, is raffling five $1,000 trips (three to professors, one to a staff member, and one to a student) to the association’s annual meeting in Orlando to those who sign up. About 90 percent of students and an even greater proportion of faculty members have done so.
The result of those and other efforts, says ADEA’s Hamblin, is an association that is stronger and more vital in many ways. (Even the financial hit, she says, is already starting to be made up from increased publication sales, meeting registration fees, and ad revenue, as advertisers eye access to a bigger, more diverse membership base.)
As someone who lived through the demise of the American Association of Higher Education – Hamblin was membership director at the curricular group, which failed to transform itself quickly enough amid the changing technological and financial landscape in academe – she hopes the dental association’s experiment sends a message to others.
“One learns that an association dare not rest on its laurels,” she says. “ADEA has heeded that lesson. Things are great in dental education right now, with students applying in great numbers, but that could change. We have to adapt to the times, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”