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The American Kinesiology Association and the Future of Kinesiology

by Hal Lawson, Ph.D.


Kinesiology Today asked Hal Lawson to offer some observations about AKA and the future of the field of kinesiology. Lawson is well equipped to the task, having had a distinguished career in kinesiology before his current assignment as Professor of Educational Administration and Policy Studies and Professor of Social Welfare at the University at Albany, The State University of New York. Hal has taught in five different universities in the US and Canada including three years as program chair at University of British Columbia and eight years as Chair of the Department of Kinesiology and Health at Miami University of Ohio. Hal has been a prolific commentator on the problems besetting the field and we are delighted to publish here some edited highlights of his essay. (We recommend reading the complete manuscript at: We talked to Scott Kretchmar, Professor of Kinesiology at Penn State University and Janet Harris, Professor and Director of the School of Nutrition and Kinesiology at San Diego State University about Lawson’s perceptions of the challenges confronting the field. Readers are invited to contribute comments, reactions and differing points of view as well for the next issue of Kinesiology Today.




I’ve been asked to comment on the roles, responsibilities, and missions of the American Kinesiology Association (AKA) within the broader context of the field of kinesiology. What are AKA’s opportunities for leadership? Why should leaders and their organizations join the AKA? Why is mere membership insufficient and what kind of action is needed?


My answers to these questions begins with the following claim: The American Kinesiology Association (AKA) is a professional association. This claim does not deny AKA’s scientific and scholarly essence, and it is not intended to invite outdated discipline versus profession debates. Professions and their modern counterparts are organized in specialized professional associations to achieve goals that no one member can achieve alone. One of these is to gain economic authority, which is manifested in state-protected and lay-enforced labor markets. The second is to gain cultural authority over meaning and experience, i.e., to earn the title “expert” based on advanced knowledge and understanding gained through research, scholarship, and accomplishment. Cultural authority, achieved through the development and widespread recognition of expert scientific and scholarly knowledge, is the basis for claims in support of specialized expertise.


All professions compete for both kinds of authority. At the most fundamental level, then, kinesiologists are involved in an economic enterprise in which the labor market in higher education and in the broader consumer sector are up for grabs. Clearly, the stakes are high. What then, should be the American Kinesiology Association’s (AKA) role responsibilities, missions, and opportunities for leadership? More specifically how can the association organize and mobilize its members for collective action focused on a strategic agenda? To borrow from the terms used in a recent Carnegie Foundation report on doctoral education, how can Kinesiology’s members be prepared, persuaded, and supported to become stewards of their discipline?


Influencing Public Policy


For the majority of professional associations, a core purpose is to influence public policy. Some obvious examples indicate the importance of public policy. Examples include: (1) required school physical education (PE) programs, along with requirements for certified teachers; (2) requirements and protections for athletic trainers; and (3) emergent initiatives aimed at credentials and state protections for other Kinesiology specialists (e.g., sport psychologists, cardiac rehabilitation specialists, ACSM certified clinical exercise physiologist, etc).


Today’s Kinesiology was founded in large part on protected labor markets created for PE teachers in schools. Once huge, these school PE labor markets now are in decline and the cause can be traced to a decline in public policy support. If school PE is worth saving—in whatever form—then it can become a new target for collection action by professional associations and activist leaders. Another example is indicative of the potential power and influence of AKA, even though the achievement it represents belongs to the American Academy of Kinesiology and Physical Education. The achievement is formal recognition of Kinesiology by the National Science Foundation as a legitimate discipline, especially one eligible for NSF funding. This is a signal achievement, and it indicates the kind of public policy work needing (and waiting) to be done.


Producing Public Goods


Professions (and disciplines) develop, operate, and advance in self-interested ways. One way might be considered narrowly selfish ---the “take the money and run approach.” The second is forthrightly a moral enterprise, manifests altruism, and is grounded in firm ideals about social responsibility. The operative construct here is enlightened self-interest. The profession’s members and association are certainly committed to benefiting themselves and the field at large, but not at the expense of their social responsibility. Their social responsibility is to produce tangible and symbolic benefits (“public goods”) to society writ large. Arguably, some Kinesiology scholars and many Kinesiology practitioners routinely produce such public goods, albeit not always by design; and too frequently these outcomes are among society’s best kept secrets. Part of the agenda, then, is making explicit the public goods the field prioritizes and creates and then promoting and marketing them.


AKA’s Opportunities for Leadership


The sketch that follows is based on two realities: (1) Kinesiology is a newcomer; and (2) so is AKA. Each fundamentally depends on the other, and it is not an exaggeration to claim that their destinies are intertwined. The implication, perhaps obvious, is that these destinies can be shaped by outsiders and external forces, or leaders can strive for influence and control over the field’s and AKA’s destinies. Proactive planning is required in the latter case, while the strategy of being shaped by others requires nothing more or less than “business as usual.”


Absent a strategic public policy and social marketing and promotions agenda, which presents the field as a unified front, Kinesiology is disadvantaged in the competition for economic authority (labor markets and jobs) and cultural authority (recognized, specialized expertise). The point is, other fields are organizing and mobilizing strategically, and raw competition among professions in communities and disciplines in colleges and universities is an inescapable reality. Today’s economic crisis intensifies the competition and frequently results in a zero-sum game. So, when Kinesiology, via the AKA, is not organized and mobilized strategically for collective action, every colleague is at least somewhat disadvantaged, and the fate of every member institution stands to be influenced. The situation is akin to picking a team for a pick-up game only to find that the competition has been playing regularly in an organized, top-tier league and has been using paid professionals. When these circumstances prevail, we can’t and won’t win. Since the consequences of losing the game threaten the entire field, it is in members’ enlightened self-interest to get organized and mobilized via AKA to win regularly.


Gaining Consensus on the Essence of Kinesiology


Like the election platforms for political parties in an election year, a larger agenda needs to be set. Amid desirable diversity in the field, what is the unifying narrative that holds it together and makes it invaluable to society’s members, especially its elected leaders? Fundamental agreement on the core curriculum is part of this agenda, and the planning discussion at the AKA Orlando conference that led to this agreement no doubt included important narratives. But “the heavy lifting” is not yet done and stands as an urgent priority.


More fundamentally, what value is added by Kinesiology, and why does it matter? Who benefits? And what are the returns on public investments? An integrated response to these questions provides the core, defining elements in the field’s narrative---a powerful, compelling, and unifying statement that encompasses its missions, purposes, responsibilities, and desired outcomes. One way to approach the problem of achieving unity is by returning to the foundational elements of every profession and academic discipline such as the problems the field solves, the needs it meets, and the aspirations it achieves. Arguably resources are provided for fields when the problems, needs, and aspirations they address are important, urgent and, left unsolved, costly to society. Policy leaders increasingly use economic terms when they make hard choices about what and who to support using two calculations: cost-of-failure analysis---the sum total of all costs for not solving the problem or meeting the need, and return-on-investment analysis—the sum total of all savings and even earnings when success is achieved.


A public health-oriented narrative (in its most expansive sense) for Kinesiology offers the most promising opportunities and advantages. It is timely and is responsive to another requirement in today’s policy environment. This rational-instrumental frame is not the only way to develop a field’s narrative but, it is a good and important alternative, if for no other reason than it focuses on what outsiders, particularly powerful, pragmatic ones, need to know in order to support Kinesiology. But the main need remains: The need to identify, describe, and announce to outsiders the value Kinesiology adds when the field and its members are duly supported and receive sufficient resources. What are the important problems Kinesiology solves, what needs does it address and what aspirations does it help individuals and society achieve? In short, what is the field’s agenda, and how can it unify members and their organizations—enabling collective action?


So, there’s work to be done. AKA can and should lead this work, but it cannot and will not succeed without active member engagement and commitment. The work of advancing the field via AKA is not a spectator sport.


Unifying the Professional Associations


The elephant in the room is AAHPERD. What is AKA’s relationship with it? Can the agenda proceed without AAHPERD? What are the consequences of ignoring and neglecting the elephant? Is it possible and desirable to join forces on some issues and priorities? Moreover, today’s Kinesiology has its own sub-disciplinary associations. They reflect the field’s growth and its endemic specialization and potential fragmentation. Every one is a potential asset and resource. On the other hand, each also is a potential constraint or barrier.


What’s to be done with these associations? Who will do the work? How will AKA organize itself to get it done? Who will draft the unifying policy statements and provide a preliminary agenda for joint action? Where will the resources come from to enable face-to-face meetings to resolve differences and reach basic consensus?


All such questions are pragmatic and action-oriented. They indicate the conditions needing to be established for Kinesiology, via AKA, to organize and mobilize for collective action. By raising these questions, I hope to contribute to AKA’s development and advancement. Only members can answer them.


Finding Resources for Leadership


AKA’s ability to help the field become organized and mobilized for collective action depends on leadership. Leadership cannot be vested in one person or body. That said, an Executive Director and a supporting Executive Committee and Board of Directors can be instrumental in establishing leadership structures and operational processes for the work ahead. But they cannot do this work alone. The work requires experts who know which questions to ask and who have garnered experience in developing a strategic agenda and tailoring leadership designed to ensure success. AKA’s members include many gifted and talented people. Mobilizing them is timely, and providing reminders about the changing context is essential.


The New Context: Risks and Opportunities


The old rules, formulas, and action strategies for higher education are losing their traction. The fast-disappearing context starts with the prestige-driven structure of higher education, one in which Division 1 status in sport also signals top tier research universities, doctoral programs, and their exceptional faculty and students. Risking over-simplification and even distortion, for most of the 20th Century, an implicit, but well-understood system developed. In this system, sameness was a core value. Each discipline or professional program was able to model itself after their peers in peer institutions. Leaders referenced each other and used each other as program reviewers.


Where professional programs were concerned, accreditation controlled by a professional association was a powerful mechanism for more type-casting and overall isomorphism. Leaders of departments, schools, and programs being accredited were able to persuade university officials that their status as a peer unit, indeed their rise to the head of the class, depended on these new resources. More often than not, they were successful because resources were more plentiful and universities were viewed as encyclopedic.


No more. If the 20th Century research university was like a department store, the 21st Century one is more like a specialty boutique. It is proceeding with a conflation of private sector economics and public sector planning. This change is occurring rapidly, and it is occurring world-wide. Kinesiology is being shaped profoundly in this new context, and no doubt examples can be provided of how Kinesiology’s leaders are shaping this context in their home universities. The point is, sameness no longer has the same currency locally or in the national and international university systems. Prestige still matters, but indicators of prestige are changing too. As public fiscal support continues to erode, prestige inheres increasingly in external grants and contracts, and university rankings give expression and legitimacy to this new economic orientation and attendant influences.


In this changing context, it may behoove a local Kinesiology department to extol its own values and virtues, essentially making the case that it is unique and special and therefore merits investments. In other words, rather than referencing sameness with peers, the strategy is one of distancing oneself from peers by offering signature quality markers and aspirations. Whatever benefits this strategy may provide for the local unit, however, it is potentially disastrous for the field at large.


And it is here that another elephant in the room—departments with names other than Kinesiology—merit mention. Although the name game (as I call it) offers local assets, it also produces national headaches for a professional association such as AKA. Multiple names are indicative of a field divided, one without a compelling narrative that unites it and a strategic public policy agenda as a field-wide priority. Such a “live and let live” may be a good life raft in today’s stormy budgetary seas, but it is not a way to get to safer and sounder shores. A field consisting of separate units with different names should not plan too far into the future.


Concluding Thoughts


When I was an undergraduate student majoring in health and physical education at Oberlin College in the 1960’s, kinesiology was a required undergraduate course and nothing more. Today Kinesiology (with the big K) describes an entire field of inquiry and practice, and it has a new professional association—AKA—with over 100 member institutions. In the life of universities and disciplines, often described as proceeding at glacial speed, this is a spectacular achievement, and it is one that has occurred in record time.


Amid celebration, an important driver of this amazing accomplishment must be recognized. We managed to get where we are today by individuals and groups organizing themselves and mobilizing for collective action. Although they may not have identified and extolled the public goods Kinesiology produces (or has the potential to produce), a careful reading of the related literature indicates that some of Kinesiology’s pioneers were wholly mindful of social responsibility, enlightened self-interest, altruism, and an ethic of service to society’s members. In short, this “toward a discipline movement” and its ultimate successes are indicative of engrained capacity and collective efficacy. More than this, this successful developmental journey offers powerful lessons learned about how best to organize and mobilize for collective action from this point forward, especially how to develop a unifying agenda (without sacrificing diversity) and a integrative narrative for it.


Setting future directions with the aim of actually doing the work, monitoring progress, and making “in flight adjustments” is hard work, and it is risky business. The alternative is to do nothing more or less than what already has been done, but the risks are even greater with this alternative. Active direction-setting enables colleagues, via AKA, to actively shape their own destiny. The “stay the course, business-as-usual approach” effectively enables other forces, factors, and actors to shape Kinesiology’s future.


The journey toward the future thus needs to begin. Here it might be helpful to listen to leadership guru Jim Collins who describes the journey from good to great as involving four essential elements. The first is a map of the desired destination; a strategic agenda does this. The second is a compass; it helps us navigate toward a more desirable future. The third is sufficient resources. And the fourth is a “Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal.”


One such goal can be derived from the preceding analysis. The goal is to organize and mobilize for collective action to achieve common purposes, produce public goods, and influence public policy in ways that are in Kinesiology’s enlightened self-interest. AKA is positioned to facilitate this work. The future of Kinesiology depends on it. Ideally, it is a future that my colleagues will join forces to shape and create.


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