Ronald Pipkin Service Prize 2018


We four previous elected presidents of LSA write to nominate Susan Olson for the 2018 Ronald Pipkin Service Award. Each of us has worked closely with Susan during our presidential terms, and we believe we are highly qualified to assess and to celebrate her extraordinary work on behalf of the Association. We each in turn offer specific comments that reflect that highly positive experience.

Presidential Testimony #1: Michael McCann

I was the first LSA president to work with Susan as Executive Officer. We already knew each other fairly well, as we each came up as political science professors working on “legal rights mobilization” in the 1980s. (That past connection was serendipitous, I now realize). Elected to begin my term in 2011, I collaborated with Susan as she wrestled with the extraordinary challenge of taking over an Executive Office that for a quarter of a century was led by a small staff group on the other side of the country. We quickly learned that the challenge was much different and greater than just “taking over”: in short, Susan had to create a new office – the staff, protocols, policies, practices – virtually from scratch. Specifically, an executive office that operated almost entirely on local knowledge, historical personal experience, and copious paper records for decades had to be reconstructed into a more complex, efficient, accessible operation facilitated by digital communication. Given that Susan’s term was negotiated for only five years, moreover, we were very cognizant that the office had to be reconstructed so as to facilitate future movement, to a new group of people, probably in another institutional setting. In short, Susan was charged with a daunting act of institutional alchemy.

The first challenge was simply finding new ways to execute inherited administrative duties, including organizing, publicizing, and overseeing the national meetings as well as managing overall finances, without clearly recorded templates or routinized procedures. Susan learned the ropes through involvement in the final conference organized by the previous staff, the collaborative five-Association international meeting in Hawaii (2012). The next year, the Boston meeting organized and run by Susan and her new staff was, by many accounts, one of the very best in LSA’s history.

The second challenge was to respond quickly to my insistent “request,” authorized emphatically by the Executive Committee and Trustees, to replace the antiquated LSA website with a newer, more contemporary, multi-dimensional, interactive website. I pushed hard on this, and Susan hired the staff to make it happen, producing in very short time a radically new digital and interactive presence for LSA, even though Susan herself had little experience with such an enterprise. All this initial work was far more, in scale and difficulty, than Susan had expected, but she charged forward with extraordinary commitment, diligence, skill, tact, and patience. By the end of the second year, an administrative revolution was well under way and winning much praise from members.

From the start, Susan exhibited a consistently distinctive style as Executive Officer. She is the epitome of administrative diligence and reserve; she was extremely (too much, in my view) respectful of my leadership initiative and jurisdiction as well as solicitous of my advice on matters regarding discretion within her jurisdiction. We coordinated regularly, often daily, through email, phone calls, and in-person visits (mostly me to Utah, but other ways as well). Susan was extremely professional, meticulous, conscientious, and -- most important – “calm” at every point, even when she had reason to be otherwise. I NEVER doubted that she always had things under control, even when forces of chaos were banging at the door. That sense of confidence in her leadership was extremely important to me, and to many others, in a quite challenging and rapidly changing time. She was the anchor in quite turbulent waters.

Moreover, I knew from the start that Susan radically underestimated the amount of time and scope of challenges required of her as EO; relatedly, she asked for far too little salary, and thus was vastly underpaid. I repeatedly offered to recommend a significant raise for her to the Trustees, which I fully expected would be approved; as a scholar and activist on issues of gender based wage equity, I felt quite guilty about her under-compensation. But Susan opposed this, every time. Her deep sense of humility, of service, and of commitment to LSA, and perhaps her knowledge of shaky LSA finances, prevailed and did not seem to permit her to accept justice. As I look back, I wonder how all that rapid, fundamental change took place with so few palpable signs of tension, difficulty, and disruption. I know well how Susan endured problems with one of her hired staff members, and how she eventually resolved them, with very few people outside the office knowing about it. My guess is that I am almost the only person in LSA who saw the many travails that she underwent in those early days, because the Association continued to grow, to prosper, to excel in a host of ways. Her leadership inaugurated a rebirth, a move into a new era, and she managed to contain the growing pains in remarkable ways. I, personally, as a former president, and we collectively as an Association, owe an enormous debt to Susan’s unparalleled service.

As the president who initiated the proposal for the Pipkin Award, I can think of no more deserving recipient than Susan Olson. There are good reasons why we included language stipulating that “in general paid staff members should not be included in the candidate pool.” But Susan is a huge exception, in a great number of ways. Thank you so much, Susan!!

Presidential Testimony #2: Carroll Seron

It is a pleasure to add my name in nomination of Susan Olson to be the 2017 recipient of the Ronald Pipkin Service Award. When Michael wrote to inform me that I had been elected President of LSA, he noted that we need to talk and get things in place for LSA’s celebration of its 50th anniversary in 2014. Michael and I worked together to nominate a committee to work on the event; with David Trubek as chair, the pieces were in place to think through the next 50 years of LSA’s role as a scholarly association. In addition, I appointed Laura Beth Nielsen to organize a “birthday party” for LSA. Susan played a key role in facilitating both of these projects that went far beyond the “normal” workload of organizing our annual meeting.

But this was just the beginning of the work that Susan and I undertook, or I should say that I suggested and she made sure it was carried through. Like Michael, Susan and I had known each other for many years. From our earliest conversations during my term as President which, like those described by Michael, tended to be almost daily, Susan emphasized LSA’s need for a strategic plan to guide professional development and budgetary priorities. We spent a great deal of time gathering names of individuals/firms that might assist LSA with a strategic planning process; this included multiple conversations and securing proposals. Along the way, we also attended a meeting on governance of learned societies sponsored by ACLS. We learned that many of the very largest learned societies operated with a much more nimble Board, that our practices of reporting Trustees’ actions to the membership lacked transparency, and that many of our procedures were somewhat antiquated, particularly the number and selection of committees. At my first Executive Committee meeting we presented various options for a strategic planning process, but reached the conclusion that LSA needed to rethink its structure of governance before we could turn to strategic planning. For the remainder of my term as President, Susan and I worked on questions of governance with the goal of revising LSA’s by-laws. As a first step, we set up committees composed of Trustees to work through various aspects of governance. It was a long, slow and deliberative process. Members of the Board were not used to having significant “assignments” between meetings, figuring out how to prepare their various reports in anticipation of the June meeting. At our June meeting, we made some significant strides toward bringing the governance of LSA into line with what other learned societies have found to be effective practices. Simply put, none of this would have happened without Susan by my side, prodding committees, reminding them that their reports were due, or assisting me in the deliberations at the Trustee’s meeting.

I should note that the governance project took place on top of or in addition to all of Susan’s other responsibilities, such as coordinating the regular review of LSA’s budget, oversight of the annual meetings, selection of sites for future meetings, managing LSA’s excellent staff, or staying on top of the need to constantly monitor and update the website. In agreeing to be LSA’s EO, Susan also took it upon herself to share socio-legal scholarship with her Utah colleagues; to this end, she arranged various speakers and workshops. Her commitment in this regard demonstrates, to my mind, Susan’s core values as a scholar: She saw her role and executed her responsibilities as EO with her eye on LSA’s mission to foster theoretically robust and empirically driven socio-legal scholarship.

I could go on to detail in other ways Susan’s contribution and dedication of LSA, but the case is clear. As Michael noted in his comments, and I fully concur, I can think of few individuals whose work and commitment better exemplifies the spirit of the Ronald Pipkin Service Award, that is, Susan’s “sustained and extraordinary service to the Association.”

Presidential Testimony #3: Valerie Hans

I want to add my enthusiastic endorsement of Susan Olson for the Pipkin Award. We were so fortunate to have Susan, a highly regarded law and society scholar, a long-time member of the LSA, and a woman with prodigious organizational talents, serve as our Executive Officer. Throughout my time as president, she dedicated herself to providing an extraordinarily high level of service to the Association. She is richly deserving of this award.

In five short years, Susan set in motion practices and procedures that have dramatically increased the professionalization and strength of the LSA as a scholarly organization. She informed herself of the best practices of other scholarly organizations so that she could implement them directly or propose them as policies for trustee review, discussion, and approval. As Carroll described, Susan succeeded in jump-starting the process of governance reform and strategic planning. She worked tirelessly to educate, support, and involve staff, officers, other trustees, committees and LSA members so that it was an inclusive and deliberative process. As trustees debated reforms and made recommendations to increase the responsiveness and transparency of our organization, I saw Susan immediately implementing these new practices that were within the purview of the Executive Office, including improved communication with members and trustees. She constantly reflected on ways to serve our members, commissioning a membership survey and acting on the results. Regular updates to the trustees during my time as president reinforced the process already begun of more deeply engaging the Board of Trustees in LSA business throughout the year.

Her budget explanations were legendary among the trustees. For many of us with limited experience in accounting and budgeting, LSA budgets can be hard to grasp. Susan instituted systematic training not only for her staff but also for LSA officers and trustees, so that all of us could read and understand the budget sheets and appreciate what they meant. What is more, Susan’s budgets were models of clarity. Entries were annotated so that we could understand what different items referred to and had a sense of their context and history. All this enabled us to be better fiduciaries for LSA.

I had the pleasure of working with her as we organized the successful conferences in New Orleans and in Mexico City. As an international conference with multiple co-sponsors, Mexico City was a major challenge for the Association. The uncertainty about whether a conference in Latin America would be successful was so great that the trustees set aside a substantial sum of LSA’s reserves in the event that it fell significantly short. And indeed many surprises and other obstacles emerged as we planned the conference. Unanticipated changes to the hotel contract! Radio silence with the hotel managers! The Zika virus! Dramatic changes to US visa programs! No local banking! Import issues for the book exhibit! Susan and I worked together with the Mexico City program chairs to obtain an NSF grant, which allowed us to fund travel for International Research Collaboratives to the Mexico City meeting, but which also created more administrative work for the Executive Office. Susan’s cool determination and search for alternatives allowed us to overcome or sidestep these and other challenges to mount one of the largest, most diverse, and most exciting conferences in our history.

Susan has also been extraordinarily valuable in the search for her replacement and the companion search for a new site for the LSA Executive Office. Work on that began before I was elected president, and continued in earnest during my term, and we hope that it is nearing a successful conclusion. Susan participated on a search committee that reviewed proposals, visited sites, and made a recommendation to the trustees. After several months of negotiation with the university site recommended by the trustees, we hit a roadblock. Susan and I received the unexpected announcement that the university was withdrawing its offer to host the LSA. Susan and I spent many hours brainstorming about the different options we might take to preserve the continuity of LSA activities while giving the Association the best chance to identify other hospitable host institutions and strong candidates for LSA Executive Officer. In the interim, she worked strenuously to arrange for an extension of LSA’s time at Utah and convinced her colleague John Francis to step in as our current Interim Executive Officer. All these efforts made it possible, despite substantial changes in the Executive Office, to continue work on the Association’s major priorities.

Through all of our work together, I came to appreciate more and more our great good luck in having Susan serve in a critical five years as LSA Executive Officer. Thank you, Susan!

Presidential Testimony #4: Kim Lane Scheppele

By the time I became President-Elect in 2016, Law and Society had already made its transition from Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery to Trader Joe’s. Law and Society started as a cozy organization run by a team who knew everyone and operated the institution from their excellent memories. But by the time the organization moved to Utah, it needed a different model to cope with its new scope and scale. Susan was the perfect person to steer this transformation. She turned LSA into a well-run formal organization that works according to rules of universal application – but, through this astonishing transition, the Association has managed to retain its deeply loyal following. LSA still has that magic combination of things that you can’t find anywhere else. It isn’t easy to turn an informal organization into a formal one, or to take a group used to casual procedure and make it follow rules. But Susan miraculously organized a root-and-branch transformation of the culture of the organization – all the while ensuring that the transformation never touched what has made LSA so special all these years. We are still the same LSA – but how we have been modernized!

Under Susan’s leadership, LSA now has regularized procedures, actual written-out policies on almost everything, a detailed budget (with many, many footnotes added painstakingly by Susan so that others will understand her every step), boot-camp trustees’ initiation, an actual record of members’ service to the organization, and so much more. Just making LSA electronic was a huge task – from giving us a hugely ambitious website, to making it possible to pay membership dues online, and actually keeping records on everything we have done so that we have a recorded history to guide our future.

I came into LSA’s leadership at just the moment when Susan’s retirement was on the horizon. And she has been determined to retire! Unlike many leaders who want to cling to power forever (and I study these folks, so I know them well!), Susan had spent her entire five-year term with the goal of turning the organization over in good shape to someone else. I can see now how she constantly thought of how to make the organization portable – our records are all digital now, our procedures are carefully documented, we have libraries of records of minutes and debates and proposals and reports. She often says that her most important activity was creating a governance structure for the organization that would allow it to survive into the future. She has done all of this and more.

My fellow presidents have attested to Susan’s ability to educate us into our jobs. She does this with each new set of elected officers, but she doesn’t micromanage us. Instead, she has made our jobs so much more effective. She has created an organization in which the elected officers have the time to think of policy and plans, because she has created a staff that keeps the organization both moving along and responding to the inevitable change that elections bring. She didn’t design a rigid organization that fussily persists in rolling along oblivious to change. She is a political scientist by profession and an excellent one at that. Susan designed an organization that leaves room for the will of the people – that is the membership, through elections – to respond to new developments and to demand new things of their own professional association. She sees the mission of the LSA as service to its members, to its conference attendees and to its broader publics. The new procedures and rules of the organization were not ends in themselves – for Susan, they became the way to enable the demos of the Association to govern itself.

The Association’s plan to move LSA to a new home after five years unfortunately didn’t quite work out. Facing a firm retirement date that she had promised her endlessly patient husband Paul, Susan helped us to build an interim year in our Utah home. She worked hard to maintain the excellent staff she had recruited. She persuaded her good friend John Francis to work with us as interim Executive Officer in our transitional year. As John as brought his substantial administrative experience to bear on this impossibly complicated job, Susan has been there – part Guardian Angel and part Florence Nightingale – to ensure both that John survives his trial by fire and that the Association gets through its transition in excellent shape. I’m grateful to Susan for bringing us John and being there as backup support.

Already, years ago, Susan drew up a plan for the transition, a plan that we are still following. She has helped us to negotiate the new contract with our future site knowing the details of our current arrangement down to the last rule from human resources and the last detail of the option of off-site web hosting.. She has known what we should fight for and what we should let go. She has been there every step of the way as the Association feelt its way into its new life and I know she will continue to help us eventually make our move.

I’ve used a lot of mixed metaphors in this tribute to Susan, so let me end on yet another one. The best parents give their kids a stable environment without crushing their joy in innovation and creativity. They show their kids how to do things rather than doing everything for them. And they welcome the moment when the kids can live independently of them – knowing that they will always be there if trouble comes and the unexpected happens. Excellent parenting involves a mixture of unconditional support and steady training so that the kids eventually lead their own independent lives with confidence. Susan Olson is the model parent of all those of us who have been fortunate to share the leadership of this organization with her. She has given the Association her unconditional support, but she has taught all of us how to keep the Association going as she enters a well-deserved retirement.

But wait! Susan hasn’t fully retired yet – she’s still in the office pitching in when things get tough, being there when we need her help. She’s still adding footnotes to the annotated budget. She’s still providing sage advice. Susan has raised a grown-up Association, and I know that she’ll be there to celebrate our triumphs and coach us when we fall short as we eventually move out of her house.

Though all of our tributes, perhaps you can guess that Susan is never one to take credit for herself – which is why we should finally give her the credit she is due by awarding her the Association’s highest prize for service to the Association. She has set a new standard for this award. We would not be the Association we are today without Susan’s intelligence and creativity, diligence and persistence, caring and coaching – as well as her remarkable dedication to the ongoing project of the Law and Society Association.