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If You Build It, They Will Come: An Interview With Stan Silverman

Paul E. Levy
University of Akron

The 25th anniversary of the SIOP conference was in Atlanta in 2010. As the chair of the History Committee, it seemed only fitting that I provide some context and historical look at how this conference that has become such an important part of our professional activities was launched. I thought it best to go right to the source, Stan Silverman, who was the first conference chair—perhaps I also went to Stan because we were due to have lunch and his office is about a 10 minute walk from mine. ☺ Oh well, here goes…

What is your first recollection of your involvement in APA or SIOP?
Stan Silverman: I was on the Workshop Committee for the APA conference; Vic Vroom was the incoming president and asked me to chair the Workshop Committee, and I took over as chair in 1980. Back then, Division 14 had some programming at APA, but it wasn’t very much compared to today’s SIOP. A piece of that programming was the workshops.

The first SIOP conference was 1986.  What happened between 1980 and 1986? What lead to the beginning of the SIOP conference?
SS: The workshops were very popular at APA. Division 14 was small but active. Lots of folks came to the APA conference, and we (Division 14) needed 10 rooms and a large ballroom for the workshops. We would run the workshops in the 10 rooms during the day and then use the ballroom at the end of the day for the cocktail party. The party was very, very popular. I remember getting feedback from people about the importance of the quality of food and beverages at the cocktail party. One struggle we had was getting APA to keep all of this together in one hotel. APA is such a large conference that they weren’t all that interested in giving us the 10 rooms and ballroom together. We were pretty adamant that that was what we needed, and we always ended up with something that worked for us.

Our programming (outside of the workshops) was really quite small. There were only 1 or 2 sessions going on the program side; the conference was too big, so it was hard to hook up with your colleagues, the people you really wanted to catch up with. Plus, there weren’t many I-O-related sessions so there wasn’t a lot to keep folks interested in the content of the conference. There was a performance appraisal conference at Johns Hopkins (of all places!!) in the early 1980s that many I-O folks attended. I think this was the event that got some of us thinking that perhaps there was a better way to come together and talk about latest developments in I-O psychology.

The Division 14 Executive Committee always met at the Gramercy Hotel in DC. We met there in 1982 and talked about the huge turnout at JHU and whether we could do something like that only much broader: How about a midyear conference? We decided to do a survey. Irv Goldstein took the lead and sent out the survey to all members of Division 14 in 1982–1983 and about 650 people said that they would come. We then presented data to the SIOP Executive Committee and decided to do a midyear conference. Around this same time, Division 14 incorporated and called itself the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP). We created “the midyear conference,” but it quickly became known as the “SIOP conference.”

We chose Chicago as the first location figuring that it was a great city and centrally located. Irv Goldstein (Maryland) was the first conference chair, I (Akron) was the workshop chair, Rich Klimoski (OSU) was the Program chair, Ron Johnson (Virginia Tech) was registration chair, Bill Macey (PRA, Inc.) was in charge of local arrangements. Ben Schneider (Maryland) was president of SIOP so he was also part of the core group that got this whole thing off the ground.

Ok, well, how did this play out?
SS: I specifically remember talking with Klimoski about making sure that we have stuff on the program for both academicians and practitioners. Then, Irv got elected president of SIOP, and he and Ben approached me to serve as the first Conference chair because Irv could no longer do it. Ken Wexley (MSU) became Workshop chair (he had done it before at APA).

Macey did a lot of work narrowing down the hotels and chose the Marriott downtown. The criterion we used for this selection was that we wanted all the meeting rooms, workshop rooms, and hotel rooms in the same hotel. We had all experienced the size and overwhelming nature of the APA conference and just didn’t want that—we wanted everyone and everything happening in one hotel. The Marriott seemed to understand that and convinced us that they could make it happen. We met with them about the details approximately 24 months prior to the conference. They asked us how many people attended last year. While that was a good question, we didn’t have a good answer. Irv told them that we had never done this before, but we did a survey, which said that 650 people would come. The guy said, “Let me get this right, you’ve never done this, but because of this survey thing that you did you think it’s reasonable to conclude that 650 people will come?” Obviously, he thought we were a bit crazy, but for whatever reason, he was willing to go with us on this even though we only really knew that the presenters would come (at least, we assumed they would!) and that was probably a couple hundred people. So, they really took a chance on us. Hopefully, our survey results would hold up!

We worked really hard planning and staying on a timeline that each of us followed—we were able to stay abreast of what was going on within each of the other areas for about the 2 years of the intense preparation process. It also dawned on us at some point in this process that if this works we need to begin considering the next venue and begin the preliminary preparations for the Second Annual Midyear Conference.

In terms of the programming, we used the same process that was carried over from APA: a program committee that was charged with reviewing submissions and putting the program together. The incredible part of the story is that we ended up with 700 attendees at the first conference—it was amazing; we really didn’t know what to expect, and the stress release when it worked was incredible. The success was beyond our wildest dreams. We thought it would go over well but weren’t bold enough to think it would be so successful so quickly. The hotel guy asked us how this survey stuff worked; he was shocked that 700 showed up in the first year of a conference but obviously very pleased.

What about the conference itself? What did it look like? What were some highlights?
SS: We had planned this all out in many meetings and conversations. First, we decided the workshops would be the day before and then the conference would follow. The idea was to have a luncheon in the middle of the conference for all the attendees with a lunch speaker. At first, we had no idea who that would be, and folks thought about it for a while. Someone suggested to me (I can’t remember who) that the new president of the Chicago Bears, Mike McCaskey, was an academician and had a PhD in organizational behavior. I called Bill Macey to check this out—sure enough, he had a PhD in OB from Case Western, and we verified this with Frank Friedlander who was a SIOP member and one of his faculty at Case when he was a grad student. Mike’s mother was George Halas’ daughter. So it was one of these things, shortly after he died: “Michael, Grandfather George has died and we need you to take over the family business: the Chicago Bears.” So, he left UCLA where he was teaching to take over the Bears. Bill called him and he agreed to be our luncheon speaker—the season hadn’t started yet when he signed on. We thought it would be cool to have him as our speaker, but I don’t think we had great expectations. However, as our good luck would have it, that was the year the Bears and William “the Refrigerator” Perry beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XX, so he was the hottest speaker going. By the time the conference came around and after the Super Bowl victory, he was a bit harder to nail down because he was in such demand. The hotel was fighting to see who would go pick him up for the conference, he was the star of Chicago. He said he was nervous because at one point he actually belonged to Division 14, and this talk was different than talking about the Bears. I saw his ring and asked him about it, but he said it was the 1963 championship ring—the 1986 Super Bowl ring wasn’t ready yet. As a lifelong Cleveland Browns fan, I had always thought that the Browns won the championship in 1963, but fortunately for me I refrained from arguing with him about it and then later did the research to find that the Browns actually won in 1964.

That is quite a story given that there was really no track record at all of supporting a conference like this one. What do you think made it so successful?
SS: You could see all of your colleagues a lot over the course of the conference; you didn’t have to jump from hotel to hotel for sessions or to meet with friends or colleagues. Grad students came in much larger numbers than they had ever come to APA, perhaps because APA was just too big and too intimidating. We also had much more variability in programming type and content. Also, more stuff geared for practitioners and not just academics. I believe we started with four concurrent sessions that first year and at APA we were only having one or two. (Note: In 2009, we had 20 concurrent sessions!)

Ok, so the conference was a huge success. Just like in the movies, you guys built it and they did come. Then what?
SS: Well, one interesting little aside. When we started this whole thing, APA was concerned because we incorporated and now had our own conference. The exec director was Leonard Goodstein, who called me and asked if he could come to the conference. He wanted to speak and welcome folks on behalf of APA. Of course, we told him he was welcome to come, but it became clearer to us that they were concerned that we would pull away from APA and have a much smaller presence there. We weren’t trying to take away from APA at all. I told him that we will still do all the awards at the APA meeting, the presidential address, the fellowship induction, all of that stuff will still be handled at APA. We really believed that, but the conference was such a success that we all know how it turned out: All of those things take place at the SIOP conference now and we do have less of a presence at APA.

Ok, so we needed to start doing site visits for the next couple of years. I agreed to chair the first three conferences (which turned out to be Chicago, Atlanta, and Dallas). Chicago was a hit, and we turned to the details for Atlanta. Irv, Ben, Bill, Larry James (Georgia Tech, Local Arrangements), and I went to Atlanta to look at hotels. Again, we wanted everything in one hotel with accommodations there too. We also always wanted the best possible deal on hotel rooms—that was the key to folks coming; we didn’t want to price people out. The Atlanta Hyatt gave us all the rooms in one place, again, making the interaction with our colleagues easy. The Marriott Marquis opened in 1987 right across from the Hyatt, but we didn’t consider them because their rates would be high because they were so new (it wasn’t even finished when we made the choice). We met with the Hyatt people 2 months prior to the conference, and they proceeded to tell us they were moving 2 meeting rooms to the other side of the hotel because of their construction. We told them that this wouldn’t work for us; we want everything together and you are breaking the contract. They refused to stop the construction for the duration of the conference. We told them we would talk to the Marriott and we did. The Marriott offered the same everything with the same prices. We went back to our rooms at the Hyatt to find a bottle of champagne with a guarantee to hold off construction for the conference dates. Deal closed!

Incidentally, we didn’t have any placement or exhibits at the first couple of SIOPs. We didn’t want to bite off more than we could chew. We wanted to get publishers to sponsor coffee hours. Irv was doing his training book and knew his editor had moved to Jossey-Bass, which was the publisher that we had just signed on with to publish the SIOP Frontiers Series. Irv called Jossey-Bass and asked them to sponsor the conference coffee hour, but they said they wouldn’t be able do it. As the president of SIOP, Irv made them an offer they couldn’t refuse (!!), and they relented and sponsored a coffee hour. But, not much frills beyond that.

So we started small, but the turnout and excitement at the first conference changed everything; we knew that this was going to be the future for the Society in terms of its major conference. For years, the conference grew steadily regardless of where it was held. Clearly, we were onto something!!

PEL: Ok, Stan, we both have jobs to return to so this is the final question. What is your favorite moment from those early years?
SS: I think it would have to be the luncheon at that very first conference because everybody was there! We were hoping some folks would show up, but I looked around and saw 700 people together around common interests and ideas and there was such a buzz—people were excited and that was fun.

In Chicago at that first conference, there were 2 posters on tables for folks to sign. I didn’t know what they were really for. I walked by and saw them and signed each one like everyone else did. Irv did the same thing. During the conference Irv and I were each presented with a signed conference poster (see picture), which is one of my all-time favorite keepsakes and still hangs in my office at The University of Akron! It was a great experience, and we had a lot of fun pulling it together. It was really neat having that poster at the 25th conference in Atlanta—people seemed to enjoy finding their signatures!