President of the American Association of Suicidology: Letter of Resignation
August 30, 2021
Dear Members of the AAS Board and suicidology community,
I am writing to inform you about my decision to leave my position as President of the Board of the American Association of Suicidology effective immediately.
Serving the suicidology community as an executive committee member of the AAS Board for the past four years has been one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my professional life. Since 2017, I have volunteered an average of 5 – 10 hours per week to AAS, many of those working directly under the leadership of Colleen Creighton, undoubtedly one of the best professionals with whom I have ever had the pleasure of working.
I am particularly proud of the profound work we were able to do during her tenure to make AAS a forward-thinking organization that brought value to its members through innovation. Much of this work was only possible due to Colleen’s tenacity and vision. She was beloved by staff, respected by membership, and worked tirelessly on behalf of the AAS mission and vision.
As a leader, Colleen understood the importance of developing an infrastructure for AAS that would be solutions-based and 21st century technology-driven. Together, we created our first cloud-based directories for board minutes, division reports, and all other organizational documents in order to streamline processes and inform our path forward. When the pandemic hit, Colleen led the AAS staff in converting and providing online trainings and virtual crisis accreditation site visits. Her commitment to innovation and responding to the needs of members and the broader community was central in growing the influence and impact of the annual conference, by hosting the first virtual (2020) and hybrid (2021) events of its kind, the latter garnering record attendance. Colleen understood that in the pandemic, the work of suicide prevention and the 50+ year tradition of annual gatherings was more relevant and valuable than ever.
Colleen also recognized the need to address racism, diversity, equity and inclusion in the organization and the field of suicidology. In 2019, I told Colleen that I wanted to make AAS20 the first national suicide prevention conference to be developed with an equity lens. She proactively sought sponsors and partners who were passionate about this decision. She provided unwavering support to Lena Heilmann, Brandon Johnson and me as some people levied criticisms of our efforts as being irrelevant to suicide prevention. She supported broader efforts, including hiring Pata Suyemoto as our DEI organizational consultant, and inviting Vic Armstrong to lead a series of webinars on racism and suicide prevention, and to run for President-Elect.
As the death of George Floyd in May 2020 generated a much needed focus on social and racial injustice on the global stage, Colleen once again put AAS at the forefront of our field by supporting the organization’s Antiracism and Equity statement and developing and funding the nation’s first BIPOC Mentor Fellowship program in suicidology.
Seeking to maximize community engagement and add value to our members, Chris Maxwell, Colleen Creighton and I hosted regular Facebook Live Townhall events to provide direct communication and increase member participation outside of the conference (https://www.facebook.com/watch/302698033926/430207861704376/).
Unfortunately, as has been detailed by a group of Past Presidents (https://www.speakingofsuicide.com/2021/08/16/american-association-of-suicidology/), AAS’s stability was compromised by the efforts of three current Executive Committee members, Tony Wood (Board Chair), April Foreman (appointed EC member), and Annemarie Matulis (appointed EC member and Impacted Family and Friends Division Chair), who voted to terminate a beloved and effective CEO without the participation of elected and appointed Board members. The decision to intentionally not involve the full Board stands in contrast with AAS Bylaws which state that the Board (not the Executive Committee) is responsible for hiring and supervising the ED, and AAS precedent of having the full Board to vote on terminating the ED.
Colleen’s leadership skills, high regard in the community and among allied organizations, and vision for the future of the organization were perfectly in line with our emerging strategic plan. Yet the decision to terminate her, which was made without cause or an end goal, also failed to put a proper person in place to take lead over these responsibilities. To this day, it is not clear what the executive committee sought to accomplish by making unilateral decisions that undermined the integrity and credibility of AAS as a leading voice in the field.
Eleven Board members resigned between July 26 and July 31. Only Amy Boland, Treasurer, submitted a letter of resignation prior to the EC’s vote to terminate Colleen. It is worth noting that during this time, Tony denied requests by Board members to provide evidence of such legal counsel, including but not limited to failure to disclose any documentation supporting the legality of the Executive Committee’s authority to terminate Colleen unilaterally without Board consultation. In effect, Tony revoked this governing body’s ability to make sound decisions for the organization. All of the elected Board members and some of the appointed Board members, including attorney Skip Simpson, resigned in part because they felt they could no longer serve on a Board where they were excluded from key decisions and information they needed to fulfil their fiduciary duty to the organization. I was elected by membership to be the presiding officer of AAS, representing the voice of the association and provide leadership to the membership. To date, Tony has repeatedly blocked my efforts to represent and communicate effectively with membership about these changes. The phrase “on advice of legal counsel” has become a catch-all phrase to shut down any efforts that would engage membership and Board members.
I, like many of them, no longer feel I can fulfill this duty. As is to be expected, many longtime and influential members have lost trust in the Board’s leadership and will end their membership and withdraw programmatic support from the organization.
In a last ditch effort to save AAS from the lasting damage of these actions, I proposed that Tony, April, Annemarie and I (the remaining Executive Committee members who were part of the vote to terminate Colleen) step down from leadership in a planful, orderly fashion and replace us immediately with respected leaders in the field. Doing so would clear the deck and provide recourse to members who have no recourse to removing the chair or any appointed Board member. Resigning would have demonstrated to the membership that we had the best interest of the organization at heart and would acknowledge their belief that our continued service is only further harming the organization. It would also help stop the damage to the organization’s reputation, and loss of membership and programmatic partners.
I was dismayed, but not surprised, that several Board members dismissed my proposal without acknowledging the legitimate concerns that members had expressed about the Board and the irreparable damage their actions would have on the organization.
On a personal level, I am also not short of examples regarding Tony’s efforts to take full control of the organization’s operations. Despite my role as President, actions were taken to remove me from conversations that I should have had knowledge of or had a say in. When I requested to be part of the crisis communications team responding to member concerns, Tony Wood denied my request. When I then requested a meeting directly with the crisis comms person, Erik Bernstein, Tony emailed me not to contact Erik. When I emailed Amy Kulp and Chris Maxwell to set up a meeting with membership, Tony emailed me saying that he had requested Amy and Erik not speak with me.
I believed I would be able to effect change on the inside as an active Board member. This included abiding by the agreement Board members made to have all member communication go through the crisis communications team. After several disastrous communications that have failed to acknowledge member frustrations and have only served to escalate the crisis, I feel I can no longer stay silent. I recognize the irony of having to resign as President in order to communicate freely with members. AAS is a membership-based organization, but I no longer feel I can serve or contribute meaningfully to our membership in this toxic and deceptive environment. With my resignation, I will become a past president, but I will not continue to serve on the board in that role under these conditions.
I want to be clear that my concerns are with Board leadership, not AAS staff. The failure in Board leadership has put staff, particularly Amy Kulp, in an untenable position. Amy and her team are professionals who continue to do the actual work of AAS – professional development, accreditation, and training. If AAS survives this storm, I believe it will be because of their hard work, dedication and determination in seeing this through.
It has been an honor to serve.
Jonathan B. Singer, Ph.D., LCSW