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Architecture and #MeToo: The AIA is changing how it honors architects

The organization will work with former attorney general Eric Holder, Jr. to develop new recommendations for vetting awards recipients

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The American Institute of Architects is based in Washington D.C.
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The American Institute of Architects (AIA) is reevaluating policy surrounding who it elevates and anoints in the profession. It’s the AIA’s latest move to improve equity in architecture and combat sexual harassment.

Today, the AIA announced it retained the services of the law firm Covington & Burling, LLP and its partner Eric Holder, Jr., former attorney general in the Obama administration. Holder’s firm will conduct a comprehensive review of how the organization selects recipients of its honor awards and decides who is elevated to the college of fellows, a group of AIA members considered to be the most exemplary architects.

The AIA stated in a news release:

Although the rules and processes governing AIA’s awards programs are currently effective at identifying design excellence, the AIA’s leadership believes they can be improved to better address issues of professional character, especially related to harassment of any kind, and to send a clear message that inappropriate behavior will not be tolerated in the profession... The recipients that AIA member juries elevate through the association’s Honors & Awards programs are, and should be, the very best in the architecture profession. Going forward the AIA will also acknowledge the highest professional standards.

In addition, the AIA announced recent procedural changes for awards which include making letters of reference confidential (intended to make disclosure of unethical behavior easier) and working with a third-party contractor to conduct random background checks on nominees “to better assure that candidates for awards, and for Fellowship reflect the values of the profession.”

The architecture profession has longstanding issues with sexual harassment and discrimination and the AIA strategy to address the problems has focused on elevating good behavior: setting guidelines for equitable practice, updating its code of ethics, and issuing statements defining its values.

The AIA’s working group and Covington & Burling, LLP expect to present recommendations within 60 to 90 days. The AIA Board will then vote to adopt them or not. Any enacted recommendations will only affect future recipients of awards; they will not apply to previous recipients accused of harassment or be used to strip awards from them.

“We are focused on the future,” the AIA stated. “Past awards’ juries did their due diligence and made their decisions in good faith with the information and the context that they had at the time. The Association’s work with Covington and Burling, LLP, is not retroactive or retrospective.”

Until now, the AIA had not addressed accountability for enforcing its values. Changing policy surrounding who the organization elevates from both a design and personal conduct perspective is a step toward more enforcement of ethical behavior. However, some advocates question if more guidelines will make a difference considering the economic, social, and political inequities that enable sexual harassment to persist in architecture are so deeply ingrained culturally.

“The AIA is a voluntary membership association—it’s a club,” says Cynthia Krakauer, executive director of the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation and a member of the AIA. “The only thing the AIA can do is not let you get the special branding of the club. So at some level, I’m glad they’re doing this, but the AIA is not an enforcement entity. . .At some level [architects] know how we’re supposed to behave. The fact is [architects] don’t and that’s really, really difficult to address.”