The Southeast Regional Conference first met in January 1962 at Duke University under the sponsorship of Duke University and the Duke Endowment. The first meeting was attended by about 60 people, mostly from colleges and universities in the region, and featured three panels, on Asian Literature, Asian Communism and South Asian Politics.
Robert Crane, then a faculty member at Duke University, and formerly Secretary-Treasurer of the Association for Asian Studies, led the founding effort supported by a number of other scholars from Florida, the Carolinas and Virginia. This group acted as godparents during the first decade, providing formal leadership from its members and locating places for the annual session to meet. In that initial period much of the financial support came from the colleges and universities that acted as host; that still remains the case to some degree. A subvention from the national organization was instrumental in keeping membership fees nominal, thereby aiding recruitment of members.
Membership in the Conference in the first decade remained at about sixty people, followed by a surge to about two hundred in the era of the early 1970s. Since that time the attendance has hovered between 150 and 175. Geographical location of the meeting has affected attendance, with meetings in Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia more likely to draw larger attendance than those in the peripheral regions.
Organizational direction is centered in a group of officers, some elected and others appointed, that has grown in size as the conference has taken on new functions. Currently the elected officials are the vice president, who in turn serves as president, past president and past past president; and members-at large, who now number three and serve staggered three-year terms. Foremost among the appointed officials is the secretary-treasurer, the main resource of stability for the organization; since first appointed in 1970 there have been only four incumbents: John R. C. James, Robert Mildram, David White and Derek Waller. The editor of SERAS is also a position demanding continuity, with the four editors (Howard Federspiel, Hal French, Ken Berger and Larry Kessler) each having served a minimum a five years. The program and local arrangements chairs are one-year appointments, while the outreach coordinator serves a multi-year term. Also serving on the executive committee are the Council of Conferences representative, and, in an ex-officio capacity, the conference archivist.
This executive committee meets several times during the conference meeting and keeps in touch throughout the remainder of the year. The main activity is, of course, planning and running the annual meeting, but over time other issues have included the relationship with AAS organization and whether holding our meetings in January—even in the southeast!—is the best time to challenge the weather. There are also annual tasks dealt with by committees, such as nominations and the student paper prizes.
The meeting has followed a general format, similar to those of the other regional conferences, since its inception, although there has been some variety. For example, the meetings once ran Thursday evening through Saturday noon, and now run Friday evening through Sunday noon. Typically there are just a few roundtables or panels on the first evening; three sessions of panels on the full day, along with a business luncheon, the AAS president’s presentation, and an evening reception and cultural performance; concluding with a session of panels on the final morning. The topics of the panels—scholarly, educational, informational—are also similar to those of the other conferences, though over time those on China and India have predominated, with a healthy selection on South Asia and Southeast Asia (especially Vietnam).
The conference is particularly proud of several special and even unique activities.
Publications: For two decades the conference has published the Annals, beginning in 1979 under the editorship of Howard Federspiel. It includes the best papers presented at the annual meeting, as judged by a set of readers and editors, as well as other meeting materials: program, registrants, abstracts, etc. In 1994, the name of the publication changed to the Southeast Review of Asian Studies (SERAS). In addition, there are two series of Occasional Papers, one on special collections in the region, and the other on conference history.
Archives: The SEC/AAS has also the first conference archives, begun under Ken Berger in 1985. It is at the Duke University Library, and contains papers presented at meetings, official documents and miscellaneous correspondence and materials related to the annual meetings, publications, interactions with AAS, etc.
Student Prize Papers: In 1985, the conference began its student prize competition. Submissions nominated by faculty in the region are reviewed by members of the executive committee, with awards (including a $100 prize) to the outstanding undergraduate and graduate papers.
Outreach: There is a long tradition of presenting panels and programs specifically focused on the needs of primary, middle school and secondary school teachers. There is now a position on the executive committee for the outreach coordinator.