(prepared by Micah Morton, Ph.D., March 2023)
In May of 1972, nine scholars gathered at Northern Illinois University with the purpose of organizing a Thailand area studies group comprised of academic specialists in Illinois, Wisconsin and northern Indiana. Among the scholars were Eliezer B. Ayal, Ph.D., Lawrence C. Judd, Ph.D., Howard Kaufmann, Ph.D., Clark Neher, Ph.D., Frank Osanka, Ph.D., Herbert Rubin, Ph.D., Phipat Tangsubkul, Ph.D., and Kusol Voraphas, Ph.D. M. Ladd Thomas, Ph.D., of NIU’s department of political science personally invited each of the participants and chaired the meeting.
As NIU’s first Thai specialist and the founding director of the CSEAS in 1963, Thomas’ contributions to COTS and Thai Studies more broadly cannot be overestimated. The agenda for the inaugural meeting in May 1972 included “identifying individual research interests, defining organizational objectives and outlining future activities.” Among other things, the group came to a consensus that they should establish an organization referred to as the Council of Thai Studies (COTS) that would hold at least two regular meetings annually and attempt to organize a panel for the annual Midwest Conference on Asian Affairs (MCAA). The group further agreed that the meetings be held over a two-day period, ideally Fridays and Saturdays; and that the meetings should center around informal presentations based on field research and notes rather than the presentation of formal papers.
Other NIU scholars who contributed to the development of COTS in its early years and beyond include Clark Neher, Ph.D., Arlene Neher, Ph.D., and John Hartmann, Ph.D. Clark Neher, Ph.D. joined NIU’s political science department in 1969 where he remained until retirement in 2000. He and Arlene Neher, Ph.D., served among the earliest U.S. Peace Corps volunteers to Thailand from 1963-1965. Clark Neher, Ph.D., later served as the director of NIU’s CSEAS from 1996-1999. Arlene Neher, Ph.D., later served as director of Liberal Arts and Sciences External Programming at NIU and as the President of COTS from 1996-1998. After arriving at NIU in 1974, Hartmann would also come to play an important role in organizing COTS and in the then developing fields of Thai and Lao linguistics. Hartmann taught Thai language at NIU for 40 years (1974-2014) and continues to be an important scholar and mentor in Thai and Lao linguistics.
On COTS 25th anniversary in 1997, Arlene Neher, Ph.D., wrote the following about its early years: “Meetings in those first years had several characteristics which were to remain part and parcel of the COTS ethos. First, there was a robust mix of established scholars, newly minted Ph.D.s, and graduate students - both Thai and American - in attendance and second, those who attended were cooperative and non-competitive in their desire to share works ‘in progress,’ and willing to engage in frank discussions of the challenges faced by scholars doing research in and about Thailand...(Over the years,) COTS has retained its ‘loosely structured’ quality, strongly resisting becoming too institutionalized and organized. ‘Members’ have never wanted, for example, to have dues, or a real membership list, or to pay for registering for a COTS meeting. At the same time, word of COTS has spread more broadly (with participants coming from other parts of the U.S. and beyond)”
Finally, while the meetings initially rotated between NIU, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Illinois College in Jacksonville, the University of Wisconsin-Madison started hosting meetings once a “critical mass” of Thai studies scholars had gathered there in the early to mid-1980s. In 2012, Ohio University joined in hosting COTS, eventually establishing the current cycle with COTS annually moving between NIU, Ohio University and UW-Madison. In 2022, UW-Madison hosted COTS on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. To mark the anniversary, a special roundtable was organized on the theme of “Looking Back, Moving Forward: 50 Years of COTS” with participation from Larry Ashmun, Katherine Bowie, Ph.D., Pittaya Paladroi-Shane, Jeffrey Shane and Kanjana Thepboriruk, Ph.D.Reference: Arlene Neher. 1997. The Mandala, newsletter of NIU’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies, No. 16, spring