Interview with Katherine McCarter, August 13, 2015

Collection: Ecological Society of America Oral History Collection

Dublin Core


Katherine McCarter has been the Executive Director of the Ecological Society of America (ESA) since 1997. In this interview, she explains how she became the Executive Director and what she has done during her time at ESA. McCarter describes the Centennial Meeting of 2015, Barack Obama’s video introduction for the organization, and the ESA’s Public Affairs Office.

Interview notes

Katherine grew up outside of New York City and didn't take any courses in ecology.  She got her B.S. in biology and did graduate work in Environmental Health at Johns Hopkins.  She started as a biology teacher and then became involved with the American Lung Association through the executive training program.  Katherine did environmental health work for the health department in Maryland and was hired as the first director of public relations for the American Public Health Association.  She was promoted there several times and eventually became Deputy Executive Director.  After 20 years, she decided to look elsewhere for a leadership role.

She then applied for the ESA position.  She initally turned ESA down, but was persuaded by Jim MacMahon to reconsider six months later. “I cannot tell you how happy I’ve been at ESA.”  She came to “love the financial side” as well as the programmatic side of the job.

She started her job four days before the annual meeting.  She noticed ther was very little talk about “what should we do about it” after ecological problems were described during talks.  This was unlike the APHA approach.  Now ESA is different. And she liked working with ESA members.

First impressions of ESA

Katherine notes that the financial problems of the organization were severe.  The cash flow was not good, as income was after the expenditures, and reserve funds had been spent.  She presented her plan for ESA which included “paying ourselves back.”  She was able to cut some expenses and soon the reserve fund was being built back up.  

She looked for new sources of revenue and how expenses could be cut.  The annual meeting soon became a revenue source.  Exhibitors were integrated with the poster sessions and they paid for their space.  More exhibitors were invited.  The by-laws were changed for better budget control.

ESA has moved two times since she became the Executive Director; they were in rented space from the Optical Society of America when she started, but then they wanted their space back.

Katherine explains that staff was not trimmed to make ends meet. She then describes the moves of the office that were made.

Milestones during her time thus far

As described, developing a better budgeting process and putting money into the reserve fund.

ESA finances “were even strong when we were in the hole.”  New publications and additional pages were added to journals, new grants were obtained, the Education Program was started, and the membership has grown.  The annual meeting has been a good source of revenue.

But the world of journal publication was changing to online, open-access, and free.  Libraries were also cutting journals, which squeezed ESA and other professional societies.  Libraries were moving to multi-year contracts with providers, which hurt professional organizations. 

In 2014, it was clear that ESA would soon be operating in the red, and that led to the contract with Wiley, a large publishing house, Katherine explains.  Now ESA knows what it is going to make from its journals and can plan accordingly.  She discusses the need for this change and why it’s good for ESA.  ESA anticipates that ESA journals will be in more places; also ESA’s online access to journals will be much better thanks to Wiley.  They have a vision for what the articles of the future will be like, which the Governing Board liked.  She describes the process that led to the shift to Wiley. 

Katherine talks about closing the Ithaca Office (yet to come); staff will have to be let go, which will be very hard.  Plans are in place to ease the transition, but she’s not looking forward to it.

Highlights of her time as Executive Director

Katherine talks about expanding the education program thanks to the Mellon Foundation.  Mellon was commited to archiving journals and the development of JSTOR.  Bill Robertson called and offered that some of the Mellon funds could be spent on other work, like education, and then public affairs. The SEEDS program started.  

She also disucusses the new journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, which people had been talking about for a while.  She urged the GB to decide on the kind of journal they wanted and then Katherine would go find the funding.  “Free to dream.”  She developed a plan and budget.  They needed to get $3 million for the journal, which Mellon supplied half of, and others contributed. Sue Silver was hired and she produced “exactly what we wanted.”  Some members didn’t approve initially, but it helped grow the membership.  Though, it still doesn’t quite yet break even.  Some agencies will pay for special issues, and the goal is for it to break even.  Libraries still have to pay for Frontiers, though it’s free to ESA members.  It is now online, but also in paper.

She discusses similar problems in the early years of Ecosphere. And speaks of the growth of the
interdisciplinary nature of ESA with new sections.

Katherine also notes the enhanced diversity in ESA through the SEEDS program. She talks about how initially ESA received some of the Mellon Funds through the Cary Institute.  Katherine asked Bill Robertson about this and he decided to give the funds directly to ESA.  There is now something like 700 students who have benefited from SEEDS.  Women are about 50 percent, but racial/ethnic diversity in ESA is still not where Katherine would like it to be. 

The Centennial Meeting

There was lots of enthusiasm for the Centennial, but where would the funds come from?  Alan Covich committee came up with lots of good ideas.  They developed a pool of $100,000.  Complimented the various groups that helped, including the Historical Records Committee and Past Presidents 2015 Committee, which consisted of all past presidents, chaired by Jean Langenheim.

She describes the centennial videos and problems involved at the Plenary session, including President Obama’s welcome.  Both videos will be uploaded to ESA’s website.  Jane Lubchenco arranged for the president’s video; ESA and Sharon Kingsland provided some information.   Even the White House staff member involved was stunned that the President would do the video, but she had to keep it a secret, except for telling ESA president David Inouye.  But afterward ESA could put the video on the website.   “Beyond our expectations.”  And it happened because “ESA had friends in the Office of Science and Technology.”

Public Affairs Office

She describes how it’s working at the present time, how it’s staffed, including students at times, and how ESA is now part of various coalitions, including the Biological-Ecological Sciences Coalition, established by ESA and AIBS.  They participate in lobbying day annually and now the office does much more with the media.  Katherine says that she would like a press release from each issue of the journals.  Now there’s more with Facebook, Tweeting, etc., which is what the journalists and ESA members want more of.  The PAO also links journalists and Washington staff with experts. 

Now the membership wants to become more involved with policy, more so than when she first started. 

She feels “really privileged” to be involved with ESA.  She thinks her board is “the best board on Earth.”  She thought her time with ESA would be five years, but now she’s been with ESA for about 18.  She thought ESA would want an ecologist as Executive Director.  “There’s always something that is exciting and new.” She describes a little of her guiding tips for new staff.  






Oral History Item Type Metadata


79 minutes


Katherine McCarter and Dennis Knight, “Interview with Katherine McCarter, August 13, 2015,” UGA Special Collections Libraries Oral Histories, accessed May 25, 2024,