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06/16/2016

Dear Professional Organizations…It’s Not Me, It’s You

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

Dear Professional Organizations,

Being an active member of my profession is important for both my personal mission and my professional career. I enjoy coming to your meetings and finding myself among those who speak my scholarly language. At such gatherings I learn about new ideas, network with current, former and potentially new collaborators, and sometimes (when looking) find out about new opportunities for jobs, funding, and publishing. And yes, my university expects me to attend these events in order to share my work, to network, and to help with increasing the visibility and reputation of the institution.

But now, I have to think about breaking up with you. Year after year you increase what you charge for dues and registration. Over that same time, the amount of money my university makes available for travel and membership dues decreases, or in the best years remains flat. This institutional support covers about two-thirds of the costs of attending one conference. Such support is for the 30% of us who are full time faculty. Nearly 70% of the academic workforce is composed of contingent faculty members who receive no institutional support toward membership dues and meetings.

The difference between the cost of meetings and what my institution provides comes out of my pocket and that is not always tax deductible. Also consider that the average faculty salary has not increased by much in decades. The AAUP reported an average 2.2% increase this past year, but those salaries are lower than in the world outside of the academy, and the majority of those increases went to the burgeoning ranks of administrators, not to the diminishing teaching/research class. Some even claim that in real dollars, faculty salaries have declined in the past 40 years.

At the same time, the number of organizations and meetings has proliferated. The sheer number of bioethics and medical humanities organizations has boomed. Not only does every organization have an annual meeting, but now they also often have mid-term meetings and regional meetings. Each year more and more universities and centers hold conferences and symposia. Consider that when Bioethics Summer Retreat began in 1989, it was the only conference in June. Forward to June 2016 and there are no less than 4 national/international bioethics meetings this month alone (of which I am aware). I could have attended one every single week of the month.

Each of those groups charges membership dues (which do not go down over time) and meeting registration fees that edge upward. Consider that the registration fee for APHA this year hit $510 for members. This is up from $495 last year (a 3.3% increase). In 2004, I paid $150 for that same meeting. There is no sliding scale based on income.

At ASBH, the base meeting registration fee in 2005 was $305; in 2008 $325; in 2013 $395; 2016 is $400 (at least based on my receipts). ASBH has looked at this issue and created a sliding scale based on income, more early career travel scholarships and a commitment to holding the meeting in less expensive cities. As far as big groups go, they have kept to smaller increases.

 

I am not saying that organizations should be producing these events at a loss. I also do think they should not be making a profit on them either. The concern I have is one of social justice—these higher rates outstrip faculty pay and thus limit the number of people who can attend and participate. The higher the fees, the fewer are the voices that participate in the conversation, who can network, who can learn about job opportunities. As part of the leadership in several groups with annual meetings, I can say that one of the concerns is the inability of grad students to attend these events—even with student registration rates the cost of hotels, airfare, and food can outstrip student means and what institutions and faculty grants can cover.

The answer is not simply to cancel these events or to move them online. It is possible to attend the meeting virtually, by paying around $120 for a DVD to view annual meeting presentations. However, this is a passive experience after the meeting and does not allow for the dynamic conversation and engagement that allows us to connect with others, receive feedback on our own work, and find new opportunities. Perhaps some of the “extras” could be reduced—coffee break services, continental breakfasts, more modest speaker honoraria, and less fancy venues. Another suggestion is decreased rates for “sweat labor” – people willing to set up and take down, re-arrange tables, etc.

I will continue to attend some meetings, but not as many as I have or would like to, and I will let some memberships lapse. When prices rise, the response can either be to take money from elsewhere or to do with less. In this case, I plan to do with less—fewer membership dues and registration fees. At this stage of my career, this will not limit my opportunities. However, such a response hurts graduate students and early career scholars could be damaging to their careers. For me, the most important part of these meetings is renewal. After I am ground down by the minutiae of the everyday, these meetings are a reminder of my passion and love of this work. I just wish I could afford to do it more.

Very truly yours,

Craig Klugman

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