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10/18/2017

Structural Injustice of the Academic Conference

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

We have come to that magical time of year again when academic and professional organizations hold their annual meetings. Thousands of educators, researchers, and scholars fly from all over the country (and the world) to descend upon one city. They will spend 2-5 days giving and listening to talks, networking, learning about new opportunities, meeting with publishers and potential employers, and advancing conversations in their field. Most faculty members’ jobs have expectations that they will attend and contribute to these conferences. While I do thoroughly enjoy these conferences (and am heading to three in the next month) I am troubled by the social inequality that these meetings create and perpetuate.

  1. Attending a conference is not a cheap endeavor. Attending a conference often requires airfare, baggage fees and seat selection fees, several nights in a hotel, food, wi-fi, beverages, as well as taxes and service tips (the latter two many universities will not cover). There are also costs of not-being-at-home whether that be child care, pet care, etc. Then we must consider the quickly rising costs of these meetings. The American Society for Bioethics & Humanities cost $400 early bird or $500 regular for members. One reason that ASBH has started holding conferences in less popular cities is an attempt to hold down costs, though hotel rooms are still near $200 a night. The American Public Health Association fees for members range from $515-$630 depending on when you register, plus annual membership renewal ($220). One of my conferences this year is local, but even that has a $560 registration fee. Then there are costs if you want to attend a pre-conference workshop, to earn continuing education credits, or to purchase recording of sessions. These are all “members rates” which require annual fees that most institutions do not cover. Add it all up, and one 4-day meeting can easily cost $1,500 to $2,000.
  2. The number of conferences has sky-rocketed. In bioethics, there used to be only a handful of conferences (ASBH—SHHV, SBC, AAB). One might have one or two must-attend conferences, a local meeting, and every few years, an international meeting. Today, every field, disciplinary, subfield, and subdiscipline has its own meeting. Most Centers and Institutions now have their own conferences to which all of their graduates and former fellows and faculty are invited (and often expected to attend). The number of international gatherings has also increased (I know of at least 3 occurring over the summer). Even the number of academic associations has blossomed (ASBH, APPE, ASLME, APHA, HHC, APLS, CBS, CTSA, SCE, AABL, IAB, MLA,INFAB, to name a few) and each one has its own annual meeting. Someone who works in Literature and Medicine may find that their “core” conferences now include American Society for Bioethics & Humanities, Health Humanities Consortium, Modern Language Association, International Health Humanities & Arts, Comics & Medicine, and Society for Literature Science and the Arts.
  3. Decreasing university travel budgets. My university budgets $1,500 per year for travel expenses for each tenure-track/tenured faculty member. That almost covers a single trip. Consider that this academic year I am attending 4 US-based meetings that require travel, and 1 meeting that is local. I pay everything above $1,500 out of my pocket. Most universities have cracked down on travel with rules and regulations meant to combat waste and fraud, after a few high-profile cases. In addition, many have simply slashed the available amount of money for travel. Remember that conference attendance is important for professional development, networking, and sharing our research findings. This is not an optional activity for most faculty and yet, we pay much of the bill. I think of this unfunded mandate as a job tax—the costs we pay to have a position.
  4. Free loans to universities from the Bank of Faculty. Even if one does have funding for conferences, that funding is usually in the form of reimbursements. This year, the deadline for the ASBH early registration was September 19. APHA’s deadline with September 14. By that date, I needed to register, purchase airline tickets, book a hotel (which in some places means paying for the first night’s stay up front). The meetings, however, are not held until 1-2 months later: ASBH on September 19 and APHA on November 4. When I return from the trip, I have to complete paperwork and submit it for several rounds of approval. If I’m lucky, I receive my reimbursement a month later, sometimes longer. This means that at a minimum, I have given my university a 3-month interest-free loan. I either have to pay that out of my savings or carry a balance on the credit card. If my credit card has the average interest rate of 15%, then on a $1,500 trip, the 3-month carry fee could be $675 and that interest fee is not reimbursed.
  5. Structural injustice of this system in regards to contingent faculty and grad students who have little to no funding. Numbers 2-4 on this list are only issues for the small percent of us who have tenured/tenure-track positions. Given that 70% of the faculty work force are contingent labor, they have $0 of support toward their professional travel. At my institution, even full-time, permanent instructors on the non-tenure track who teach 133% more courses a year than I do, also receive nothing for conference travel. Unless they pay out-of-pocket, they miss out on the professional networking opportunities, learning more about their field, and finding out about jobs and interviewing for them at these meetings. In the structural injustice of the conference system, contingent faculty miss out on the opportunities they need and want. Then there are graduate students who need to also take part in these activities to learn as well as to find those future job connections and opportunities. Some institutions and organizations provide discounted registration fees and even scholarships for students to attend, but there are still costs involved that grad students (and adjunct faculty) may not be able to absorb.
  6. Trump travel ban limits participation. For any scholars coming to a U.S. conference from another country, she or he might come across problems with travel bans and enhanced efforts to keep people out of the U.S. Although the ban was recently blocked, this happened too late for many people to make travel arrangements or to secure visas.
  7. Environmental costs. The carbon footprint of a national or international conference is enormous. To travel from New York to London or San Francisco produces 2-3 tons of carbon emission.
  8. You can read the paper. The reality is that it is rare that a conference presentation changes the world. Most of the work presented will be published in an academic journal or paper within the next year. After all, in the quantification race, a peer-reviewed publication counts for more than a referred conference presentation. In science conferences, researchers are advised by tech transfer and IP offices to not reveal much at these meetings: Anything revealed before a patent is issued could be stolen by others.
  9. For many, conferences provide few new opportunities. Studies done of conference attendees show that few find value in them, except for reconnecting with old friends and colleagues. New attendees often find it difficult and intimidating to get to know people who have been in the field for a long time. Many conference-goers find that attending has no perceptible impact on their research, teaching or collaborations.

Despite these problems and injustices, few alternatives exist. Since most large conferences are run by professional membership companies, they have no incentive to decrease the number of meetings or decrease costs. One solution, which the ASBH is trying, is to meet in less expensive cities. Some organizations are conducting “virtual conferences” where talks are all delivered on-line by speakers—this saves all of the travel and hosting costs. The drawback is that when you are sitting in your office, you cannot escape other deadlines, advising, and knocks on the door. Plus, you miss out on all of the informal networking that occurs at meetings. Other organizations are nixing national and international gatherings in exchange for regional conferences to which people can easily drive. This keeps some of the networking and interacting elements, but limits connecting with people who are not already nearby. Still others have gone to graduated registration fees—you pay based on your annual income with the possibility of providing a “gift” toward someone’s registration or membership.

The academic and professional conference has a valuable place in academia. But it comes with inherent hidden job taxes and structural social injustice for those who are not in tenured/tenure track positions and for those who are in institutions that do not have funding for travel. We need to keep our eye on making these meetings fairer and more accessible to continuously increase opportunities for board participation in our fields.

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