Considering the Future of Academic Conferences

One of the defining features of life in higher education for full-time faculty, administrators, and graduate students has been the academic conference. Navigate your university’s travel and reimbursement process (if you’re lucky) to spend a few days attending presentations, sharing your work, and connecting with colleagues at a generic conference hotel or convention center with overpriced beverages and questionable carpet designs. The professional development (and food) can be outstanding—and then you scramble back to campus to catch up on everything that you missed.

This academic conference model, especially for faculty and students at lesser-resourced institutions, was already showing cracks prior to the pandemic. The largest professional associations, such as the American Educational Research Association, primarily held their conferences in expensive cities that were hard for many to afford. Smaller associations, such as the Association for Education Finance and Policy, took a different route and focused on midsize cities that were less expensive. Then politics started to also get involved, with California enacting a state-funded travel ban in 2015 to states with anti-LGBT policies.

The pandemic scrambled the finances of scholarly and professional associations in higher education, as many of them rely upon conference registrations as a key revenue source and had also signed contracts with hotels for several years in advance. Associations were hoping that the 2022-23 conference cycle would be something closer to the pre-pandemic norm, even if some also offer some hybrid and fully remote sessions.

In bad news for academic conferences, affordability and political issues have become even more challenging. With inflation at the highest level in my lifetime and travel and hospitality costs rising particularly quickly, the cost of traveling to a conference has risen sharply over the last year. The inflation squeeze that colleges are facing mean that any professional development budgets have much less purchasing power than last year, and of course many academics are paying out of pocket for any conferences.

Today’s Inside Higher Ed features a piece on how attendees to the American Sociological Association conference in Los Angeles are (rightly) worried about rising coronavirus cases. But there is also a strong undercurrent of people dropping out of the conference due to traveling to one of the most expensive cities in America.

Last month’s Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade and heightening political divides between red and blue states put academic conferences in an even tougher position. Many of the more affordable conference locations, such as Kansas City, Houston, and Columbus, are now in states in which abortions are now illegal with few or no exceptions. This has led to calls for conference boycotts and led some associations to reconsider scheduled meetings. Additionally, there is the very real possibility that more blue states put travel restrictions on going to red states, and that red states retaliate.

This means that associations have three potential options:

(1) Schedule in a small number of large, expensive cities in safe blue states and hope that people will come. The list of states that can be expected to stay under at least partial Democratic control over the next two election cycles is pretty small: basically, the Acela corridor, Illinois, Colorado, and the Pacific coast states. Maybe this leads to Buffalo, Providence, and Spokane being the new affordable conference hubs?

(2) Prioritize affordability by going to midsize cities with a history of hosting conferences, potentially alienating many academics who range from concerned to furious on abortion, LGBT, and other issues.

(3) Focus on hybrid and virtual conferences and hope that there is enough revenue to support this option. This can increase access to conferences (as a dad and department head, it’s hard to travel even setting money and politics aside). But it takes away some of the networking and socialization that can make conferences special.

Scholarly and professional associations are in a really difficult position regarding how to move forward. I don’t envy the decisions that they have to make.

Author: Robert

I am an a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville who studies higher education finance, accountability policies and practices, and student financial aid. All opinions expressed here are my own.

5 thoughts on “Considering the Future of Academic Conferences”

  1. And some of us still don’t want to get covid, the effects of which are cumulative and still largely unknown. I’m enormously pleased that there’s this much resistance to snapping back to what was always easiest for hale middle-aged men who had wives arranging their lives for them, and always difficult for women with children, anyone with disabilities, and the poorly-paid, who were expected to front money and then submit receipts. I’m as much a fan as anyone of drinks being the real conference, but that was always rough on people who didn’t drink, and besides, my booze is nicer than the hotel’s or the nearby bar’s, and I’m happy to have zoom drinks, have been convivial throughout the pandemic that way. It’s not my fault that the men who’re that attached to the bar scene at conferences don’t seem to be able to find ways of meeting up sociably beyond having mostly female staff put hundreds of hours and millions of dollars into arranging for them to all be in the same physical spot near a bar. Not to mention the fact that there’s really no need to keep pumping this much CO2 into the sky just so we can all meet at a spot and prove we’ve done something.

    I work for a red-state public university and I will no longer engage in recruiting activities. I’m doing nothing at all to persuade anyone with a uterus, or anyone accompanied by someone with a uterus, to move here. Can’t say I recommend it generally for women of any reproductive status, because it’s been made quite clear how little respect for women exists here. Having worked here for many years to help students who’ve been ill-served by the state’s K-12 system but will still have to compete with everyone else, I now find that I haven’t made enough money to leave easily, but I expect I will find a way. My daughter’s already investigating leaving the country in advance of more crazy decisions about what she can do with her body and her life, and I expect that should things go that way we’ll find the brain drain nationally is real. In any case, yes, happy to help with online gatherings, not excited about bringing people here.

    1. Oh. And I don’t think that the people who’ve always been more vulnerable than the white-men-in-mind aren’t having to travel to places that are considerably more dangerous for them than they are for those men. If you think black and non-USian colleagues don’t have to think very carefully through that non-urban heartland conference of yours, you’re kidding yourself.

      1. Er – that came out weird, sorry:

        Oh. And I don’t think it’s a bad thing that the people who’ve always been more vulnerable than the white-men-in-mind aren’t having to travel to places that are considerably more dangerous for them than they are for those men. If you think black and non-USian colleagues don’t have to think very carefully through that non-urban heartland conference of yours, you’re kidding yourself.

  2. Academic conferences should return to academic venues. The Canadian Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences is held on a different university campus each year, with cheap accommodation in students’ residences. Congress is Canada’s biggest gathering of academics, and one of the biggest in the world. For example in 2014 Congress involved more than 8,000 attendees representing 75 scholarly associations.

    https://www.federationhss.ca/en/congress/about-congress

    1. Unsurprisingly, an older man insisting on this, even though it’s bad — inconvenient, difficult, even impossible – for what might be most of his colleagues at this point, and bad for the environment as well. Why, because he likes BIG NUMBERS (even though of course you can have bigger numbers online), and prestige, and someone else to pay for a jaunt.

      I’ll tell you, Gavin, I think I’m really onto something with that bit above about “the men who’re that attached to the bar scene at conferences don’t seem to be able to find ways of meeting up sociably beyond having mostly female staff put hundreds of hours and millions of dollars into arranging for them to all be in the same physical spot near a bar.” Because that’s really what it is. I’ve noticed over the years that academics, especially though not exclusively the men, tend to be really quite bad at socializing. Meeting people, striking up conversations, maintaining professional friendships that aren’t merely instrumental in the moment. I’ve seen academics be positively fearful of engaging someone in conversation if it doesn’t serve an immediate career purpose. And while I’m absolutely in favor of helping people learn to be more outgoing and sociable and convivial, and helping them learn what a long-running professional friendship can be even when it isn’t immediately useful (and how to maintain such friendships), I really don’t support public funding of the prosthetic of in-person conferences that exclude a large proportion of the community and damage the environment.

      Gather, for instance, has technical problems that can be solved, and beyond that is a remarkably good step in the right direction. I’ve had wonderful dinners and drinks via zoom for years now, a few of which have turned into national-scale projects. For that matter, half my recent work’s been done with colleagues I’ve known only online, all across the country, and we somehow manage to develop warm and quite caring relationships that extend into knowledge of and interest in each others’ families. I couldn’t be more pleased that the US National Science Foundation has kept many of its conferences online, where attendance is huge, workweeks aren’t disrupted, and they seem to have mastered the format.

      While I am sure that there are colleagues who are special to you and with whom you really do treasure a night out under the stars and a long line of beers, these are things that well-paid tenured academics can arrange on their own, as anyone else might do. You all, I imagine, have houses, or will do soon. Might even have a cottage on a lake. By all means, make use of them. But for the events that make professions? Keep them accessible by having them online, and keep the frequent-flyer miles down.

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