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.