From the Letters to the Editor column in the November 2012 issue of Perspectives on History

Letter to the Editor: On Funding for Conference Travel

David Kammerling Smith, November 2012

Editor's Note: Perspectives on History welcomes letters to the editor on issues discussed in its pages or which are relevant to the profession. Letters should follow our guidelines. Letters selected for publication may be edited for style, length, and content. Publication of letters does not signify endorsement by the AHA of the views expressed by the authors, who alone are responsible for ensuring accuracy of the letters' contents. Institutional affiliations are provided only for identification purposes.

To the Editor:

Over the past two decades historians have become much better informed of the vast network of conferences and seminars which they may wish to attend. Notices even of small conferences placed on electronic discussion lists can shoot across the seas and draw rich and diverse pools of potential participants.

Yet paradoxically, as knowledge of conferences has grown, travel budgets for attendance at conferences have remained stagnant or worse, dropped.  Data I collected and analyzed in 2010 about conference and travel funding from 161 colleges and universities in the United States serves only to confirm this.

I collected data from institutions whose faculty members had participated in the annual meetings of the Society for French Historical Studies (SFHS) between 2005 and 2009, with the data itself representing funding for conference travel by these institutions between 2000 and 2010. If we look at the data cumulatively, we find that between 2000 and 2008 (years of relative plenty):

  • 13 percent (21) of institutions had a decrease in funding available for conference travel
  • 36 percent (58) of institutions had no change in funding available for conference travel
  • 51 percent (82) of institutions had an increase in funding available for conference travel

It is perhaps crucial to note that during these years of plenty, 49 percent of institutions had either no change or an actual decrease in funding for conference travel. Adjusting for inflation, about one-half of institutions were providing less funding in terms of constant dollars for travel to conferences than a decade ago. Even for the 51 percent of institutions whose funding has “increased,” the picture is a bit less rosy than one might think—and here I can only speak impressionistically—for a significant portion of individuals at those institutions indicated an increase in funding of 20 percent or less—barely keeping pace with price increases, if at all.

If we further take account of participation in the annual meetings of SFHS, these figures become even a bit less optimistic, for the institutions that over the past five years have sent the largest numbers of faculty members to SFHS have also had the greatest decrease in funding. If we divide the institutions into their current Carnegie Classifications, the highest category –RU/VH (i.e., Research University/Very High Research Activity)—accounted for 32 percent of the institutions, yet these institutions accounted for 52 percent of faculty participants from U.S. institutions at SFHS conferences between 2005 and 2009. Of these RU/VH institutions between 2000 and 2008,

  • 18 percent (9) had a decrease in funding available for conference travel
  • 39 percent (20) had no change in funding available for conference travel
  • 43 percent (22) had an increase in funding available for conference travel

Thus, 57 percent of these institutions—the institutions that have sent about one-half of the participants to the conference—had a decrease in constant dollars available for conference travel. Let me emphasize again that these figures represent not the years of financial crisis that began in mid-2008,  but what could be broadly identified as years of plenty before the current crisis.

Looking at the data in 2009 and 2010,  the majority of institutions have seen decreases in funding for conference travel. And the significant budget problems now being experienced by many states suggests that the economic pressures affecting conference travel may be with us for some years to come.

Three key conclusions result from this data:

  1. That the current economic crises did not launch the pressure on conference travel support, but instead deepened and expanded a pressure that many scholars already faced.
  2. That the pressure is not split along the lines of major research universities as opposed to smaller universities and colleges. If anything, the clearest split is between public as opposed to private universities as—during those years of plenty—56 percent of public institutions saw a decrease in funding in terms of constant dollars while only 40 percent of private institutions experienced such a decrease. Yet here it needs noted that the public institutions sent more scholars to SFHS.
  3. That the end result is that more of us are left with the choice of either reducing our attendance at conferences or subsidizing (or subsidizing more) our attendance out of our own pockets.

How, as a profession, do we respond to these pressures? My comments here are meant to open such a question to discussion, for the answers will certainly depend on the specific circumstances of individual conferences. Nearly all conferences are still based on a model forged when expenses for attending more closely matched to available funding. And the basic structure of the conference—parallel sessions with three presenters on a panel with a commentator—has also remained largely fixed.

In the past 20 years, however, the digital revolution has transformed how information is transferred and consumed. Yet we have barely begun to consider how a Web that now includes much greater possibilities for interactivity can enhance our traditional, flesh-and-blood conferences by helping to extend the reach of the scholarly interactions that occur in the conference setting. The live webcasting of plenary sessions or the pre-posting online of conference papers for selected panels, with real-time online participation by those not in attendance, can serve to highlight the intellectual work of a conference, helping to draw more conference participants in the future and to justify support for conference travel to administrators. Small mini-conferences that bring together a few people in actual meetings with a few others taking part digitally might also be a cost-saving method for smaller, less wealthy institutions to hold conferences on specific topics. We need to begin experimenting with such technologies so that we can shape the use of these technologies in ways that most benefit us as scholars—and which will strengthen and support our community in challenging financial times.

—David Kammerling Smith
Eastern Illinois University

Editor’s Note: Perspectives on History carried a shorter version of this letter. This version, published online, has more data and analysis.