The Higher Education Academic Conference Racket

At the risk of being accused of exposing one of higher education’s “dirty little secrets,” let’s have a frank discussion about the market racket? for academic conferences.  This post was inspired by an email invitation I received today to attend an academic conference in Costa Rica next March at the Marriott Los Suenos Ocean Resort and Casino in Herradura, Costa Rica (pictured above).  It seems like I get one of these unsolicited invitations every week for an academic conference somewhere in the U.S. or overseas.  Here’s how this “academic conference racket” works:

1. Promotion from assistant professor to associate professor with tenure at most universities is primarily based on publications in academic journals and presentations of research at academic conferences (which often then lead to publications).  Sure, teaching counts too, but marginal, below-average teaching can usually be offset by a strong publication record (but not vice-versa).

2. Promotion from associate professor with tenure to full professor is also primarily based on academic publications and presentations at academic conferences.  Sure, teaching counts, but see above.

Therefore, there is a HUGE demand from thousands of tenure- and promotion-seeking professors across the country (and around the world) to attend academic conferences, present their research, and then hopefully have that research subsequently published in an academic journal or in the conference proceedings, or sometimes both. Publications lead to tenure and promotion, and often large pay increases of $8,000 per year for promotion to associate professor, and $10,000 for promotion to full professor (those are the current increases at UM-Flint).  Another factor that increases the demand for academic conferences is that all travel expenses, conference fees, and meals are generally paid by the professor’s academic institution.

That explains the demand side of the market, which as I said is HUGE.  Now what about the supply side?  Of course, it’s grown to meet the high demand and it’s no surprise that there is a large and growing “academic conference industry,” along with a large and growing industry for academic journals to publish academic research (which is typically ignored, except for a few other academics).

The National Business and Economics Society (NBES) is sponsoring the conference in Costa Rica and is just one of hundreds of academic organizations on the supply side of the academic conference and publishing industry.  Previous NBES conferences have been held in Hawaii (every other year), the Lesser Antilles, the West Indies, Puerto Rico, Mexico, the Virgin Islands and Key West (and never in Duluth, MN, Sagniaw, MI, or Buffalo, NY).  See a noticeable pattern?  Hold an academic conference in early March in an exotic location like Costa Rica, and professors will flock to those events, with all expenses paid for by their university students and/or taxpayers.  Let’s be realistic, don’t professors deserve a “Spring Break” getaway around the time their students are heading down to Daytona Beach or Miami Beach?

Now, to attract the greatest number of scholars to an academic conference in an exotic location in March, should the organization make the academic focus of the conference broad or narrow?  Obviously, it should be as academically diverse as possible, and the NBES isn’t holding back, it invites scholars from Finance, Accounting, Marketing, Management, Information Systems, Operations Research, Economics, Public Health and Administration, Psychology and related areas.  Wow, that’s every department in the entire business school plus some almost unrelated departments in the College of Arts and Sciences!

While they’re on their all-expenses-paid trip to the four-day conference in Costa Rica (often with a spouse, who pays airfare but usually not for the accommodations), the professors can take advantage of a host of activities in Costa Rica during their ample free time (their academic obligation may only involve one 30-minute research presentation, or maybe one other session where they serve as a discussant) that includes shopping, dining, deep sea fishing, water sports, hiking, golf, tennis, and an on-site casino.

For the last four years, the NBES has published electronic “conference proceedings” (password protected) of the papers presented, which could count as an academic publication for some universities.  In that case, the professor gets credit for presenting academic research at a conference in Costa Rica and possibly for an academic publication for his or her paper in the conference proceedings, and that research may eventually lead to an academic publication, which may eventually lead to promotion, tenure and a large increase in salary.

In the end, students (or their parents or taxpayers) ultimately pay for their professors to attend academic conferences in places like Costa Rica in March, which contributes to rising tuition and the “higher education bubble.”  And it’s not clear that students reap any benefits from these academic conferences relative to the costs, especially if the trade-off is lower tuition and fewer academic conferences, or higher tuition and more academic conferences.  The fact that community colleges typically charge tuition that is about 50% of a four-year university might partially be explained by the fact that professors at community colleges aren’t under pressure to publish, and don’t attend expensive, four-day academic conferences in Costa Rica, Hawaii and the Virgin Islands with the same frequency as their counterparts at 4-year colleges.

Academics: Am I being unfair or inaccurate? If so, please respond.

About Mark J. Perry 262 Articles

Affiliation: University of Michigan

Dr. Mark J. Perry is a professor of economics and finance in the School of Management at the Flint campus of the University of Michigan.

He holds two graduate degrees in economics (M.A. and Ph.D.) from George Mason University in Washington, D.C. and an MBA degree in finance from the Curtis L. Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.

Since 1997, Professor Perry has been a member of the Board of Scholars for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a nonpartisan research and public policy institute in Michigan.

Visit: Carpe Diem

20 Comments on The Higher Education Academic Conference Racket

  1. I suspect the author of this article has never been an academic–or, at least, not at a less-then-Ivy-League institution. Large pay increases for promotion? Fully paid conference fees? Please. Raises are scarce in academia these days, and the salaries are incredibly low, particularly in relationship to the number of years that most of us spend in grad school. The majority of us have to choose carefully just one conference a year, which is largely paid for on our own dime, and only occasionally supplemented by a few hundred dollars from our institutions, just to share our research and get feedback from colleagues before trying to publish in a tight publishing market. And yes, it’s all absolutely required for promotion and tenure, but with minimal financial support. Yes, Mark, you are both unfair and inaccurate.

    • Uh, Jeana, before you make a fool of yourself in public, perhaps you should use Google, or just click on the conveniently provided link at the top of the article.

      “Dr. Mark J. Perry is a professor of economics and finance in the School of Management at the Flint campus of the University of Michigan.”

      I don’t think UM-Flint is quite the Ivy League (he even went out of his way to SPECIFY what school he got his info from) and while George Mason is tops, it’s still not an Ivy Leaguer.

      I’m wondering if you are a real professor, or a graduate of any kind with such horrible comprehension skills.

  2. If your research is funded by a grant, dissemination of that research is almost always a condition of the funding, and your grant may pay the expenses of your travel. Universities typically might pay a few hundred dollars’s worth of travel expenses for people who don’t have outside funding.

    So, yes, this is unfair and inaccurate. Very few conferences are held in Costa Rica or Hawaii. The American Physical Society conferences that I have attended, for example, were held in exotic Nashville, Tuscon, New Orleans, and Boulder–you can find a list of this year’s conferences on their website. There were thousands of attendees at each one. And I have known very few people who skip much of the conference, though of course there are certainly some who do.

  3. Jeana is partially correct. It all depends on the field in which you are working and the prospects for external funding. Once upon a time, I was an engineering faculty member at a large land grant. I did go to a lot of conferences but it was a line item in my research contracts and my gov’t sponsors expected me to publish so they got public acknowledgement of the funding. I did get a significant raise when I earned tenure and was promoted from Assistant to Associate. A few years later I got a really significant raise when I left academia for the “private sector”.

  4. Seconded. I’m a scientist, and my colleagues and I usually have to carefully triage the conferences we go to — funding is very tight, and attending any conference usually means ponying up out of your own pocket. I have had to pass up excellent conferences in unglamorous places because I just couldn’t justify the expense. (Also, in the sciences, conference attendance is not a factor for promotion: invited talks are, but mere attendance is not.)

    What these broad-brush, exotic-locale conferences are is a scam. They’re trying to get people to pony up registration and lodging fees for the privilege of sitting in some random conference center with a bunch of other suckers. I get invitations to speak at them every week, on topics that have little or nothing to do with my research. The meetings I *attend*, on the other hand, are arranged by my professional societies and have nothing to do with these ridiculous pseudoconferences.

  5. Yes, there is a lot of dreck out there… but professors are keenly status conscious, and tenure committees at most places will see right through vanity publications or BS conference attendance. Conferences (and journals) are nothing new, and it often takes A LOT of work to be accepted at a good one. And the cost to one’s institution is a bagatelle compared to the ballooning of the campus administration.

  6. Oh jeez……you have exposed us all! In fairness, some of the lesser of us had to make do with conferences in NYC or PHX, or San Francisco. It was ugly work but some us lesser lights had to show up there.

  7. It’s absolutely true that some conferences are a scam in just the ways that the author suggests. It sounds like the one he describes is one of them. I’m invited to several by mass email every year, usually in Hawaii. Theoretically I could go to a stupid conference in Hawaii, attend only long enough to give my talk, and charge it to my research fund. That much is true.

    But I don’t do that. The conferences I go to are often in nice places, but they’re very work intensive. I typically spend all day working and it’s not at all a vacation. I attend all (or almost) of the sessions, and the socializing I do is with colleagues and often involves informal talk about work. If it’s a holiday, it’s very much a busman’s holiday. I’m not unusual in these respects, either.

    There’s also some exaggeration here. As the first commenter states, it’s not as if many academics have huge research budgets or unlimited travel funds. Furthermore, giving a talk at a bogus conference doesn’t lead to publication, and then promotion, in anything like the way described. If you’re scamming, you won’t have a good paper. It won’t be published, or it will be published in a mediocre venue. If you get tenure, it’s because your institution has low standards. On the other hand, giving a talk at a legitimate conference might help you get published, but in a legitimate way: the comments you get will help you improve the paper, you’ll get more exposure for your ideas among colleagues who matter, and so forth.

    Are even good conferences and academic research something that should be subsidized by tax payers or students? That’s a big question without an easy answer. Are some conference total scams that should not exist? Absolutely. Does the author exaggerate his case? Yes.

  8. Maybe your field gets conferences in exotic locales but the two that I am going to this year are in Chicago and New Orleans. And I am going mostly on my own dime- the most our university will grant is $500 towards expenses which usually just covers the airfare and maybe a night in the conference hotel. Sure, its an opportunity to catch up with old friends but I usually get valuable comments when I present a paper that help to make it better.

  9. The world of conference-hopping you’re describing may exist, but it’s not normative. How it works for me is this: I’m an associate professor (untenured) at a large, but not research-oriented, state university. I get $700 a year in an account that is to be used for professional dues and conference travel. I pay about $200 a year in dues. What’s left over has to suffice for all my conference-going. I can get grants from my institution to have more to work with, but in general, conference-going is an exercise in constrained optimization. It’s hardly the “all expense paid” experience described in the article.

    The last conference I went to was a medium-sized summer mathematics conference, in Madison, Wisconsin — lovely, but not Costa Rica. I split a rental car with a colleague and stayed in the dorms at UW to save money. This next year I have to go to a conference in Atlanta in June because I’m an officer in the organization putting it on — and that one conference will cost more than three times my annual travel budget. There’s where the real racket is — exorbitant registration fees that go seemingly nowhere.

    I’d also say that for most people with whom I go to conferences, including myself, it’s work. For me, I plan on attending sessions and giving talks pretty much for 8 straight hours every day I’m there. I have a wife and three small kids, so there’s not only a financial cost involved (footed by the taxpayers of Michigan) but also a personal cost — and I aim to make that cost worthwhile.

  10. Jeana said: Raises are scarce in academia these days, and the salaries are incredibly low, particularly in relationship to the number of years that most of us spend in grad school

    So quit. Come get a job here in the real world if it sucks so bad in academia. I’ve never had a contract, I don’t get raises, I’ve never had more than 2 weeks off in any given year and I pay 100% of all my health insurance and have no pension or 401k.

    So come. Quit. I dare you. If it sucks so bad put your money where your mouth is and join the private sector (the *real* private sector).

    Yeah, I didn’t think so. My tax dollars go to provide you with thins I don’t even get for myself.

    • Uh… what sort of employment is that?! You sound like a bit of a loser.

      Seriously, though, I think you miss Jeana’s point. It’s not about the relative merits of public vs. private sector employment, but about the accusation that academics are living high off the hog (and producing garbage) at the expense of taxpayers and/or their students. First of all, not all research is bad. Second, some of us work at private institutions that don’t get much in the way of government support. And even at public institutions, very few professors enjoy the sort of civil-servant benefits that are bankrupting states and municipalities across this country (inflated salaries, defined-benefit pensions that kick in after 20 years, infinitely bankable sick days, cheesy ways of bumping up your salary in your last year so that your pension is even larger, etc.)

      As I said above, administrators, not professors, are far more to blame for the current costs of higher education.

  11. Largely unfair and inaccurate? First, junkets are probably more common in private industry than in non-profits. Second, colleges do not routinely pay for international travel as far as I know. Third, in my experience, conference presentations do not weigh much in tenure decisions, and, in any case, many institutions count teaching before research in making those decisions. It’s true that there are sometimes conference proceedings that come out of conference attendance but a) this has not been true of even one of the twenty or so I have attended in my career; b) that kind of publication does not advance a career in the way that publication in peer-reviewed journals does.

    I have worked at four places now, big and small, elite, and non-elite; I rarely agree with my colleagues about much, but I have never been at a place where the faculty was not working very hard, often for modest pay.

  12. I suspect the author, unlike the first commenter, isn’t pushing the party line or isn’t in a studies department. He’s dead on. There are tons of useless conferences out there and even the good ones always seem to pick vacation stops. How many conferences get held in North Dakota?

  13. I am a humanities department chair at a mid range state university. I wish we could support our faculty more in presenting research– I have seen a lot of teaching and research progress grow out of conferences I went to, usually at least in part paid for on my own dime, often in places like Madison or Charlotte… The raises for rank boosts ( which best case scenario come twice a career) are 2500 and 4500 at my institution (if a pay freeze isn’t in effect). In 5 of my 10 years at the place, there have been no raises at all, and 2or 3 years have featured bans on travel to save money ( which actually chokes off the normal way in which ideas in my field develop, through conference presentations and interactions). Maybe some fields and some institutions are different; I hope so for the sake of scholarship. For what it is worth, you better care about teaching at my institution if you want promotion/tenure…

  14. @Jeana-

    Not sure if you read the post or if it has been edited since, but Mark indicates he is an academic at UM-Flint, which may be the Harvard of central Michigan, but doesn’t appear on most lists of Ivy League schools.

    I didn’t catch a lot of animosity towards venues for peer feedback and panel discussions, it seems like he was trying to point out that hosting these events in tourist destinations probably doesn’t do much to stretch tuition revenues further at colleges.

    Why would a tight publishing market require a conference in the Virgin Islands and inviting researchers in psychology, IT, and economics?

  15. Jeana is obviously wrong about Ivy League schools but right about everything else. At my school, we can go to ONE national conference per year, and if the conference is on the other side of the country, the allotment won’t come close to covering all the expenses. I can afford to bring my students if the conference is on the same side of the country as I am. International travel? The dean would laugh. Maybe–maybe–the school would chip in if I were an invited participant partially subsidized by the conference, but I’m not sure. If I had a grant, that would help pay, but I don’t, and as it stands I’m not drawing very much on tuition or taxpayer dollars.

    Sure, those scams exist, particularly in the fields of business and finance (no surprise there), but the vast majority of my colleagues throw those ads in the garbage.

  16. I am at a medium size private school in the Northeast. I’m in the School of Business and we generally get $2,000 a year for conferences. Usually, that is enough for me to do two conferences. If it isn’t then I can always appeal to the dean for additional funding. All travel funds are contingent on presenting papers.

    Some conferences are really worthwhile and help me with research and teaching ideas. However, there are some that look like pure junk such as the author describes. I won’t go to these because I don’t want to be associated with them.

  17. This piece is full of largely uninformed generalizations, and most of my objections have already been raised by others, so I add just this: As a full-time, tenured faculty member at a private college, I am allowed one and maybe two meetings a year, at which I must participate in a panel or round table in order to get any (always insufficient) funding. The meetings I attend are never in exotic locales, rather exciting venues such as Rochester, or, yes, Buffalo (really), or maybe even Louisville or Philly. What the author is complaining about is an obvious scam, but definitely not the rule for myself or for others I know who attend professional conferences to network, share research, and find out what our colleagues are working on. Moreover, conference papers don’t count for much in promotion or tenure considerations at my college. Teaching is a strong #1, followed by service and publications.

  18. I used to work as an admin assistant for a department chair, and while he barely had time to go to many conferences, there was some he was roped into attending, including one Angora does Reid, Brazil. And yes, it was an academic conference, and no, he was not really keen on attending it. I always thought Keystone was a scam–it’s more about skiing and hot-tubbing than about science.

    My impression about academic conferences is that as a whole, a university has certain funding it will reimburse, but then departments may add more money to the pot. Departments with not much money, don’t add anything to the pot. The poorer (in terms of money) disciplines (classics, for example) usually involve acadmic organizations run by volunteers, with possibly a poorly paid administrative assistant and their conferences are the ones held at college campuses, with dorm accomodations. And generally offer no additionally funding to pull in the big fish academics. The bigger money fields (human genetics, for example) get lots of grants, but also have big money pharmaceuticals companies sweetening the pot–looking for opportunities for collaboration, or maybe poaching talent. There is where you’re more likely to get conferences in exotic locales… And they are more likely to give Presitigious U.’s Department O’ Science a grant to cover conference attendance.

    My former boss was usually an invited speaker at the academic conference and his ticket and accommodations were paid for. (I guess once your a department chair in a big bucks department at a prestigious school, you’re pretty well set.) But someone has to pay for it, and it’s usually the assistant and associate professors and grad students, and adjuncts (desperately seeking a tenure track job) that will shell out their own money (over and above the $700 university allowance) to get there.

    And they are a scam, these ones that are ill-affordable in exotic locals. They prey on the desperate. Because they know there are a lot of academics who need to fill out that CV.

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