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.