Multiplication and Values

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Seventy people at a conference, each sent by their home college to build a team and bring home an action plan.

  • 70 airfares at, let’s say, $400 — $28,000
  • 70 two-night stays at an expensive business hotel, $250 a night — $35,000
  • 70 people with meals out, not including those provided by the conference (say $50) — $3,500
  • 70 conference registrations at $630 — $44,100

So, being conservative, this conference has collectively cost the higher education community one associate professor’s salary and benefits at a good school, a total of  $110,600. And this is a small conference, one of dozens and dozens that every school sponsors every year.

I believe in what this conference promotes; that’s why I’m helping to facilitate it. But professional organizations and their conferences and their annual membership fees have proliferated in recent decades, at a collective cost of well into the billions of dollars. Really, that’s not an exaggeration. The organization that sponsors this conference collectively has, rather than the 70 attendees of this one conference, probably more like a thousand; that’s a million and a half dollars allocated just to this one organization’s work. And again, it’s intelligent and helpful work. But it’s money consciously spent on something other than direct student contact.

And the sheer number of higher ed organizations… it’s a blizzard of acronyms. NACUBO, NAICU, CCCC, AAUP, ACE, SHEEO… Pick any four or five Scrabble tiles and you can organize them into an existing higher ed professional community (It helps if you spot yourself an A for Association, and dump the Q and the Z, but even without that handicap, you’ll get something).

There’s a management aphorism that goes something like, “If you want to see an organization’s values, look at its budget.” We spend enough just on professional development (of radically mixed quality) for existing members of the community that we could easily welcome thousands of new members into that community as full tenure-track participants. So whenever you hear someone say that we’d like to pay adjuncts better, or hire another faculty member, “but we just can’t afford it,” the answer has to be understood in the context of what that institution believes that it can, and should, afford.