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An invitation to yet another conference or annual meeting has landed in your email inbox—something that’s occurring more than ever these days, as most such events have been returning to hybrid or in-person status. Are you choosing to delete it too quickly? Before you make a final decision, give it a second look.

When counseling higher education leaders, we recognize that the flow of invitations is constant. The emails, texts and occasional print invitations—along with plenty of reminders—elicit excitement and evaluation. What to do? Here is our list of frequently asked questions from campus leaders:

  • Will this be a productive and cost-effective use of my time?
  • What are the trade-offs if I attend this and not another event?
  • How could I combine this travel with visits with stakeholders: alums, donors, legislators, prospective students or families?
  • Does the meeting agenda include sessions of value to my institution, to me as a leader and to me on a personal level?
  • Who else is attending?
  • How might my institution best be represented at the event?
  • What about a speaking role for me?
  • Should I attend via the virtual or in-person option, if both options are offered?
  • Will any me time be possible, to exhale and grab a slice of joy when I travel?

We weigh these and other questions with campus leaders throughout the year and they all warrant consideration. Assuming the timing works and budgets and health conditions allow, you may be considering invitations to national or chapter meetings hosted by the alphabet soup of membership organizations such as the AAU, AAC&U, ACE, APLU, CIC, HACU, NAFEO or NAICU, to name a few. Sessions organized via the AMA, NACAC, NACUBO, NADOHE, NAFSA or PRSA CHE offer opportunities for those who lead the campus marketing, enrollment, finance, diversity, international education or communications operations, respectively. Combined with your international, state, local, sector and athletic conference meetings—as well as other affinity groups to which leaders may belong—your professional life could easily be all meetings all the time. We hear you.

Crowded schedules aside, coming together in community is powerful. Consider the example of leaders of colleges and universities in Massachusetts. They met often (virtually) during the pandemic and determined how to partner on fast, affordable COVID testing with the Broad Institute, a collaboration that stretched to 100 New England colleges. The leaders of Virginia’s 39 public colleges and universities meet regularly as the Virginia Council of Presidents, and they advise one another often on matters both pressing and longer term—from student mental health to publicly resolving to uphold free expression at their institutions. Members of the Presidents Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration gather to promote public understanding and advocate for bipartisan legislation. At the annual meeting of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, leaders learn how to effectively advocate among legislators as higher education faces stiff headwinds and calls for greater scrutiny.

My colleagues and I have attended several annual meetings with presidents, provosts and deans over the past several months. We checked in often to ask whether attendees found the meetings worthwhile. To a person and from what we observed in formal and informal sessions, themes emerged. (And, of course, it’s not really about the free tote bags or endless supply of snacks.)

First, leaders stressed the importance of sharing information, including on federal policy and student mental health. After all, nimble leadership means a mind that is constantly open to learning. We’re confident that you’ll find ideas to share with your colleagues back home.

Second, these leaders noted that alliances and partnerships form or strengthen. They learn of each other’s interests and unite, whether it’s regarding effective approaches to racial equity, reinvigorating the liberal arts or the latest trends in project-based education.

Third, op-ed and research ideas can hatch. There’s also the balm of commiseration when connecting with people who hold similar roles and can identify with your challenges. Who better than those who can relate to the fishbowl life that leaders typically experience or how to respond to alums who may think the institution is moving in the wrong direction?

When we keep an open mind, we gain perspective. We walk away inspired. Finally, leaders who attended these meetings repeatedly stressed to us the value of friendship. These opportunities are, after all, collegial. We find that those who have chosen to lead colleges and universities believe in elevating ideas and celebrating examples of progress. A well-planned conference offers the chance to do exactly that.

Whether you attend gatherings hosted by professional organizations each year or every two or three years, in person or online, do add them to your calendar. Do it for you, for your institution and for other leaders who will benefit from your ideas and your presence. Coming together can feed the mind and soul.

Maggy Ralbovsky is president and managing director of the RW Jones Agency, a full-service strategic communications firm.

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