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Academic travel is expensive, but academic isolation is more so.

Pamela Gay has a good piece in Medium about the unacknowledged costs of academic travel, particularly for early-career academics. She notes, correctly, that the lag between spending and receiving reimbursement amounts to an interest-free loan from the employee to the college; that may not matter much for folks with salaries high enough to pay off the credit cards in full each month, but for everyone else, it’s a real cost. Tips and incidental expenses often go unreimbursed, because they’re unrecognized or hard to prove. (How do you prove that you left a few bucks for the housekeeping staff?) Many flights and hotels charge extra for wi-fi, but that’s not always a reimbursable cost. And for folks in the early faculty years, even appropriate conference dress may be an extra expense, but it’s assumed to be the responsibility of the traveler.

In my experience, graduate school was when the travel issues were the worst. We were given something like a $200 per year cap on travel reimbursement. This was the 90’s, not the 50’s, so $200 didn’t go far even then. Even with shared rooms, grad student registration discounts, and the cheapest travel methods I could find, I took a significant loss every year. Then I’d see full professors at the conference going out to reimbursed dinners and, well, let’s just say I noticed who looked out for grad students and who didn’t. Some of the ones who proclaimed their commitments to social justice the loudest were the most selfish. I’ll withhold names to protect the guilty.  

Grad school was at a research university, so at least travel funding existed.  In the community college world, travel funding tends to be scarcer. Part of that is a relative paucity of grants, but most of it is a combination of a lack of a publication requirement, a lack of money, and a sense that travel is a “soft” budget line and therefore easy to cut. And in the very short term, it is.

But having seen the effects of a long-term underfunding of travel, I can attest that the cost of information missed and connections not made is cumulative. After a while, people don’t know what they don’t know. Too much time in a local bubble leads to a lack of a comparative perspective, and a tendency to conflate the way things have been with the way they must be.

You’d think that wouldn’t happen. Academics’ defining trait, as a breed, is supposed to be intelligent curiosity. This is a group of people -- among whom I proudly count myself -- who pursued lines of inquiry much farther than prudence would have dictated. The single strongest argument for tenure is that it’s supposed to create the security from which to pursue truth in whatever direction it goes. Presumably, that would sometimes involve looking in other places and talking to other people.

I echo Pamela Gay’s sense that we need to update some of the processes by which we allocate travel funding, such as thinking to include wifi as an expense.  I’m also a fan of the “per diem,” as opposed to itemized meals; it covers tips, and it lets people allocate meals as they see fit. A previous college had a strict rule about caps for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; I never saw the point of that. Give me a daily cap, and if I choose a more ambitious lunch and a cheaper dinner, well, who cares? But these are small things.

The broader point is that we need, as a sector, to start to confront the long-term costs of discouraging travel. Why do innovations move so slowly across the sector?  In part, because there may only be one or two people on a given campus who have ever heard of them. In a setting of shared governance, the “nah” contingent can wield considerable power. Without a critical mass of people who have seen other things, the only common reference point is the local past. That’s limiting, at best, and often self-defeating. Teleconferences are great, but they work best as followups.  Without actually seeing what other people are doing, and the assumptions they take for granted as they do them, it’s easy to default to “that’s how we’ve always done it.” 

There will be times when individual people can’t travel much; when the kids were in preschool, I kept travel to a minimum. But when entire colleges keep it to a minimum, they cut down the future to the size of the present. That should be the last thing academics should do.

So yes, by all means, let’s reform the processes for travel costs to make them fairer and more relevant. But at a deeper level, especially for community colleges and teaching-intensive institutions, let’s stop pretending that travel is for Other People. If we don’t get out of our own bubbles, we’ll keep making the same mistakes over and over again.


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