Like many professors at this time of year, we are receiving calls for academic papers to be presented at conferences of our main associations. Papers, along with the publishable manuscripts that often emanate out of them, usually are weighted significantly both in annual reviews and promotion and tenure processes.
So it surprises us that often many academic units do not invest adequately in professional development, paying for travel and expenses for faculty members to attend conferences and partake in activities that benefit individuals as well as institutions.
Conference offerings keep professors on track -- especially if they are on the tenure track. Sessions cover influential new books, exciting scholarly breakthroughs, and hot-button topics ranging from assessment to free speech zones. Also, the more paper acceptances and presentations that a department or school enjoys at conferences, the more prestigious that unit will seem to others. That plays a role in recruitment and retention of future and current colleagues.
A record of presentations by a particular department or school also may have assessment or re-accreditation value. There are service opportunities for professors who become chairs of divisions where they can build or enhance their national reputations. Also, faculty members who win election to serve on standing or executive committees elevate their programs and institutions yet again.
As senior scholars who are active in our associations and who realize the benefits of that in annual reviews and P&T processes, we have consulted with peers to develop a “bill of rights” to safeguard and enhance professional development funds (assuming, of course, you have them).
Rights and Responsibilities
All ranks of professors -- including adjuncts -- deserve professional development. However, it is imperative if you are on tenure track. Along with mentoring (often done by continuing faculty members for little or no reimbursement), your unit should set aside research funds necessary to place papers in conferences and later get them published in journals or books. Tenure decisions can be harsh or even fickle; standards can be high; and your career -- dare we say, life -- can be put on hold during the typical six-year process.
You deserve professional development.
True, tenure may represent an institutional multi-million-dollar investment in a professor. The question is, how has the unit invested in an assistant professor before that tenure decision is made and then afterward through promotion to professor? Moreover, with many institutions mandating post-tenure reviews, professional development is important even at the highest levels to maintain national reputations or innovative research. And finally, conference participation can be as much about teaching or pedagogy as research, with everything from panel presentations to poster and discussant opportunities. In other words, professional development is important in the small teaching college as well as the large public research university.
As such, we have conceived this bill of rights:
1. Pre-tenured professors should enjoy reduced teaching and/or service responsibilities.
2. Pre-tenured professors should receive additional, tangible incentives -- fewer advisees or summer research stipends.
3. All ranks of professors should have access to research assistants if your program has graduate students.
4. All ranks should have a teaching schedule that allows at least one free day per week so that you can do research.
5. You should have a somewhat flexible professional development fund, not only enabling you to travel to a conference but also to pay membership dues in at least one flagship association related to your discipline.
6. Your professional development fund should be at least $1,000 annually.
7. You should have access to an administrative or a faculty committee to approve funds in excess of that amount for exceptional accomplishments -- top paper acceptances or outstanding book awards., necessitating more travel or extended hotel stays.
8. You should receive additional funds if you are a chair or vice chair of a division in your major association, enabling you to attend mid-winter or plenary sessions.
9. You should receive additional funds or release time if elected to national office.
10. You should receive recognition in annual reviews, newsletters and departmental communiqués for your association-related accomplishments, providing official documentation for annual review and P&T purposes.
With all rights come responsibilities. Keep in mind that documentation can go against you in personnel reviews and decisions. If your research and publication records are mediocre when you have been given graduate assistants and reduced course, service and advising loads, your department chair and colleagues will have ample proof that the investment was squandered.
In other words, you are expected to perform.
Focus your efforts on one or two major associations in your discipline, attending conferences relevant to your research or teaching. You are expected to practice fiscal restraint. Do not pad expenses for meals or insist that conference tours to historic sites in host cities are part of your research protocol. You should come prepared to present at conferences without visiting the hotel’s business offices for extra copying or other clerical and computer chores. Concerning Internet, conferences often provide free wireless access or computer banks for you to e-mail colleagues, family and friends. So there usually is no need to pay expensive hotel room rates for Web access.
It goes without saying that bad conference behavior is legendary in academe. We have witnessed or heard about colleagues who were drunk, rude, solicitous and even harassing at conventions. If you are spending your department’s money, you had better behave appropriately, not only at your designated session, but also while in public (and private, too).
Neither should you attend conferences to scout for other jobs. Colleagues may hear first- or second-hand about your ambitions, and that can jeopardize rather than enhance future funding. You may think that you can fool a colleague about why you are at the meeting, but experienced colleagues easily can discern job-hunters from attendees -- sometimes by way of attire, sometimes by the company they keep.
General rule: If you use professional development funds, act professionally. Set a good example because the conference grapevine is digital and global. In fact, the best way to be recruited or to impress influential scholars and editors is by presenting stellar research at your session and interacting appropriately with others during your entire stay.
Billing Your Bill of Rights
At the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University, each professor gets a $2,500 professional development account to use for travel, membership and participation. If the researcher requires more funds for significant projects, we bring the matter to our executive committee, which can recommend enhancements. We pay extra for conference memberships for faculty serving as association officers. We invest in conferences because there is no better return on the dollar to retain and recruit faculty.
By and large, this perception is shared. In an informal survey of deans across the country we found good investment in professional development. At the journalism program at California State University at Long Beach, new faculty members receive $2,000 per year in travel/conference/research support. Additional funds can be -- and frequently are -- obtained from elsewhere on campus. We saw the same pattern at Arkansas State University, where the College of Communication finances at least one and sometimes two or more trips to scholarly conference per year for all faculty. Our colleagues at Syracuse University receive $2,500 for every faculty member (junior and senior) to use for travel, and if a faculty member can make a good case -- and funds are available -- he or she can receive more.
The University of Missouri School of Journalism provides $500 per faculty member per year for travel. Those who present at more than one conference routinely apply for and receive additional funding. Many administrators consider funding to attend conferences part of a total package to attract and retain faculty. Shirley Staples Carter, director of the journalism program at the University of South Carolina, says that, in addition to funding travel to regional and national meetings, her college also provides reduced course loads during the first semester to complete conference papers or journal submissions, a summer research stipend and a faculty research mentor.
We also know of departments that invest as little as $200 per person for travel and conference attendance, and a few that invest nothing at all. (We’ll spare those units the embarrassment of disclosure.) However, we’ll be eager to check the comments sections below this article to get a feel from Inside Higher Ed readers about how widespread inadequate funding actually is across disciplines and institutions.
A goal of this article is to counter oft-heard excuses for insufficient funding and to make suggestions on how to remedy that.
Making a Commitment
Of course we realize that budgets are tight and may continue to be so for years to come. But there are steps that every department can take to ensure adequate funding for conference attendance and participation.
The first step is making a commitment to professional development. That can occur informally with your chair or dean or formally in a faculty meeting through a resolution.
Making this a priority is one thing. Financing it is another.
Unit heads who repeatedly state that they lack funding might also be less than transparent on how the budget is being allocated. Some chairs may be top scholars and poor fiscal planners. Situations will vary from department to department, of course, and what one person may deem frivolous (alumni receptions, say) another may deem vital. Concerning budget, sometimes professors themselves are to blame in that they increasingly add to the curricula to teach pet or low-enrolled courses, requiring ever more adjuncts to teach large or required courses, wasting supplemental budgets that otherwise can be used for professional development.
Chairs also can commit to the cause by creating a “faculty excellence” or “research fund” for the express purpose of professional development, soliciting support of benefactors. Unit heads also can raise funds externally for speakers, student organizations and/or other in-house events, re-dedicating funds previously set aside for those functions to professional development.
Professors also should investigate institutional research incentives. Iowa State University and the University of Missouri have programs to help fund research-oriented international travel, for instance. There are also programs for matching funds associated with initiatives identified by deans of colleges.
And it goes without saying, especially at research universities, that grant acquisition not only can fund conference-related research but also the graduate assistants necessary for top papers and eventual peer-reviewed publication.
Finally, chairs and professors should keep detailed records to provide documentation for annual review and P&T purposes and to showcase the value of conference attendance and participation, using that data for assessment purposes.
If the outcomes are impressive over time, everyone from students to benefactors will see the value of the investment. Professors will augment lectures with cutting-edge research. Department chairs will be able to fund-raise more effectively and increase budgets, recruiting new faculty to your program and retaining your most accomplished colleagues.