Is This Trip Really Necessary?

If academics want to take global warming seriously, they can start by considering how much they travel, write Joyce Appleby and Nikki Keddie.

November 26, 2007

The World War II slogan, “Is this trip necessary?,”, should be revived for all Americans now that we know the disastrous effects of air travel on global warming. Just as patriotic Americans then cut back on unnecessary trips, so should we now limit ours.

Such a commitment should come from nearly all organizations and individuals, but would be especially appropriate for American colleges and universities because they have produced much of the research demonstrating the threat posed by global warming. Yet colleges and universities contribute significantly to the burden of travel with their conference-going, yearly recruitment, and fund-raising activities.

Of course, other professions and individuals contribute to the problem, but we'll concentrate on our own institutions, colleges and universities. Some have cut back on power use, but they have not acted on the larger question of subsidized travel for administrators and faculty members.

It's probably news to most people that many scholars and administrators fly back and forth across the continent and around the globe about as frequently as movie stars. The number of conferences bringing together historians, biologists, physicists and their peers on a regular basis is staggering.

Every discipline and many sub-disciplines have national associations -- many of them also have regional and international associations that gather their members at least once a year. The number of such associations and the size of their conventions keeps growing. Though the conventions of major associations do some important business, especially in job-hunting, the meetings are far larger and more numerous than this business requires.

Even more airplane miles are logged by the thousands of scholars who pack up their bags every semester, board a plane, and fly 3,000 miles to speak on another campus for an hour or two to audiences of 20-40 people. Just a peek at the mass of flyers announcing this week’s lectures, workshops, and conferences on the bulletin board of any sizeable university will give a quick picture of the extent of this travel.

At our university, like many others, the number of centers and institutes that sponsor talks and conferences keeps getting larger. Our interdisicplinary centers, for example, now cover the whole world, past and present, as well as numerous scientific, cultural, and social topics. Such centers sponsor so many speakers, workshops, and conferences that even those interested must miss most of them if they want to get their own work done.

And then there is recruitment. In any given year, a university with over 10,000 students conducts searches for dozens of openings in the faculty and administration. Each search usually involves the travel of three or four candidates, even when search committees already know which candidate they prefer. Multiply that by the number of hiring campuses, and the number of trips is significant. It would make more sense to bring out just one or two top candidates, and only bring others if these don’t work out.

Funding conferences, annual meetings, and job searches of course takes money -- which sends deans and presidents across the continent to raise it. With alumni scattered across the globe, a fair amount of that fund-raising now involves international flights. Administrators also fund numerous meetings, retreats, and other forms of travel.

The foundations, individuals, and institutions that support universities often encourage these activities, sometimes even earmarking gifts that promote travel. Instead, all funders should develop acceptable alternatives to this aerial globe-trotting. They could focus on instruction in crucial areas or local problems, and could make far better use of the Internet for teleconferencing and public lectures.

The universities that alerted us to global warming could now take a step toward solving the problem they’ve identified. They can pledge to find ways to limit travel. All groups -- students, faculty, staff, administrators, and fund raisers -- should be involved in reducing trips for themselves and others on campus. Sometimes it takes a big solution to solve even a small problem, but decreasing global warming will take thousands of small steps -- from all of us.

Visiting lecturers, conferences, recruitment, and fund-raising may seem like the elixir of scholarly life, but with a little imagination university travel could be cut by a third or more. The Web offers a wonderful alternative to face-to-face conferences. Papers and comments could be easily posted with questions and answer covered in text-messaging. Individual lectures could be beamed from home campuses to auditoriums across the country. Participants could instantly send in questions. Other meetings could use teleconferencing.

The switch would not be hard. These are all means of communicating that the graduate students moving on to faculties are most familiar with. Universities could transfer money now used for travel to set up the equipment and instructions for these new programs. Some of the financial and career rewards given to faculty and administrators who amass travel invitations could be transferred to those who innovate to tackle global warming.

We are not suggesting a moratorium on necessary travel. Such travel includes trips to archives and on-site problems, travel to interview or observe individuals and groups being researched, or to confer with scientists in a given field of current research. Having a limited number of conferences and talks contributes to knowledge, and some job interviews are necessary. Our point is that there are far too many of these and that they continue to increase. They could be significantly reduced without loss and with some gain to the basic instructional purpose of colleges and universities. This would take serious commitment and new policies at all levels -- administration, faculty, and student.

We look to universities for intellectual and moral leadership. Here’s a great way to keep up that reputation.

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Joyce Appleby and Nikki Keddie are emerita professors of history at the University of California at Los Angeles.


Joyce Appleby

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