by Michael R. Ford:
Several years ago I attended an academic conference in Florida. It was a Friday to Monday conference and I presented on a Sunday. I flew down Saturday, presented Sunday, and flew home. It was a typical conference experience for me as a junior tenure-track scholar trying to build a record. In other words, it was nothing remarkable. What I did find remarkable was a critique I received from a senior scholar who attended the conference. He told me, bluntly, that I was behaving like an invited speaker, and that I had not yet earned that right.
I was taken aback. I had chosen this conference specifically because it was a weekend and afforded me the opportunity to actually go and present. Why? I have two school-aged children and my spouse works full-time. I get the kids ready in the morning, I feed them, and I get them to school. My spouse’s schedule is a bit unpredictable, so I need to be available to pick them up from afterschool care as well. At the time of this conference I was actually taking a friend’s child to school as well because their family had similar childcare challenges. For busy parents, being able to attend any conference is a major logistical challenge. My “behavior” was not arrogance, it was me making it work.
My family’s scheduling challenges are not unique. People in and outside of academia deal with similar challenges all the time. But for some reason we seem to lag behind in making our profession accommodating for those with young children. Conference presentations are essential to an academic career. It is hard enough with tight travel budgets for many of us to make it work. The last thing we need are senior scholars thinking that having family responsibilities somehow means we are not dedicated to our career.
As the president of the Midwest Public Affairs Conference (MPAC) I am committed to making our conference as accommodating as possible. The obvious first step is working to provide on-site child care. This can be difficult to arrange, and of course comes with a significant monetary cost. Funding childcare also means less money for stuff (bags, giveaways, fancy meals, etc). A second step is selecting locations that are easily drivable or accessible by train from Midwestern universities. That means our locations may be less accessible to those outside of the Midwest, and perhaps not as exciting (at least on the surface) as popular national conference destinations. But even with childcare at the conference I am not buying three plane tickets for me to present one paper! A third step is creating family friendly receptions that are not too late at night, and not centered around alcohol.
But perhaps the biggest thing I can do for MPAC (and we can do as a profession) is to normalize the idea of kids and families being part of the conference experience. Specific gestures matter, but a culture that embraces the reality that academics have family responsibilities, is something that will have a lasting impact. To change the culture all of us must be mindful of our own behavior and expectations regarding conferences. I know everyone will not be happy. If I have learned one thing running a conference, it is that at least some people will be critical of every decision you make. I get it. Some people want the flashy location, want the stuff, want the fancy meals, and do not want kids around. That is fine. But I am committed to carving out a space for those of us who need something different.
About the author:
Michael R. Ford is an associate professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He frequently publishes on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. He currently serves as the president of the Midwest Public Affairs Conference.