Deborah Avant, ISA President; Kristian S. Gleditsch, ISA Past President; Laura J. Shepherd, ISA President-Elect; Mark A. Boyer, ISA Executive Director posted on May 11, 2022 08:47
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been much discussion, positive and negative, about the viability of, and prospects for, virtual participation at the ISA annual convention. We have all participated in many different virtual events the past two years – some small, some large (like the April 2021 ISA annual convention), and many in-between. As a result, we have learned a great deal about what works and what doesn’t. Now as we look to the future, we hope to put that knowledge to work for the ISA membership, within the constraints of time, personnel, and funding.
In the interests of transparency and good communication across the organization, and with apologies for the lengthy correspondence, we write to you now to lay out what we know about virtual programming, how it applies to ISA, and why the decision was made that ISA 2023 in Montreal will be an in-person-only event.
- For clarity, we assume that there are essentially three options in convention delivery: fully in-person; fully online; and hybrid. Hybrid, however, means many different things to different people: to some, it means full virtual access to every panel at the annual convention; to others, it means purely virtual options for presentation during the convention; and to others still, it means using an iPhone to bring a colleague into a session on audio or video. These differences make the discussion challenging to navigate. We will refer to the idea of full virtual access to every panel at an in-person conference as “hybrid” and to the idea of having in-person and virtual programming separate but part of the same conference as “parallel”.
- For hybrid conferences, as defined above, full virtual access at the convention site does little to solve connectivity issues among people dialing in. Most of us have experienced many such issues the past two years ourselves or with a colleague trying to get access to a virtual event of some sort. Thus, investing in the necessary technology at the conference site (discussed below) at best solves half the access problem.
- On the matter of cost, broadband internet access at convention sites (with the requisite technical support) starts at $500,000 for a convention week and goes up from there depending on the specifics of the contract. This is the minimum necessary to sustain the number of panels requiring simultaneous high-speed internet access that our convention demands. This cost would have to be passed onto members through higher registration fees for attendees. That average additional per person cost on registration would start at about $100 and go up from there, assuming 2022 prices do not increase next year and beyond.
- A further cost factor pertains to staffing. The past two years have stretched the small ISA HQ staff and the volunteer program chairs and their teams to breaking point, as we started in-person (2021), moved to virtual; then moved to parallel for 2022 and made major changes to the format twice during the year to accommodate the pandemic’s ebb and flow. These unavoidable administrative stressors are not sustainable and are the primary driver of separate modes of participation in the absence of a significant influx of staff support at ISA HQ. Managing the demands of parallel programming for the foreseeable future would require recruitment of at least 4 additional staff members at HQ, with the attendant salary costs representing a sizable increase in the annual operating budget that the organization cannot easily absorb, especially in the short-term. Coping with work volume doesn’t even grapple with the logistical difficulties for participants and organizers of hosting virtual and in-person options side-by-side as we did this year.
- As mentioned, we have all participated in virtual and hybrid events over the past two years hosted by other organizations. While it might seem logical to make comparisons across familiar organizations, these comparisons generally don’t grapple with issues of organizational or event comparability. In many respects, small groups, like ISA’s regions, are more nimble in what they can do because of their size. Other professional associations have large endowments, or charge much higher registration fees and member dues, or both, providing significant financial resources to support valuable but costly opportunities for interaction. The ISA does not hold significant funds in reserve beyond the annual operating budget and a small emergency fund, and the annual convention is not a profit-making enterprise (in fact the ISA lost money on the convention in Nashville, as well as the two previous in-person conventions).
- Related to this last point and as it pertains directly to ISA, we continue to rank amongst our peers as one of the most inexpensive professional associations both in terms of dues and registration fees. Any change to convention delivery will result in quite dramatic increases in membership dues and registration fees, which for the sake of inclusivity we have consistently tried to avoid.
- On the theme of inclusivity, we have been told repeatedly over the past two years by many colleagues around the world that their universities will not support travel costs when virtual options are offered. As a result, providing virtual options risks directly excluding those people from in-person scholarly interactions.
- For the foreseeable future, the ISA annual meeting will remain in North America. The rationale for this can be found in the good work of an ad hoc committee that concluded their work in 2019. Their work can be read at https://www.isanet.org/ISA/Governance/Committees/Annual-Meeting-Siting. Moreover, to enable forward planning, including negotiating hotel and siting rates that allow us to keep registration fees low for members, we are committed already to convention contracts through to 2030. Withdrawing from any of these contracts will likely cause significant financial challenges to the organization from which we may not recover.
- ISA will continue to support meetings in different global regions sponsored by our regions, sections, or caucuses as well as summer conferences outside of North America most often run directly by ISA HQ. Both the Latin America and the Caribbean Region and the Asia Pacific Region will host conferences in the relatively near future and we expect the summer conferences to resume in 2023.
With these issues in mind, ISA leadership is engaged in a planning process with the Long-Range Planning Committee (LRPC) to map out a range of in-person and virtual opportunities, but not many “mixed” ones for the coming years. Ultimately, we hope to arrive at solutions that offer the opportunity for nourishing scholarly engagement in a variety of formats for all our members throughout the year. The LRPC plans to survey the membership in the near future, so please watch for that opportunity to provide your ideas and input.
In addition, as that planning process moves forward, ISA will be launching a range of virtual events and opportunities during the next year. They include:
- Offering the Sapphire Series that typically occurs during the annual meeting in a virtual environment during fall 2022 and winter 2023. These sessions will highlight, and speak to, the Montreal program theme directly.
- Developing ISA Research Collaboratives, which will provide opportunities for research exchange and feedback in a virtual setting throughout the year. A call for this program will go out in early summer 2022 and the first Collaborative will be held in fall 2022, especially targeting opportunities for those least likely to travel to the annual convention. We encourage efforts that connect with the theme and/or panels tied to the Montreal annual meeting.
- On-going virtual programs, with input from the Sections, Caucuses and Regions. A sample of some of those recent offering can be found at https://www.isanet.org/Professional-Resources/Virtual-Programming-and-Events. If you have ideas for an event, please reach out to our Director of Professional Development, Sarah Dorr (email@example.com), and our Virtual Engagement Specialist, Mary Hartford (firstname.lastname@example.org), with your plans and questions. We also encourage efforts that connect with the theme and/or panels at the annual meeting here.
The ISA leadership team is deeply committed to inclusivity and equality of opportunity and access for all its constituencies, and will continue to work diligently, thoughtfully, and creatively to evaluate an array of options that copes with the myriad constraints—technical, health, financial and more—that frame decisions made by the Association in our efforts to serve all our members as best we can.
We look forward to continuing to hear your ideas. Please feel free to reach out to members of the ISA Executive Committee (EC; https://www.isanet.org/ISA/Governance/ExComm), the Long Range Planning Committee (LRPC; https://www.isanet.org/ISA/Governance/Committees/Long-Range-Planning) and anyone else in leadership. You can email any and all at email@example.com and the messages will be forwarded to the appropriate person(s), if need be.
On Behalf of the Entire ISA Executive Committee,
Deborah Avant, ISA President
Kristian S. Gleditsch, ISA Past President
Laura J. Shepherd, ISA President-Elect
Mark A. Boyer, ISA Executive Director