Academic professional conferences: targeted for extinction as we know them?
In recent years, attendance at academic professional meetings has, for the most part, declined. Given that the benefits of attendance are usually substantial, this paper seeks to identify some causes of the decline in attendance and discusses some logistical issues related to organizing and attending professional meetings. The paper concludes with some recommendations for those who may plan academic conferences in the future and discusses an alternative to actual conference attendance which seems to be growing in popularity--the "virtual conference."
Professional meetings provide an opportunity for social interaction as well as the exchange of information within a profession. More specifically, they provide opportunities for networking, provide a setting conducive to idea sharing and to updating oneself on current research on topics of interest, and allow presenters to get feedback on their research prior to journal submission. (Cooper, Finney & Malone, 1998; Brookshire, 2001; Fischer & Zigmond, 1999). Based on anecdotal observations of a number of long-time attendees (at regional American Accounting Association meetings) and a review of attendance statistics maintained by the American Accounting Association (AAA), it appears that attendance at regional and national AAA meetings has been declining at a rate inconsistent with changes in membership numbers.
Given the benefits of attending such meetings, this paper provides the results of a survey which sought to identify factors influencing accounting educators' decisions to attend or not attend regional AAA meetings and presents recommendations to enhance the regional meeting. Additionally, issues such as conference scheduling and virtual conferencing are discussed.
Based on the results of a prior study (Cooper, Finney & Malone, 1998) and the prior beliefs/experiences of the authors, a questionnaire was developed to survey the views of accounting educators in the Southeast region of the AAA. For many years the Southeast region has had the largest membership of any region within the AAA and it retains that distinction (American Accounting Association, 1999). Questionnaires were mailed to 1,100 of the AAA members within the Southeast region. Surveys were completed and returned by 158 faculty members, for a response rate of 14.4%.
The typical respondent had been a faculty member for 15 years and a member of AAA for 15 years. Thirty percent of those responding (n = 152) were full professors, 38% associates, 28% assistants, and 4% were instructors. Seventy-six percent (n = 153) were CPAs. With regard to teaching, 62% of the respondents (n=149) taught "all or mostly undergraduate courses," 16% taught "all or mostly graduate courses," and 22% taught an equal mix of graduate and undergraduate courses. One hundred six respondents taught at AACSB accredited schools; of this group, 64 respondents were at schools that had separate accounting accreditation. Fourteen respondents were at ACBSP accredited schools. (It should be noted that not all respondents responded to all questions, thus the number of respondents to each question in the following discussion is shown parenthetically).
The survey instrument listed the years and locations for the eight Southeast regional meetings held from 1990 through 1997. Faculty members were asked to identify which, if any, of these meetings they had attended. Seventy-seven percent of the 158 respondents had attended at least one of these eight meetings. Additionally, 43 of the respondents indicated that during the 1990-1997 period they had attended one or more regional AAA meetings outside the Southeast region. Thus, it was concluded that the majority of respondents had attended the Southeast AAA in recent years and therefore possessed sufficient knowledge regarding the nature of the meetings to make valid comments about the meetings. It should be noted that seven of the 37 respondents who had not attended any of the eight Southeast regional meetings were among those attending other regional meetings.
As previously noted, part of the motivation for this study was the belief that attendance at regional AAA meetings has declined over time. The questionnaire asked faculty to compare their attendance at regional meetings in the 1980s to their attendance in the 1990s. Thirty percent (of n = 149) indicated that they had been a faculty member for too short a time to make the comparison. Of the seventy percent (n = 104) who could make the comparison, 45% attended less frequently, 41% about the same, and only 9% indicated they were attending more frequently. Thus nearly half of the respondents had decreased their frequency of attendance; and five times as many of the respondents had decreased the frequency of their attendance as those who increased their frequency. With regard to trends in the value of attending regional AAA meetings, faculty were asked to assess the current value to them personally of attending. Of respondents (n = 132) who could compare the value over time, approximately 39% of the respondents indicated the value of the regional meetings to them has declined over time, 56% indicated the value remained about the same, and only 5% indicated the value to them has increased.
The study sought to identify reasons why faculty attend a particular regional meeting. The survey instrument listed thirteen specific factors which the authors felt may influence the attendance decision. Most of the factors were similar to those used in a related study (Cooper, Finney & Malone, 1998). Respondents were also given the opportunity to add and identify "other" factors influencing their attendance decision. Faculty members were asked to select the five most important factors in their decision to attend a particular regional meeting. One hundred thirty-five faculty members completed this question and selected a mean of 4.7 factors. Only seven respondents listed any "other" factor. The geographical location of the meeting was clearly an important factor as it was selected by 83% of the respondents. Marsh (1989) identifies place, program, and presenters as critical items in planning for successful conferences. Presenting a paper (69%) and reimbursement of expenses (51%) were the only other factors identified by at least half of the respondents. It is interesting to note that only 30% of the respondents selected continuing professional education as one of their five most important factors despite the fact that 76% of the respondents were CPAs. The factors and their frequencies are reported in Table 1 below.
A second question of interest was the identification of factors that influence the decision not to attend a meeting. Consistent with the results of the question looking at the factors influencing attendance, geographic location of the meeting was the most frequently cited (63%) factor. Lack of funding and not being on the program were the other factors identified by more than fifty respondents. Since these results closely parallel those shown in Table 1, details are not presented here.
In a recent study by Backmon, Kiel & Malone (1999) that looked at the allocation of travel funds by accounting administrators, it was determined that at 21% of the participating schools, funds allocated to faculty travel for professional meetings has decreased in recent years. To determine the extent to which funding may affect attendance at regional AAA meetings, we asked faculty three questions. In the first question, respondents were asked to indicate the extent to which their travel and registration costs (to attend regional meetings) are typically reimbursed. As shown in Table 2 below, 78% of respondents indicated their expenses would be paid in full if they were a presenter, 49% if serving as a moderator or discussant, and only 29% indicated their expenses would be paid in full if they were not on the program. Over a third of the respondents indicated they would receive no funding if they were not on the program. These figures are very similar to those reported by in Backmon et. al. (1999) where 82% of the schools provided full funding for presenters, but only 41% provided full funding for moderators and discussants. This finding apparently is not discipline-specific, since a study by Wilkinson & Hemby (2000) surveyed members of the Organizational Systems Research Association (ORSA) and the Association for Business Communication (ABC) and reported similar findings.
Are the reimbursement practices different at the schools where the non-attendees (those who attended none of the eight Southeast meetings from 1990-1997) teach than at schools where attendees teach? It doesn't seem so. With regard to reimbursement for presenters, 70% of the non-attendees (n = 33) indicated their school would fully reimburse presenters, 27% indicated their school would partially reimburse presenters, and 3% indicated presenters would receive no reimbursement. The corresponding figures for those (n = 102) who had attended at least one meeting were 79% full reimbursement, 19% partial reimbursement, and 2% no reimbursement.
Faculty members were asked to indicate whether they were "always," "usually," "sometimes" or "never" on the program when they attended regional meetings. Thirty-one percent indicated they were always on the program (as a presenter, discussant or moderator), 28% indicated they were usually on the program, 25% indicated they were sometimes on the program, and only 15% indicated they were never on the program. This is consistent with the importance of funding in the attendance decision and implies that attendance at regional meetings would be adversely affected by reducing the number of accepted papers and sessions with corresponding decreases in the number of moderators and discussants. The regional meeting program chairs are evidently aware of this as the regional meetings are known for accepting a higher percentage of submissions than does the national AAA meeting.
To gain insight into how different schools viewed attendance and/or participation in regional meetings, two questions were asked. The first asked respondents to indicate their school's attitude about regional meetings. Fifty percent of those responding (n = 154) indicated their school viewed attendance/participation as inconsequential, 21% indicated their school liked to have at least one person from the school in attendance, 28% indicated their school liked to have at least one person on the program, and 1% indicated that their school discouraged attendance/participation at regional AAA meetings. The second question asked faculty to assess the significance of paper presentations at regional meetings in their school's promotion and tenure decisions. Seventeen percent of the respondents (n = 149) indicated these paper presentations had no significance, 42% indicated the significance was minor, 35% indicated the significance was moderate, and 7% said the significance was substantial. Thus, for 83% of the respondents' schools, presentations at the regional meeting have at least some value for promotion and tenure. Given that the new AACSB accreditation standards are mission driven, which removes or redefines the means by which intellectual contributions of faculty members are measured, it will be interesting to see if future participation in professional meetings will carry more weight when this measurement is made. Already some schools are developing new "coding" systems for measuring these contributions (Graeff, 1999).
A final question asked respondents if a change in the format or way regional meeting were conducted would cause them to consider attending more frequently. Forty-nine (31%) of the 158 survey respondents said "Yes" and 52% responded to the open-ended question asking them to identify one or two factors that might be influential in their decision to attend more frequently. Some factors identified by respondents were (a) linking meeting with that of other disciplines (similar to what the Southwest region currently does), (b) include more tax sessions/research, (c) have fewer papers and more panels, (d) have more "big names," and (e) focus more on interests/concerns of two-year schools.
The authors acknowledge that the response rate was fairly low for this survey. It was felt that the relatively low response rate was due, at least in part, to the method of distribution. The survey was included in a packet of information about an upcoming regional meeting that was sent to members. We felt that since many faculty who received packets did not plan to attend the meeting they probably discarded the entire packet without seeing the questionnaire within the packet. However, we do feel that the responses received gave a fairly accurate picture of members' perceptions and feelings toward these professional meetings.
HOW ARE CONFERENCES AND CONFERENCE PLANNERS RESPONDING TO TECHNOLOGICAL AND DEMOGRAPHIC CHANGES?
Historically, the scheduling of sessions at academic conferences with concurrent sessions was typically done to be as accommodating as possible to the presenters and others on the program. Little attention was paid to the attendee and what his or her preferences might be. As a result of complaints from attendees about not being able to attend certain sessions of interest because they were scheduled at the same time as another session of interest, meeting planners began seeking a remedy to this recurring problem. Thanks to improvements in scheduling software, planners are now able solicit session preferences from participants and incorporate these preferences into the conference schedule (Thompson, 2002). Since attendee satisfaction is one key to a successful meeting, the use of scheduling software that maximizes each attendee's ability to attend sessions of interest while minimizing conflicts certainly should increase the overall satisfaction of presenters and attendees alike. However, while this software may improve things for those attending a meeting, it does nothing for those that do not attend due to lack of available travel funds or for other reasons. Planners have turned to "virtual conferencing" to address this issue.
While the idea of a "virtual conference" has been around for some time, only recently has technology progressed to the point where such a conference could be considered an adequate substitute for the real thing (Wilkinson & Hemby, 2000). The Wilkinson & Hemby study looked faculty members' attitudes toward such conferences and found fairly positive attitudes toward virtual conferences. Respondents to their survey cited the lower cost, the ability to attract top names, and the fact that they didn't need to miss classes to participate as the advantages of a virtual conference.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION
Two common threads seem to run through the existing literature on academic professional meetings. One is that they unquestionably provide significant benefits to both attendees and participants. The second is that attendance is declining, presumably due, at least in part, to the dwindling availability of travel funds for such conferences. This paper presented results of a survey designed to yield additional insights into attitudes towards professional conferences and reasons for attending or not attending and also looked at alternatives to scheduling both conference sessions and the conference itself.
American Accounting Association 1999-2000 Directory. 1999.
American Accounting Association 1998-99 Directory. 1998.
Backmon, I. R., M. Kiel & C. F. Malone (Sprign,1999). Factors associated with the allocation of travel funds by accounting administrators. Journal of Accounting and Finance Research, 58-64.
Brookshire, R.G. (2001). Letter from the editor: keeping current. Information Technology, 19(2), 1-2.
Cooper, W. D., S. G. Finney & C. F. Malone (1998). What accounting educators really want from a professional meeting. Collected Abstracts of the Southeast American Accounting Association Regional Meeting (April 16-18): 70.
Fischer, B. A. & M. J. Zigmond (1999). Attending professional meetings successfully. Retrieved November 25, 2003, from http://www.edc.gsph.pitt.edu/survival/attend.html.
Graeff, T.R. (1999). Measuring intellectual contributions for achieving the mission of the college of business. Journal of Education for Business, 75(2), 108-115.
Hasselback, J. R. (1998). 1998-1999 Accounting Faculty Directory.
Marsh, W. (September,1989). The three Ps of successful conferences. Australian Accountant, 16-20.
Thompson, G.M. (June, 2002). Improving conferences through session scheduling. Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, 43(3), 71-76.
Wilkinson, K.L. & K.V. Hemby (Fall 2000). An examination of perceptions of the use of virtual conferences in organizations: the Organizational Systems Research Association (ORSA) and the Association for Business Communication (ABC) members speak out. Information Technology, Learning and Performance Journal. 18(2), 13-23.
Lynn Griffin, Coastal Carolina University
Charles Malone, North Carolina A&T State University
William D. Cooper, North Carolina A&T State University
Table 1 Reason for Attending # of Respondents Geographical location of the meeting 112 Presenting a paper 93 Expense reimbursement 69 Research related networking & sessions 54 related to research interests Program topics 52 Non-research related networking 42 CPE 41 Find out what's happening on academic 41 scene (grapevine) Serving as moderator/discussant 38 My friends are attending 35 Total cost (to me) 32 Planned social and/or meal functions 7 at the meeting Opportunity to mingle with 6 "big names"--research, AAA , or otherwise "Other" (various) 7 Table 2: School Reimbursement Practices None Partial Full # of responses Presenter 2% 21% 78% 135 Moderato/discussant 14% 37% 49% 137 Not on program 34% 37% 29% 136
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|Author:||Griffin, Lynn; Malone, Charles; Cooper, William D.|
|Publication:||Academy of Educational Leadership Journal|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2005|
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