Bottom Lines Cause Unease at Societies of Scholars
By DAVID GLENN
With the economic climate growing worse week by week, directors of scholarly organizations are preparing for the likelihood that 2009 will be a grim year for their finances. None report that they face immediate crises, but many say they fear that certain kinds of revenue — from conference attendance, foundation grants, and especially investment income — will start to hemorrhage during the coming months.
The American Philosophical Association, whose eastern division will meet in Philadelphia this month, expects a 40-percent decline in revenue from its conference job bank, according to Terence Riley, the association's finance coordinator.
"I think we're sailing in uncharted waters here," says Arnita A. Jones, executive director of the American Historical Association. For the group's annual meeting, this January in New York, attendance, exhibitors, and even job-bank interviews are projected to match or exceed last year's levels. But when she looks at the newspaper, Ms. Jones says, she has a hard time imagining that the good times will last. Next month she will ask her staff to discuss how to sharply cut expenses, if need be, for the group's 2010 meeting.
In interviews by telephone and e-mail, nearly two dozen scholarly-society directors offered similar assessments. Their organizations have not, on the whole, made cutbacks yet. But almost all say they are laying plans in case the roof collapses next year. The directors say they would like to avoid layoffs, but smaller-ticket items like travel grants for graduate students and lecture series are facing cuts.
"Most learned societies are fairly lean operations without deep reserves," says Steven C. Wheatley, vice president of the American Council of Learned Societies. "So any place you push the balloon has a big effect. Changes in the job market, or anything else that affects the financial health of universities, can have a major effect on learned societies down the line."
A few organizations are already feeling those ripple effects. The Organization of American Historians has reduced by $90,000 its projected revenue from its forthcoming annual meeting, to be held in Seattle in March. Because it is not possible to reduce the meeting's expenses by that amount, says the executive director, Lee W. Formwalt, he has had to cut other parts of the budget. "Fortunately we haven't had to lay people off," he says. "But we've decided not to fill a deputy-director position that became vacant last summer."
And nearly every organization, of course, has seen its investment portfolios plummet. For many groups, the stock-market decline is not an immediate problem; in some cases, their portfolios were small to begin with. But for a minority, income from endowments or other investment funds makes up a significant portion of operating revenue.
In an informal survey, the American Council of Learned Societies recently gathered information about the business models of 48 of its member organizations, most of which are in the humanities. According to Mr. Wheatley, 15 of them reported that investment income is one of their top three sources of revenue.
The stock-market meltdown also makes it harder for organizations to attract donations from their members. "Our cash flow generally seems fine," says Mr. Formwalt. "The one very obvious area where we're not doing as well is development. Last year at this time, we had raised $40,000 from members. This year it's just $7,500. And we have only two multiyear pledges, which is much less than usual."
That kind of fund-raising income has recently represented 8 percent of Mr. Formwalt's budget — not a huge amount, but large enough that a shortfall here would be painful. "We have already cut to bone, and some would say beyond," Mr. Formwalt says. "Many of our nonlabor expenses are fixed, so for further cuts, we'd probably be talking about personnel."
Changing Travel Plans
More than anything else, society directors worry about conference attendance in 2009. Reports and rumors of cuts in colleges' travel budgets have made this an anxious season for conference planners.
"Our annual meeting in November was very successful," says William E. Davis, executive director of the American Anthropological Association. (At almost 6,000, in fact, the attendance set a record.) "But that's not the one that worries me. It's going forward that concerns me. Virtually all of the people who attended our November conference had already made their plans well in advance of the worst of the downturn. What will they do next year? We're now looking at that and trying to figure out what our options are."
Five associations with meetings in late December and early January — the Modern Language Association, the American Mathematical Society, the American Philosophical Association, the American Economic Association, and the American Historical Association — tell The Chronicle that they project steady or only modestly declining attendance. But in those cases, too, many attendees had made their plans before the economy grew truly ugly. The real test, says Ms. Jones, of the historical association, will be the spring meetings, like Mr. Formwalt's.
A decline in early registrations is one reason that his organization trimmed revenue projections. But it is too soon to say what attendance will actually be like, Mr. Formwalt says. "You keep hearing that universities are cutting back on travel budgets," he says. "But I'd like to know how many of our members actually rely on university money to come to our conferences, and to what extent."
Several directors said they are looking for small ways to save money. Ann E. Biddlecom, a senior research associate at the Guttmacher Institute and secretary-treasurer of the Population Association of America, says she would like her group to make more use of videoconferencing for its committee meetings. Mariana Whitmer, director of the Society for American Music, says it is cutting postage costs by moving most of its newsletters and other mailings to electronic formats.
When the American Society of Environmental Historians meets in Tallahassee, Fla., in February, members will be asked for their opinions about which of the organization's activities are most important and which are expendable in the event of a downturn. "We need for this to be a serious conversation," says Lisa Mighetto, the executive director. "We're going to say to the members, This is your organization. Let us know what is most valuable and what we can cut."
Mr. Formwalt says he is hopeful that scholarly societies' membership levels will stay solid. As a young professor at a small college in Georgia decades ago, he says, "I was never offered much in the way of travel subsidies, but I always went to the meetings anyway. After feeling isolated most of the year, it was important to feel connected to the profession." The Internet, he says, has not eliminated the need for that kind of face-to-face connection.
Mr. Wheatley, of the American Council of Learned Societies, agrees. "People correctly think of these scholarly societies as pillars of the academy," he says. "They're at once strong in their ideals and fragile in their finances."
That fragility has directors scrambling to find ways — even tiny ones — to bolster their bottom lines. "For the first time, we have a sponsor for our conference tote bags this year," says Alyson Reed, executive director of the Linguistic Society of America, which will meet in San Francisco next month.
Seventy-five years ago, as banks failed and soup kitchens struggled to feed the hungry, the Secretaries of Constituent Societies, which is known today as the American Council of Learned Societies' Council of Administrative Officers, met to discuss an economic crisis more serious than today's. From the minutes of the meeting on January 28, 1933:
The initial period of the Conference was devoted to a consideration of the effects of the financial depression on the societies. On the whole, they seemed to have suffered less than might have been expected. ... One society reported a decline [in income] of five percent, another of 11 percent, another of 14 percent, and another of 15 to 20 percent. ... [S]ocieties which maintain libraries have found it possible to make larger purchases, despite their loss of income, because of the decline in book prices, particularly in the rare-book field.
Leaders of scholarly societies say their budgets are reasonably healthy — for now. But they worry that in 2009, these major revenue streams might go dry:
Hard economic times have forced higher education's numerous associations to adjust like everyone else. Concerned about potential declines in membership and conference attendance as colleges slash expense and travel budgets, many of the groups are taking measures to cut costs while also attempting to provide more resources to help colleges deal with the economy. Here are some of the ways the associations are responding:
American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers
American Association of Community Colleges
American Association of State Colleges and Universities
Association of American Universities
Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges
National Association of College and University Business Officers
National Association of College and University Attorneys
National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities
—Reeves Wiedeman and David Shieh