The Association for the Study of Higher Education, like many organizations, plots its annual meetings several years ahead. Last month, it announced that it would move the 2024 meeting, scheduled for New Orleans, out of Louisiana because of the state’s laws restricting access to abortion and the participation of transgender people in sports.
In a statement to members, the group cited Louisiana’s appearance on a list that restricts Californians from using state funds to travel to states with what it calls “discriminatory laws” and the laws’ “incongruence with our stated values as an association.”
ASHE is moving its 2024 meeting to Minneapolis, even though it may incur financial costs from breaking a contract with the Hilton New Orleans Riverside. This is more than a “business decision,” said Jason P. Guilbeau, the higher ed research group’s executive director. “This also impacts people in a very real way.”
Louisiana’s laws run counter, too, to the values of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, which is scheduled to hold its 2025 conference in New Orleans, says Kevin Kruger, its president. But the group won’t be moving its meeting.
NASPA, like other groups, has sought to expand virtual options for attendees who are reluctant to travel to certain states, and in the past it has organized protests during its conferences to give attendees a chance to show opposition to a state law.
The question for groups like NASPA, Kruger said, is whether it can be more impactful to cancel or to “be there and voice our concerns.”
Association leaders say that evaluating event locations involves more than just taking a stand against laws that might run contrary to stated values of inclusion, or, in the case of strict abortion laws, laws that might limit emergency health-care options for pregnant attendees.
Organizations must consider the financial bottom line before breaking a hotel contract, while millions in conference dollars can make up more than half of a higher education organization’s annual revenue. If a location is unchanged, there also may be fallout from members not attending in protest.
There have always been laws that concern many higher education employees, but as abortion bans and anti-transgender laws take effect in more states, the challenge intensifies for groups seeking to reach members in wide swaths of the country.
“Every association I know is grappling with this,” said Kruger. Past NASPA conferences have drawn some 4,400 event goers and exhibitors, according to the group.
The Influence of California’s List
Past guidance from California continues to shape decisions about conference locations by many higher education groups.
A 2017 law generally prohibited California public funds from being used to reimburse expenses for travel to states allowing for discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents.
California is home to a disproportionately large number of the country’s public colleges and universities and higher ed employees, so its law has a sweeping impact. California had 133,399 full-time higher education employees as of March 2021, according to U.S. Census Bureau employment data. The total was more than twice that of all states except for Texas, which employed 117,328 full-time higher education workers.
Louisiana was among four states that were added to the California list last year, along with Arizona, Indiana and Utah. In 2021, the list grew by five states, with Arkansas, Florida, Montana, North Dakota and West Virginia added. In all, 23 states are on the list.
Louisiana’s inclusion heavily influenced ASHE’s decision, said Guilbeau, who added that the association will be unlikely to stage a future meeting in a state on the list.
The decision to relocate an event out of a state whose laws and policies “marginalize certain people” had a personal resonance for Guilbeau, too. “I grew up in the state. I grew up experiencing the impact of policies [like these]. I’m a gay man,” he said.
Guilbeau said the group, whose last pre-pandemic conference in 2019 drew about 1,700 people, is still waiting to find out what cancellation fee it might have to pay after moving the 2024 event to Minneapolis, where its 2023 event in November was already scheduled to be.
“Due to some of our contract stipulations, we won’t know the cancelation fee until after the date our conference was to be held, so November 2024,” Guilbeau said in an email.
He said the organization’s Board of Directors made the decision, approving use of a “rainy day fund” to cover the possible cancellation costs.
The finances of such member organizations can often revolve around good turnout to an annual conference. In its IRS filing for the 2020 fiscal year, NASPA, a nonprofit organization, reported $4.6 million in conference revenue, more than twice the $2.1 million reported in revenue from membership dues.
While NASPA also reported millions in grants and charitable contributions that, combined, were its largest source of revenue, other groups that don’t draw in large grants can be more reliant on conference dollars.
“Every association, large association, is booking four, five, six, seven years out, and we don’t know what the policies are going to be” in a given state or site location, Kruger said.
For sites governed by laws deemed contrary to the group’s values, “if you’re going to go, you have to exercise your voice,” he added.
In 2016, Kruger said, NASPA weighed whether to follow through with plans for a meeting in Indianapolis given the 2015 passage of the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The law has been assailed by critics who say it allows businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ patrons. The group opted to stay, and several hundred members joined in a march to the state’s capitol, Kruger said.
“Once you book into the place, with all the knowledge and information we have at that time, we’re not going to cancel later,” Kruger said.
Staying in Florida for annual meetings this year are the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) and NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. Florida has expanded abortion restrictions, but unlike in some other Southern states, the procedure is currently legal until the 15th week of gestation.
NACUBO will hold its annual meeting this year in Orlando, said spokeswoman Katy McCreary, who added that there will be an online option to attend. NACADA will also have its major conference this year in Orlando and provide a “virtual ticket option,” said Wendy Troxel, the group’s acting executive director.
Nashville is another common destination for academic conferences, and its home state of Tennessee is also on California’s list of 23 states with laws concerning LGBTQ+ residents. The state is also among those that passed abortion bans—with very limited exceptions—shortly following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June to roll back previously established abortion protections and leave states free to enact stringent bans.
The Online Learning Consortium will continue with its plans for a 2023 conference in Nashville. Its chief executive officer, Jennifer Mathes, said it would be difficult for the group to change its conference site. More than five years ago, “OLC entered into binding contracts with specific hotels through 2028,” Mathes said in an email.
“The penalty charged by the hotels for changes are steep,” Mathes said. “We’ve tried working with the hotels to relocate to states where there are no bans, but without success. Please keep in mind that we are a small, self-sustaining nonprofit, and the revenues generated through our annual conferences enable us to provide a diversity of free resources to our community.” OLC reported $3.2 million in conference and workshop revenues, a bit more than half of its total revenues for 2019, according to a recent IRS filing.
Mathes, asked by Inside Higher Ed about state laws affecting transgender youth and restrictive abortion bans, said, “The discriminatory laws you’ve cited are not aligned with the OLC’s commitment to inclusion and equity.”
“I hope the new state policies catalyze discussions that inform better models for hotel/conference contracts,” Mathes added.
Struggling with politicized site location decisions is nothing new for those in higher education or other industries with big meetings to plan, given the 2016 fight over North Carolina’s so-called bathroom bill, to give just one example. Other examples have been at least somewhat plentiful in the last few decades, including decisions made to move conferences away from Arizona in 1990 after state voters failed to approve Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a paid state holiday. The holiday was approved two years later.
“This has surfaced on and off for years,” said Joan Eisenstodt, who in 1981 started a hospitality and events consulting business.
Eisenstodt said she’s recently worked with a group, for example, to revise its request for proposals, which is a way for organizations to ask sites to submit information so they can be considered for future events.
“We added a huge number of questions about laws, provisions, to find out if in fact the destination and the facilities would be in sync with what the group stood for and to protect those who are attending the meeting,” Eisenstodt said.
The Threat of Cancellation Fees
Cancellation fees typically come as part of the deal when an association books space in a hotel or convention center, said Joshua L. Grimes with Grimes Law Offices.
Grimes, who provides legal services in the meetings and events industry, said such fees are generally greater when cancellation occurs with relatively short notice. But associations also may be able to work out deals with hotels to offset cancellation costs. For example, the hotel owner may own properties in multiple states, allowing an event to be rebooked elsewhere.
For very large conferences, hotels might also be shy about seeking cancellation damages out of fear that they might lose future business with a large meeting group, Grimes added.
Sometimes clauses can be negotiated into contracts by associations seeking flexibility to relocate should laws or policies affect association members, Grimes said, but he said that he’s observed groups with such concerns more often simply avoiding booking at sites where such concerns exist.
While an association might be very concerned about financial losses associated with breaking a contract, “in very few situations do I think that attendees really are concerned with whether the group is going to lose money,” Grimes said.
Why Conference Attendance Is Important
Attending some conferences can take on great importance, according to seven academics who led a push last year to change the locations of the 2023 and 2024 conferences of the American Economic Association. The push came because of stated concerns about how restrictive abortion laws in Louisiana and Texas might affect pregnant attendees.
“Attending the meetings is a rite of passage for graduating Ph.D. students, and a necessary step in the process of obtaining an academic job in an economics department in the United States,” the economists wrote in their open letter addressed to the association’s executive committee.
The effort ended up spurring a rival letter that urged the association to stay put—with the other letter noting that the AEA’s “bylaws state that the association ‘will take no partisan attitude, nor will it commit its members to any position on practical economic questions.’” It called efforts to change the conferences “a clear attempt to boycott states based on their abortion laws.”
Those signing the letter calling for site changes also said that, without a change, they would not attend a New Orleans event with the abortion restriction in place nor “future meetings held in states that ban abortion without broad exceptions for the health and welfare of the mother.”
Ultimately, the AEA held an in-person event in New Orleans last month. The organization issued guidance calling for job interviews to be held virtually, rather than in person, however, citing both COVID-19 considerations and a desire “to promote equity among the candidates.”
Another large higher education organization, the American Association of Colleges and Universities, last August issued a public statement on event locations that noted that the group—whose members include many large U.S. colleges and universities—“is not a policy-making or lobbying organization.”
“In selecting locations for AAC&U events, our goal is not to influence public policy but to promote engagement by ensuring that the locations reflect the geographical diversity of our membership,” read the statement, which group spokesman David Tritelli said was put together by the organization’s president, Lynn Pasquerella, and other AAC&U leaders.
Tritelli, when asked if the statement came about in response to U.S. Supreme Court decision last year that effectively allowed states to enact their own abortion bans, said via email, “Calls for boycotts in the wake of the Dobbs decision created some measure of uncertainty regarding whether organizations would be relocating scheduled events. We issued the statement to communicate and explain our policy in that context and to both anticipate and address questions about the locations of our upcoming events.”
The group has not recently relocated any conferences or major meetings because of new state laws, Tritelli said.
About 1,400 people were registered to attend the group’s annual meeting in January, held in San Francisco. A hybrid conference on pedagogy begins Thursday with a three-day, in-person event in New Orleans.
Another group whose membership includes many academics, the Association for Education Finance and Policy, last August cited a 2022 survey of members in relocating its upcoming March conference from Fort Worth, Tex., to Denver.
“In the open-ended responses, members shared stories of past high-risk pregnancies and miscarriages—and even an acute pregnancy complication requiring treatment at a prior conference—that made them hesitant to travel to states where reproductive care might be a challenge,” read the statement, posted to the group’s website.
The statement also noted how it would be “a group of often early-career scholars that we would be asking to make the difficult decision to stay home or take on the added risk of attending” and said that technology allowing for virtual attendance “cannot provide the same community or networking opportunities—opportunities that are especially critical for early-career members.” The group’s membership includes researchers studying K-12 as well as higher education finance, and, in the statement, it said 24 percent of members responding to a survey said they’d be unlikely or very unlikely to attend a conference in Fort Worth.
Laws in states such as Texas prohibiting most abortions often include exceptions citing a pregnant person’s health, but critics have said such language often is vague. Since the Dobbs decision, reports have surfaced of doctors who are reluctant to explore all treatment options with patients experiencing health emergencies related to their pregnancies.
The group said the move was not an act of political advocacy: “To be clear, the Board expressly decided not to let our individual feelings about politics or policy in Texas guide our decision. AEFP is not a political organization, and we value that our members hold diverse beliefs. It is not our purpose to advocate for one set of beliefs over another.”
Whatever their reasons for moving conference locations (or not), many groups are finding the decisions increasingly difficult as the number of states with restrictions grows. The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET) is keeping its event this year in Louisiana, but for future events “we are focused on states that are not on travel restricted lists,” Megan Raymond, the organization’s senior director for membership and programs, said in an email. “However, that is becoming increasingly difficult.”