In June I had the privilege of attending SDS2014, the Society for Disability Studies conference in Minneapolis. SDS did a lot of things right concerning accessibility for people with disabilities
. It did not appear that the organizers had put as much thought into economic accessibility. For instance, the venue was an expensive downtown hotel. The nearby restaurants were mostly sit-down restaurants. The convenience shop in the hotel had some bottled beverages and foods at airport prices. Lunch time meetings at the conference felt inaccessible to me, because I didn't know where to grab a sandwich or take out food at a place that I could afford to eat, and get back in time for the session. So I skipped the lunch time sessions; I need to eat according to a set schedule, as I'm sure many folks do. (Note that SDS' discussion of anti-harassment policies occurred during a lunch time session.)
Many academic conferences are similarly expensive, and do not seem to care about being affordable. The registration prices alone can be close to a thousand dollars. This is before hotel, travel, food, and any incidentals for conference participants. Presenters many want to get new clothes or travel gear, for instance. Many people attending academic conferences have their institutions pay for these expenses, or get grants or scholarships to cover them.
Check out two price listings for conferences, just as examples:An epidemiology conference in SpainGrace Hopper Women in Computing
I attended SDS as a community member rather than as an academic-- ie, not affiliated with an institution. A friend paid for the reg fee and hotel, and we carpooled there and brought some of our own snacks. SDS does have a sliding scale for their reg fees. Disability studies, unlike many other academic disciplines, values the role of community members and lay people because your lived experience counts. Your embodiment and activism count. You don't necessarily need classes, degrees, and publications to contribute. (I do have some independent-of-the-academy publications.)
My main convention and social event of the year is WisCon, a fan convention, which prioritizes affordability. Many of our affordability issues intersect with other social justice issues, such as disability access and emotional access.
For instance, WisCon provides late-night cab vouchers to get people home from the convention. I imagine the original intent of this service was safety: prevent drunk driving and the like, since alcohol flows fairly free at convention parties. But it also provides an affordable means for people to get home without having to pay for a cab or rely on bus schedules or friends, and means that some people can stay other places than downtown hotels, such as on the outskirts of town at their own or friends' houses or cheaper hotels. It provides independence-- the means to leave the convention when you want (also a safety feature). The cab service we use is a co-op and a union, allowing us to support a local business with shared values. And cabs can be reserved online, which is another accessibility feature.
All of these things intersect. Feeling like your finances are stretched and you can barely afford to be somewhere is stressful and adds to cognitive and emotional load. It means you can't be as present and contribute as fully as you might like. Worrying about affording a meal when you want to go out with friends or colleagues can be embarrassing.
So why are academic conferences so expensive? Not having organized one, or even gone to many, I really have no idea. Looking around on the internet, people say that the fee covers venue, food, and keynote speakers, etc. Probably professional conference organizers plan these things, and take their cut. But conferences can leverage their power as clients to negotiate better deals with hotels and convention centers. They can use university or public venues which are sometimes cheaper. First and foremost, they can simply think about how to lower costs and reduce the economic burden on their participants, instead of assuming everyone who comes is able to blithely afford it.
I do know that charging so much money functions as a gate-keeping mechanism to keep people out. It creates a space where the conference itself is an in-club for people who can afford to be there: a country club effect. The privileged rub elbows and make connections with each other.
This affects the quality of academics. Science, my field of employ, has a myriad of problems with diversity. These things are connected.