Valuing under-valued scholarly societies

A month ago, I was elected President of the European Society for Environmental History. I am really excited about taking on the challenge of leading a young and dynamic scholarly organisation that has scholars whose expertise in environmental issues are in high demand. But along with such a position comes financial challenges. As an organisation of historians that has kept membership costs artificially low, there is little money to go toward supporting leadership activities. As such, the President and other members of the Board have to provide their own financial means to attend Board meetings, conferences, and the like.

When I accepted the position of President, I honestly believed finding some financial support for such an endeavour would be not be that difficult. After all, I’m in Sweden, which has come through the global recession pretty well, and at a university working to increase its international profile. But as I approached the university leadership at various levels – from the department all the way up to the chancellor’s office – the refrain I kept hearing was “We don’t have funds for that. Someone else will fund it.” I did get one financial commitment from the interdisciplinary USSTE group which will cover a transatlantic airfare (for which I am extremely grateful). The latest decision from my department’s research council was that researchers are supposed to find their own outside funding for scholarly organisation activities; the department will give no financial support at all. As of today, I’ve gone through all the channels I can think of, including the national environmental research funding agency (Formas), and been turned down by nearly everyone.

Unfortunately, this lack of support for scholarly organisations is not limited to Umeå University. It is a systematic problem. Just today I had an email exchange with a colleague in the UK who had been hesitant about taking a scholarly board position. His university does not give travel funding or time for participation in scholarly organisation leadership, a situation he labeled as “an on-going embarrassment/frustration”. I remember two years ago when H-Net, the global humanities online network that serves tens of thousands of members, was soliciting for board candidates and one of the pleas included a statement to the effect that although you would probably get no credit in your career for serving, you’d still be doing something worthwhile.

This should make all of us in academia pause. Why is it that supporting our scholarly associations gives us no credit? Why is it an activity that our universities and funding bodies are unwilling to support financially?

Scholarly societies are an integral part of academia and the practice of being a scholar. They organise conferences, often annually or biannually, which bring together scholars from various locations to share their draft ideas and get feedback. These meetings provide formal and informal opportunities to network with other scholars, which may lead to collaborations, new ideas, and path-breaking research. They sponsor training events, including methods workshops and PhD Schools, to educate scholars about the latest and greatest concepts and tools in the field. They give out prizes to recognise the best scholarship produced in their field. They disseminate information to their members and serve as vast virtual knowledge bases. They raise funds to support all of the above activities as well as often travel grants for conference attendance and research. Academic societies are the glue that holds scholars together.

That’s why I’ve been active in serving the scholarly communities in which I’ve placed myself. I’ve been on a myriad of association committees that have awarded research fellowships, organised PhD schools, solicited conference sites, and gave out article prizes. I was a convener for three years of a cross-disciplinary subfield group that meets twice or three times a year at different conferences. And now I’m President of the leading environmental history society in Europe. I’ve not done any of it for the credit, but for the love of the field – to give back to the researchers that have influenced and helped me as well as pave the way for the next generation of scholars.

So while everyone else is passing the buck, the buck has to stop somewhere. And in this case, it will stop with me. In fact, I will literally be paying in my buck: in order for me to attend the required meetings as ESEH President, I will have to use my research funding on travel expenses that would otherwise be a month’s salary. Since I’m on soft money, this truly means a month less income. But it’s a sacrifice I am willing to make because I truly believe in the work of scholarly societies and that work doesn’t happen for free.

It’s time for scholars everywhere to call attention to the valuable work of our academic associations and demand that they be more valued.

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