Will Academic Travel Ever Go Back To "Normal"?

Will Universities be willing to fund travel? Will professors even want to travel?

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The COVID-19 pandemic will soon celebrate its first birthday. During the past nine months, I have not boarded a plane or stayed in a hotel. I haven't even left Houston! I can sometimes go weeks without leaving my zip code. This sudden change, for me at least, was radical. Over the past few years, I averaged about 100,000 miles a year, and would spend 75 nights annually in a hotel.

You might think that I would miss life on the road. I don't. Quite the opposite. I thoroughly enjoy being home with my family every day. Indeed, I feel guilty for all the days that I missed in the past. I also feel more well rested. Travel wore me down, even if I handled it better than most. And--perhaps most relevant to you--I am far more productive. I no longer have to waste time sprinting from sea to shining sea for a series of one hour presentations. I am writing far more in less time. Granted, family life is taking a bigger share of my day, but the time I devote to writing is far more effective.

There are drawbacks, of course. I sincerely miss meeting with students at different law schools. That interaction was one of the highlights of my career. Zoom will never substitute for having dinner with engaged students. Never. I also enjoy kibitzing with other law professors. Though, to be frank, law professors have acclimated to Zoom far better than I anticipated. I interact with colleagues at other schools far more now than I ever did in the past. It is so much easier to set up a Zoom meeting with another professor than to try to coordinate schedules during my visits to other campuses. Even when travel becomes feasible for me, I doubt I will travel nearly as much as I used to.

At some point, society will return to "normal," whatever that means. Will business travel ever return to "normal"? (Read Gary Leff's excellent post on View from the Wing). Will academic travel, in particular, ever return to "normal"? This question is two-fold. First, will Universities be willing to fund travel? Second, will professors even want to travel?

As a threshold matter, many university face existential fiscal crises. Travel is an easy line-item to delete. And universities may generate budgets for the foreseeable future based on these reduced levels of expenditures. Professors will have difficulty getting travel requests approved. An inability to travel to academic conferences could hamper potential for growth. Even if conferences allow participation by Zoom, in-person networking will become impossible for professors--especially junior scholars--stuck behind their webcams. Tenure committees will need to take stock of this new normal when making promotion decisions.

Next, let's assume that some Universities are willing to fund some travel. Will professors still want to make these trips? Here, I think we need to separate senior scholars from junior scholars. Specifically, scholars that were able to establish themselves prior to the COVID-19 pandemic (the before times) and those who have not yet done so. Professors in the former category are in a much more stable spot. They can easily default to Zoom participation, and rely on pre-existing social networks. Professors in the latter category will still have to hustle and go to conferences. But--and there is a big but--those professors will have fewer attendees. After all, the senior scholars may stay home. As a result, conferences may become less of a draw, and there will be less need to attend in person. And so on.

My thoughts here are tentative. Perhaps when the pandemic finally subsides, things will snap back to normal. We can party like its 2019 again! I'm doubtful. I think the COVID-19 pandemic was a paradigm shift in how our society functions. And academic will not be immune from this quantum leap.