Should I stay or should I go? Thoughts on conference travel and protest in academia

by Shannon Lucky, Information Technology Librarian, University of Saskatchewan

Over the past week I had many conversations with colleagues about this upcoming conference season and what we, as Canadians, are going to do about travelling to the U.S. The response from universities and academics around the world has been swift and damning of the American administration’s decision to ban citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from travel to the U.S., but there isn’t much consensus about what else we can do. Back in the Fall, I was delighted to be accepted to speak at a large American conference at the end of March, but now I’m not so sure I want to go. I’m thinking twice about the politics and practicalities of my choice; whether or not I feel both safe and right to participate in academic conferences in the U.S.

The impact of this ban was immediately felt in academia where travel for conferences, teaching, workshops, and research is the norm. Post-secondary campuses are full of people from all over the world and limiting the ability to travel for work and personal reasons – either for fear they won’t be allowed into the U.S., or fear they won’t be able to get back to their American home if they leave, is chilling. The ban doesn’t affect my ability travel. I am a Canadian citizen, I am white, English is my first language – I am in a place of privilege. But I worry about my colleagues who are not.

Writing for a blog about evidence-based practice, it isn’t hard to see how engaging in any way with a U.S. administration that uses ‘alternative facts’, led by someone making decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had” (Fisher, 2016, July) is troubling. The fallout from this executive order is unpredictable and shifting day to day with little clarity about what it really means. As I am writing this, the ban has been temporarily halted (who knows what will have happened by the time you are reading) and it is this instability that is causing so much of my anxiety.

I have been weighing my options, reading everything I can find online, and asking colleagues what their plans are for traveling to the U.S. for work. For some people, there is no option – the risk of being blocked at the border (or not allowed back in if they leave) is too high. It’s fair to questions the intellectual integrity of events where Muslim colleagues are explicitly excluded. Over the past week, more than 6000 academics have signed a pledge to boycott travel to international conferences in the U.S. until the travel ban is lifted. I have also read online comments proposing that academics petition international conference organizers to move their events outside of the U.S. in protest. Many of the people interviewed for a CBC story about the travel boycott found supporting it was a complicated decision, a feeling I am also struggling with.

My knee jerk reaction is to stay away, take a moral stance and protest with my dollars. But I also think about my colleagues who have no choice but to live and work in that climate – what message am I sending them by staying away? What about scholars from those six countries studying and working in the U.S. who cannot leave the country with confidence they can return home?

The impetus to DO SOMETHING is strong (and I will confess that I am a little afraid of what could happen while I am there), so I want to sign that pledge and boycott with all of the people on that list that I respect. However, I haven’t signed because I also believe that smothering academic discourse by refusing to participate isn’t the answer, and withholding my registration money from liberal institutions and cheating myself out of the experience of being at the conference (and the CV line for having presented) does no good either. I have thought about asking if I can teleconference in for my talk or pre-record it, but that isn’t entirely in the spirit of an academic conference and it might be more technology than the organizers are prepared to deal with. I don’t know what to do.

I sit solidly on the fence today as I write this, and so do many of the people I have asked about this question. I imagine there are Brainwork readers struggling with the same decisions and weighing their own options. Have you made a decision about what you are planning do in the next few months? Do you have any advice to offer? I would love to hear it.

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Fisher, M. (2016, July 17). Donald Trump doesn’t read much. Being president probably wouldn’t change that. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://wpo.st/STj_2


This article gives the views of the author and not necessarily the views the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

9 thoughts on “Should I stay or should I go? Thoughts on conference travel and protest in academia

  1. For EBLIP practitioners and researchers considering travel to the EBLIP9 conference, we local organizing committee co-Chairs encourage attendance and participation, sharing a statement on the conference website.

    Please visit http://eblip9.org and scroll down a bit to “A Message from the EBLIP9 Co-Chairs Regarding the US Travel Ban” to access our statement.

  2. Thank you for this post – certainly relevant. My question is, if we remove our voices from the scholarly conversation, are we just weakening the conversation overall?

    Nature posted a view on this issue in an article from Feb. 7, 2017 titled “Academics must protest against Trump’s travel ban — but they should do so productively:
    Boycotting US conferences will not help scientists from any country.” Stating that “the boycotts could be much more fiscally devastating to meeting organizers — mainly scientific societies that actively oppose the ban — than to the US government or economy. And a sparsely attended conference is not useful to scientists from any country.” (Here’s that link: http://www.nature.com/news/academics-must-protest-against-trump-s-travel-ban-but-they-should-do-so-productively-1.21433?WT.mc_id=TWT_NatureNews)

    Then again, perhaps we should also be asking conference organizers to allow for remote presentations or remote viewing of presentations for those who are not comfortable or able to travel.

  3. I really appreciate this post as it was something I was grappling with as well. I have decided not to travel to the US, and let the EBLIP9 program chair know of my decision. This means that I will not be participating as a presenter (and neither will my co-authors) at the conference, at least not in the traditional sense.

    I have not signed the petition. I might, but at this time I made the personal decision to neither travel to the US for leisure or for professional activities. I can afford to make this decision, but this still has an impact on me; I have family in the United States. But in the end, this impact is minor compared to the impact the temporarily-halted travel ban has on a group of people. It is unlikely I would ever be treated with a fraction of the discrimination currently affecting those whose travel and immigration status is affected by the recent executive orders.

    I have decided not to use my privilege to travel to the US and instead use it to state my opposition to racist and xenophobic practices.

  4. Thanks for the thoughtful post. It really captures some of the anxiety I’ve been feeling, and the instability: who knows what each day may bring, or what the state of the states will be by the time you (& I) have committed to travel there. I’m looking forward to having the conversation continue, and hope some clarity emerges.

  5. It needs to be a personal decision based on what one can and cannot tolerate and where one sees lines drawn.

    As personal example, I can’t get to the next-step down level of thinking about the impact on the EBLIP conference that I will now be missing (and all that entails for stakeholders, including my own interests) because the primary concern for me is that the U.S. is now a country that intends to push forward exclusionary policies based on race and religion. I cannot tolerate or ignore this because I have the privilege to do so. The now-halted Muslim travel ban is just the first of many more we can expect. I don’t expect that my singular action will cause anyone to rethink anything but it is something within my power and something I can’t in good conscience ignore.

    • That really resonates with me Pam – thanks for putting it so clearly. Deciding where that line is is the unavoidable next step. I had a great conversation last night with a faculty friend who said that he wouldn’t think twice about going to a conference in China but won’t be going to the U.S. in the near future and how that is a complicated decision to parse but it is right for him. It has really helped me to hear what people who I look to for leadership in this field are doing, which is one reason I’m so glad you a Virginia have weighed in on this post. Thank you!

  6. I am distressed by this situation, and feel helpless to assure you or any of my colleagues that everything will be alleviated, despite my very strong hope that it will be so.

    I know that nothing beats face-to-face conferences, but in light of this and the costs that prevent other colleagues from attendance (including myself), perhaps it is time to consider options for virtual conferencing. Our sharing is limited as much as it’s enhanced by in-person conferences, and so many presentations are not viewed by any but those in attendance. And yet, what better time than now to reach beyond boundaries of many kinds to help each other, colleagues, co-learners, sharers of valued experiences and wisdom?

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts Carol (& apologies for the technical problems with the commenting system).
      I think you are right on with your comment about conferences, in general, being exclusionary events for all sorts of reasons. Perhaps something positive will come out of the immediate political challenges facing us. It’s always good to question our practices and traditions (unfortunately, that prod has come at a heavy price this time.)

  7. This is a timely and apt blog post. I too am struggling with just these same thoughts. It’s so complex! I also am struggling with the decision of whether or not to go and present at an international conference to be held in the US. This is what I wrote to the program chair when it was time to confirm whether or not I would present:

    “The volatility of the US at this time is very worrisome. I know that many people will not be traveling to the States in protest of Trump’s travel ban. However, I also worry about escalation over the next months and the actual safety of traveling south. Civil unrest is increasing and who knows what Trump will do with the borders, etc. Honestly, if the conference were to be held tomorrow, I wouldn’t go. Unless things improve significantly by June, I can’t at this moment commit to going.”

    And that’s where I stand. I would really like to hear other thoughts and opinions.

    As a side note, Brain-Work has some issues with the commenting function. If you cannot get your comment posted, please send it to Shannon Lucky and she will post it on your behalf.

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