2020 Virtual Conference

ASHE logo with word mark
July 7, 2020
Dear ASHE Community,
In line with our values and our strategic charge to uplift members as part of an organizationally just association as well as our Conference Contingency Policy, we write to inform you that the ASHE Board of Directors has voted to move our 2020 annual conference from an in-person conference in New Orleans to a virtual conference. The general conference will be held on November 18-21, with pre-conferences held the week before (CIHE: November 9, CPPHE: November 10, CAHEP: November 12, and CEP: November 13). Professional development events will be held throughout the fall. We will be sending out many more details and updating the conference websites in the coming weeks.
After months of discussion with the board, program committee co-chairs and members, leadership volunteers, and members, we are resolved that a virtual conference will protect the health and safety of our members and the New Orleans community, be consistent with our values and policy, and generate greater access and new opportunities for our members and our association.
In this letter, we want to be transparent and share the reasons that went into this decision. We also want to share why we are excited about an exciting and dynamic 2020 virtual conference.
What's happening in New Orleans
Since February, we have been monitoring COVID19 related CDC announcements, best practices from ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership, and official orders from the Louisiana Governor and New Orleans Mayor including restrictions on large gatherings. The City of New Orleans is requiring that there be a vaccine and/or herd immunity for COVID19 before events our size are allowed to occur. Neither seems likely by November 2020. Additionally, while colleges and universities in New Orleans are planning to return for the fall semester, most will be finishing on-campus instruction in mid-November.
Considerations of moving to a virtual conference
In meetings since March, the board has weighed various options, considerations, and scenarios for our November conference. We considered waiting to make this decision until August or September, moving the conference to a hybrid format, as well as completely moving the conference to a total virtual format. On June 25, the Board voted unanimously to make the conference virtual and we have been in conversations to finalize this decision with the hotel and our attorney. Below are key considerations that went into this decision:
  • In consideration of institutional/organization budget cuts, spending freezes, and travel freezes, a virtual conference eliminates the travel costs for members to attend. This is especially important in a time when both members and members’ institutions/organizations are challenged financially. 
  • In consideration of the global pandemic, a virtual conference allows members who are in high-risk categories or care for a loved one in high-risk categories to experience the conference from any location.
  • In consideration of the global pandemic, racial injustice, and so many uncertainties about what the coming months will holdl, making the decision now allows our members to better plan for a virtual conference and eliminates at least one uncertainty. This also alleviates the need for planning travel to and arrangements for New Orleans.
  • In consideration of planning, making the decision now to move virtually allows our ASHE Staff, Program Committee Co-Chairs, Program Committee, Pre-Conference Committees, Professional Development Committees, Awards Committees, and numerous other groups who support the conference experience to plan for an innovative and impactful conference that lifts up our members.
The decision to plan a virtual conference is consistent with our goal to serve members by providing meaningful opportunities to have work peer reviewed as well as present and receive feedback. We will maintain interactive symposia; posters; roundtables; performance, visual, and digital scholarship sessions; keynotes; and much more.
Mitigating ASHE's cancelation fees
After deciding to transition to a virtual conference, the board then considered multiple options and engaged in negotiations with the hotel in an effort to reduce our cancelation fee. To do so, the hotel offered us an opportunity to rebook for a future year. Although last year’s site selection process confirmed cities and hotels through 2025, we considered all options for which year to rebook, and weighed pros and cons of each (i.e., 2021, 2022, 2023, 2024, 2025).
After lengthy consultation with the New Orleans hotel on their availability and respective cancelation fees, the board unanimously voted to re-book for 2024 in New Orleans and cancel our contracts in Indianapolis for that year. Although the terms for rebooking conference provided cost savings on our cancellation fee, ASHE is still required to make a payment to amend our contract with these new terms.
The financial health (and future) of ASHE
Because the board has a fiduciary duty to the organization, finances were large parts of our discussions. This included scenario planning and reviewing the financial impacts of various options. ASHE remains a financially healthy organization at this time, with a reserve balance that could fund our association for about 12 months. While our membership and conference registration fees have been historically low on average, sound fiscal management and prudent budgeting have allowed us to manage growth in members and conference attendance.
Because of the decision to move to a virtual conference, and related financial challenges from the global pandemic this year, we will experience a net loss for the first time in many years. We also realize that the next few years may be challenging. As such, the board has approved (and ASHE has received) a Payroll Protection Loan and the Association is currently in the process of applying for a loan to cover an expected loss for 2020. This loan is not being taken out as a necessity, but instead as a prudent financial decision: this allows the Association to extend our 2020 financial losses over the next few years, rather than tap into our reserve fund immediately.
Why we're excited about a virtual ASHE 2020 conference
In our recent summer meeting, board members reflected on what has made ASHE such an important organization for our members. Among these experiences are the opportunity to create meaningful mentoring relationships, receive feedback on scholarship and careers, and engage in conversations about higher education’s role in equity and inclusivity.
We are confident that we can deliver on these experiences in a 2020 virtual conference experience. We will be sharing more details in the coming weeks and months, but for now we want to highlight three items that we think are especially important:
  • All members who submitted proposals will receive feedback through our peer review process. For those members who have a proposal accepted, you will be able to present your work and receive feedback through a discussant (for papers) or audience feedback (for symposia, posters, and roundtables). We will be in contact in the coming weeks and months with more information about the virtual platform, content, how-to guides and training, as well as a webinar showcasing best practices for discussants.
  • Prior to the global pandemic, we were already planning for a pilot of making parts of the conference hybrid to expand access as well to reduce our carbon footprint. A virtual conference experience allows us to achieve these goals on a full conference scale: current, previous, and prospective members from around the country and the world who may not have been able to participate recently (or for some, ever before) can now attend the virtual conference. This will be a larger-than-expected pilot test, but one we hope to learn from and to continue for future in-person conferences. 
  • Graduate students (a group most impacted by institutional/organization budget cuts and travel freezes) who would not otherwise be able to attend a virtual conference will be able to apply for a scholarship to cover general conference registration. Although overall conference registration fees will be reduced for everyone, the board has also made a commitment to recruit donors to support graduate student members who need the support. If you’re able to, we hope you’ll sponsor a student(s). We'll be sharing more information soon on how to apply for funding.
What's next?
We'll be sharing many more details in the coming weeks. But here are a few more immediate things we want to share:
  • Proposal decisions for both the general conference and pre-conferences will be going out tomorrow. Per usual, these will be sent to the submitter of the proposal. Assigned chairs and discussants will also receive notifications as well. 
  • Registration for the virtual conference and virtual pre-conferences will open in the next two weeks. Registration fees will be reduced as compared to the in-person conference, as approved by the board.
  • Registration for professional development events (e.g., Early Career Workshop, CEP Mentor-Protégé Program, etc.) will open in early August, with events scheduled to happen between September-December. 
  • If you have registered for the conference already, the ASHE Staff will follow up with you in the next week with options to transfer your registration fee, refund your registration fee, or donate your registration fee.
  • If you have booked a hotel room at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside, the hotel will cancel your reservation and return your deposit in the next two weeks. 
Finally, as we begin to plan for ASHE’s first ever virtual conference, we want to hear from you. At this point, all of us have attended a variety of virtual events over the past few months. We hope you’ll share with us what went well, what could be improved, and what questions you have for us moving forward.
We want to thank you for your patience as you awaited this decision. Although there is loss in not being able to gather in person, we have found excitement, resilience, and imagination in how ASHE might make this situation into an opportunity to serve our members in new ways.
KerryAnn O'Meara
ASHE 2020 President
Jason P. Guilbeau
ASHE Executive Director