Analysis of the ABA Tax Section’s Reduced Travel Support for Academics

CaptureAusBy: Leandra Lederman

A hot topic among professors at the recent ABA Tax Section meeting in Austin was the reduction in travel support for academics scheduled to take effect with the upcoming meeting in San Diego. As Prof. Bryan Camp wrote on TaxProf blog, The background is that, for years, and through the most recent meeting, full-time professors who have a leadership role in the section (Chair or Vice-Chair of a committee, or higher positions) have received a travel subsidy. The subsidy consists of $100/night toward actual hotel expenses, reimbursement of coach airfare (up to a mileage-based cap*), and $10 towards local transportation. Full-time professors speaking on panels who are not in leadership have also long received a travel subsidy, which I believe is the same as for professors in leadership, except without the $100/night towards hotel room cost. The Tax Section recently decided to eliminate the subsidy for academics, except for those who meet the Section’s definition of “young lawyer,” which has been reported as under age 40 or less than 5 years in practice. (I’m not sure how the “less than 5 years in practice” works, but I imagine it refers to something like bar membership, so that someone like me, who practiced for less than 5 years before entering academia in 1994, would not qualify.)

What’s so sad about this decision is that Tax Section meeting attendance by academics is likely to drop off markedly, although academics add a lot to the Section, as discussed further below. The Teaching Taxation Committee will suffer significantly, and so will other committees with many professors in leadership. It will also be harder to get faculty to speak on panels. There are several factors that will drive this effect:

  1. Law school budgets, and notably travel budgets, have been cut significantly in the wake of student application declines nationally that began in about 2011. My school continues to be generous, but I have heard from so many professors I have lost count about reduced, often dramatically reduced, annual travel budgets for faculty–budgets that may not support more than one or two conferences a year, for example.
  2. Law professors often obtain advance approval for travel commitments. For example, I became a Vice-Chair of the Section’s Tax Policy & Simplification Committee in July. In March, before I accepted the position, I asked my Associate Dean for approval of the associated expense: 3 meetings/year for as long as I continue in leadership, minus the travel subsidy the Tax Section provided. I received approval. The Law School’s budget encompasses the academic year. The recent policy change puts me in the position of have to ask for approval of a larger expense than the Associate Dean had agreed to, if I stay in leadership. In addition, it will be hard to justify attending 3 Tax Section meetings/year without any travel support from the Tax Section.
  3. Law professors generally cannot afford to pay their own way, or can’t justify doing so. Tax Section meetings aren’t for generating business for us; most of us don’t have clients.
  4. Attending Tax Section meetings is expensive. Academics get a reduced registration fee, which is very helpful, but my expenses to attend a meeting are still typically over $1,000. (That’s a fairly conservative floor. My expenses for the Austin meeting were over $1,200.)
    • A big reason for this is hotel cost. It’s not just that the Tax Section meets at nice hotels, which it does (and which has a lot of positive aspects). The hotel cost at Tax Section meetings was hammered home to me many years ago when I attended the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) annual conference in early January that year and returned to the same hotel two weeks later for an ABA Tax Section meeting. (I believe this was in 2002, in New Orleans.) The group rate for the AALS meeting was much less than the group rate for the ABA Tax Section meeting. Of course, room rates can vary due to market factors, but this made me realize that the negotiated rates academic conferences get may be much lower (and started me looking for other rates when attending Tax Section meetings). As an example of Tax Section hotel costs, I spent only 2 nights at the conference hotel at the recent Austin Tax Section meeting (I left on Saturday), and my hotel bill, which included only room charges and taxes, was $572.70. It is of course possible to stay somewhere other than the conference hotel, and some professors do that, but that adds hassle and is a further friction deterring attendance.
    • Here’s a current example of how hotel costs compare to those at academic conferences. The next Tax Section meeting will be in San Diego, on February 8-10. As it happens, the next AALS meeting is also in San Diego, on January 3-6. The conference hotel for the Tax Section is the Hilton San Diego Bayfront. I called the hotel, and the Tax Section’s group rate for a room with a king bed is $309 plus tax. The AALS’s main hotel is another one, but it is a large conference and offers 2 additional hotels, one of which is the Hilton San Diego Bayfront. The AALS conference rate at the Hilton (as at the other 2 AALS hotels) is $165 single occupancy and $170 double occupancy, plus tax. I realize that the conferences are a bit over a month apart, and that may affect room rates. But the difference in cost is dramatic, with the rate at the academic conference much more reflective of tight law school budgets.
  5. The Tax Section meets 3 times a year. Leadership is expended to attend all 3 Tax Section meetings a year, compounding the expense.
  6. Academic conferences generally meet once a year. Academic conferences may also be perceived by some law school administrators as better places to showcase one’s research, and thus are an easier “sell” for professors, as Bryan alluded to in his post.
  7. Many of us law professors are over 40 and will not qualify for the exception. And that is most true of experienced professors with significant expertise to offer.

Here are some of the benefits I think tax professors offer the Section:

  1. Our substantive expertise on panels. We tend to have deep technical and policy expertise in particular areas and can contribute a lot to panels. We’re used to public speaking and tend to be good at explaining complex material. We also typically offer writings, including unpublished ones, that may be useful for CLE purposes.
  2. Input from folks who don’t represent either private parties or the government and thus don’t face any constraints in that regard with respect to what positions they take.
  3. Continuity of leadership. We tend to be well-represented in leadership (perhaps partly because of the travel subsidy) and typically have experience participating in and leading committees in our schools and perhaps in other organizations. To use myself as an example, and just focusing on the Tax Section, in addition to being a new Vice-Chair to Tax Policy & Simplification, I have been a Vice-Chair for the Low-Income Taxpayers Committee and have been through the leadership roles in the Teaching Taxation Committee, including chairing it from 2007-2009.
  4. Writing expertise (and time to do so) for Section publications and Section positions. To again use myself as an example, I served from 2002-2015 as an Associate Editor of the Tax Section’s (former) NewsQuarterly. In that capacity, I authored and co-authored a number of articles and also recommended former students to write pieces under the guidance of the then-Editor, Professor Gail Richmond.
  5. Publicity about the Tax Section to young lawyers (recent alumni) and future young lawyers, i.e., students. We promote the Tax Section in a multitude a ways, including promoting and coaching teams for the Law Student Tax Challenge; discussing in class insights we gained from the meetings, and suggesting to students and recent graduates that they attend Tax Section meetings that are within driving distance. (As an example, when I taught in the Washington, DC area, at George Mason, several of my students attended the May meetings.) When I encourage students and young lawyers to attend, I offer to introduce them around at the meeting, as I did with a recent Indiana alum who was at the meeting. Young lawyers are the future of the Section, and professors meet them first.

For all of these reasons, I really hope the Section will rethink its elimination of the travel subsidy, or at least adopt a transition rule that will get us through the academic year, i.e., through the May 2018 meeting. I think the Section will be the better for it, and that the continued significant involvement of academics will help Section membership in the long run.

* For example, there is a $300 cap for a flight of 501-1,000 miles, which includes the 927 miles between Indianapolis and Austin. I believe in the past my flight cost has generally come in under the cap. My flight this time cost $336.

4 thoughts on “Analysis of the ABA Tax Section’s Reduced Travel Support for Academics

  1. Thank you for a well reasoned and well stated analysis, Leandra. I have been an active and committed Tax Section member for many years. (Indeed, I first met you at a Section meeting!) Among other things, I have chaired two committees and served on a three person task force that prepared a lengthy and (I believe) significant piece of written work. I have spoken at committee meetings many times, have been invited to present at Council meetings and have served in numerous ways. I have enjoyed every minute of it and believe that I have contributed meaningfully.

    I more or less stopped attending Tax Section meetings a couple of years ago when my Law School slashed faculty travel budgets. We now receive only $1500 per year. There is simply no way to participate in the Section any longer. I suspect that I am not alone.

    Best,
    Linda

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing that information, Linda. I’m really sorry to hear that reduction in your travel budget has kept you from attending Tax Section meetings. I certainly think your contributions, including the task force report you mentioned, have been quite valuable!

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  2. I am sad to hear of the decision made by Council regarding a reduction in financial support for academics. I have spoken with academics on panels sponsored by a host of Tax Section sub-committees and have used professors for my own programming as well. I echo your point that all of the panels that I have spoken on and planned involving tax professors have been greatly enriched by having a member of faculty on them. Moreover, I have attended and participated on the panels planned by Teaching Taxation and always find them to be excellent–both in the material covered, timeliness of the topics selected, and breadth of the expertise on the panel. I appreciate that reimbursement costs are significant. That said, I would like to know how transparent ALL items are on Council’s budget. Specifically, as a Tax Section Member, I would like to know how much is spent each year on Council-only functions, such as leadership retreats, dinners, private receptions in the Chair’s suite at the meetings? I am not implying that Council meetings aren’t important. I have, however, attended Council-only functions and have wondered about the expense of the same. My point is that I think it is difficult to evaluate one aspect of the budget without knowing about ALL aspects of the entire budget. Finally, from the outsider’s perspective, Section leadership seems very cloistered. Again, I am not saying we are served by capable leadership, giving much of their personal time to help advance the Tax Section and its good mission. What I am saying is that it seems the same group of people for years are either on or somehow part of Council and, apparently, making important choices about the Tax Section’s budget. So, while not directly related to the issue at hand, I do think that this decision raises some important questions about how Council decisions are made and who is making them. While I am unsure what may come of this decision, I do hope that the coverage of the same might lead to better transparency and thoughtful conversation on Council and it’s decision-making process.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. UPDATE: The Chair of the Tax Section has since announced that the Section will delay the change in reimbursement policy for academics in leadership until fiscal year 2018-2019. See http://taxprof.typepad.com/taxprof_blog/2017/10/aba-tax-section-chair-explains-reduced-travel-support-for-academics.html. That will help those of us in leadership fulfill commitments that were budgeted for by our law schools under the Tax Section’s reimbursement rule in place at the beginning of the academic year.

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