“Pay me for my expertise”–on the issue of honoraria for talks by academics




Every few years (months?) discussion surfaces on what a “fair” remuneration is for academics who give a talk. For instance, today on Twitter Jennifer van Alstyne argued that PhD holders should charge a minimum of $3500 for a one-hour talk. This struck many as unrealistic. Very few academics other than, say, Yuval Harari, will be able to command large honoraria. Many very stellar folk are willing to come and talk for a modest honorarium. 

In defense of the claim that our speaking fees should be higher than they are we often see a variation of the justice argument: van Alstyne writes, “PhDs have varied salaries. Only a small % of professors are tenured. Do you think an adjunct professor should be happy with their ‘salary’? That they don’t deserve to be paid for a speaking engagement? That’s wild to me. All professors deserve to be paid for their expertise.” 

We also often see the time compensation argument: $3500 is not as excessive as it first appears if we see the speaking engagement as a whole in terms of specialized academic labor.  A one-hour talk involves a lot more work than just one hour. I estimate (fairly accurately, as I have kept time diaries in the past)  if I write a talk from scratch and it is on a new topic it takes me about 10-14 hours to do so (I am not counting the amount of prep reading as this is usually preceding the talk, as it usually relates to things I’m working on). There is the inconvenience of travel. Moreover, you will also socialize, sometimes talk to the grad students (in colloquium talks), go to dinner after etc (this is usually pleasant and not a chore, but still part of the professional broader time commitment of giving a talk).

Finally, there is the argument of proper remuneration for expertise by minorities. Oftentimes, minorities such as Indigenous, Black, trans, and disabled scholars are expected to give free advice and free consulting. This is unjust. It is only normal and proper we should be properly compensated for our labor. 

Ultimately, I think those three arguments do not work. 

I do not think the justice argument works because academic talks cannot somehow right the wrongs of structural injustices in academia. Adjuncts are not often asked to give plenary or colloquium talks and if they are, it is often by institutions that cannot afford to give a large honorarium. The last conference I was at that had a couple of adjuncts as invited speakers was at a cash-strapped state university. No way could they afford to give four-figure honoraria! They just paid my travel expenses. 

Indeed, the problem with invited talks, or invited book projects, or being part of editorial boards, or on co-investigators on a grant, etc is the Matthew effect, whereby already-privileged individuals are in higher demand, often overasked, and can thus more easily turn down the opportunity if it doesn’t fit them. This already leads to a skew in how much people are offered. I have definitely noticed that offered honoraria have increased now I am a full professor, especially compared to when I was a postdoc but even when I had a position at a more teaching-focused college (it could be, of course, a coincidence, but it’s hard to find systematic figures on this).

When I was a postdoc, I was often invited to give a talk but regrettably (so the email often went) they could not pay for my travel. At one point I was asked to be the respondent to a paper by a prestigious, well-known philosopher at a small conference that took place across the Atlantic. They could not pay my travel and hotel (they did pay the main speakers). I asked advice from senior folk (trusted mentors) who said I really could not afford to say no, that I should get my name out there and foot my own bill. But then, after some deliberation I realized I could not make it work. I didn’t have the travel funds and so I declined, wondering for a long time after if doing that materially worsened my chances on the job market. 

I think the time compensation argument does not work, because asking for a fair amount would price out a lot of smaller institutions, out of what is an important part of knowledge exchange. It’s reasonable to see talks we give as part of a broader knowledge exchange and part of our job. We can use the feedback we get from scholars to feed into our work, and because of intellectual diversity, it benefits us that this feedback not only comes from people who are at wealthy institutions that could pay high honoraria. Indeed, some prominent scholars (who do this without fanfare and so I respect their privacy) use their research funds to subsidize their travel to underfunded small colleges in the US and abroad. So, the broader issue of justice in honoraria conflicts with other issues of justice namely on which institutions should be part of knowledge exchange. 

While I am very sympathetic to the proper remuneration for expertise by minorities argument, I ultimately think it fails too. Now, it is a fact that minority scholars who are often already in tenuous positions are asked for their expertise for free, where a consulting session or even just proper credit is warranted. I have had many talks with people about how to make philosophy of religion more friendly to women, or how to increase racial diversity, etc. But, as above, I’m unsure if asking high honoraria is the way to right those structural problems. It is I think good for starters to decline the free consulting sessions (“I’m sorry I don’t have time” will do it). But a talk on, say, philosophy of race strikes me as an academic talk that is still part of the broader exchange of information and so I think similar standards apply. 

To address structural problems, I think organizers rather than speakers can do a lot. The following are things I believe are good practices for invited speakers: 

Unless it’s a symposium or something like that at an APA or other large conference, so especially if it’s something you organize at your institution, try to at the very least pay for travel, lodging and incidental spending so the invited speaker does not need to invest money in coming to speak for you. It’s also nice to offer a small honorarium as token of appreciation if you can afford it. 
The above applies a fortiori if your speaker is not tenure-track or tenured, or works at a small teaching-focused institution, which may mean they have less access to travel funding. Please do not assume a postdoc will say yes for the CV value. Even if they do, you should not put them in that position. 
If the people you invite are not academics, I think you should offer more than the $250 or $500 for a talk. I had a workshop this summer with full-time fiction writers who gave plenary talks and mentored the workshop participants, and offered them far more because these people are not normally part of the information exchange ecology of academia, where disseminating your ideas is part of the job and where you might learn new and interesting things by giving your talk. 
Have structures in place so you can give the honorarium away in case the plenary speaker refuses it! It’s really surprising to me that this often does not exist (anecdotal observation, both as a potential recipient and as organizer at institutions) . If the plenary speaker says “I don’t want the honorarium, give it to a grad student for travel instead, or give it to a charity”, then there are places that just don’t have anything in place to do just that. 
When thinking of names for potential speakers, consider people who are not in tenured or tenure track positions. 
Do not ask minority scholars for free consulting sessions, to “pick their brain” about something in their area of expertise, or to do free labor on your behalf. This is what I think prompts the (reasonable!) demand to properly compensate people for their time. Consider paying for a consulting session. At the very least, give them proper credit so they are not invisible consultants.  


Originally appeared on The Philosophers’ Cocoon Read More



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