Hawaii: Island of the Mysterious Academic Conference

At this very moment a whole bunch of academics are gripping their Starbucks grandes and nodding intently during the Modern Language Association’s convention in Seattle. Meanwhile, in Chicago, another group of academics is pondering imagined communities in post-revolutionary Mexico and figuring out how to turn their dissertations into books at the American Historical Association’s annual gathering.

Seattle and Chicago are lovely cities, for sure, though they can be a tad chilly this time of year. So if you’re a scholar who loves the sun, you’d probably have a better time at the 2012 Arts & Humanities Conference put on by Hawaii University International Conferences in Honolulu. The conference, which begins this Sunday, is, according to the Web site, “dedicated to academicians and individuals from all disciplines to discover, to nurture, to create, and to inspired [sic].” In addition, you will be able to “share, discuss and exchange ideas, and exploring relevant individual requirements [also sic].”

Sounds great, no?

Now, it might give you pause to learn that there is no such thing as Hawaii University. But rather than fret about that, instead concentrate on the “serene beauty and cultural of these islands [sic]” that provide such a pretty setting for deep thinking.

I hadn’t heard of Hawaii University International Conferences until I got an e-mail from a professor who thought she had submitted a presentation for the very similarly named Hawaii International Conference on Arts & Humanities, which begins next Tuesday in Honolulu. She was confused.

And it is confusing! Hawaii International Conference on Arts & Humanities (henceforth HIC) has been around for a decade, while Hawaii University International Conferences (henceforth HUIC) appears to have set up shop last year. The two Web sites also bear a striking resemblance.

I tried and failed, over several days, to get in touch with anyone from HIC. E-mails went unanswered, phone calls unreturned. I did, however, speak with Ray Aubrey, who identified himself as the president of HUIC, the upstart with the creative grammar. Aubrey is also the founder of Electronic Resources, which, according to this article, provides background music for various local establishments.

Aubrey didn’t reveal much. He wouldn’t say how many people are attending the conference, though according a program schedule, there will be nearly 400 (!) presenters. He wouldn’t explain to me how the conference determines which presentations to accept, though he did assure me they were reviewed. He wouldn’t say who reviewed them. When I asked who, other than Aubrey himself, was involved in running the conference, he wouldn’t say.

Some less-than-reputable academic conferences attract attendees by sending out thousands of e-mails, earning them the designation “spamferences.” I asked Aubrey if that’s what HUIC does. He wouldn’t say.

What he would say is that HUIC is a successful business offering an important service. “Professors in universities need to be published and this is part of their repertoire for gaining tenure,” said Aubrey.

As for confusion over the name, he did acknowledge that some people mistakenly think that calling it Hawaii University International Conferences implies that there is, in fact, a Hawaii University. One professor told him she thought that and he considered it such a stupid remark that he couldn’t believe she had a Ph.D. “The name totally says what it is,” he said.

The Web page listing the conference’s sponsors (which, at the risk of overkill, I’ll note is spelled “sponsers”) has changed in recent days. Previously it listed West Chester University. But a spokeswoman for West Chester said the institution was not a sponsor, and a day later its name was removed. Now listed at the top is the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Association.

HUIC has hosted just one previous event, a math and engineering conference held last year. I exchanged e-mails with a couple of attendees who said real academics had been there, giving actual presentations. Indeed, the list of presenters for the arts and humanities conference includes scholars from many prestigious institutions, including Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Wake Forest University, California State University at Northridge, Boston College, Lewis and Clark College, Scripps College, and plenty more.

While Aubrey didn’t divulge much about his business, he did allow that it’s been successful and that every single attendee, including presenters, pays the $450 registration fee (it’s $350 if you registered before September 30). My back-of-the-envelope math indicates that’s well into the six figures in revenue if you count just the fees from those making presentations. “We must be doing something right,” Aubrey said.

While questions about the conference may linger, no doubt everyone who attends will have a terrific experience—especially if their institutions are picking up the tab. As the Web site says: “Join us here in Hawaii for the most comprehensive conference, and learn with us in an inspiring atmosphere our beautiful Islands provide [sic].”

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