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RSA2020 and COVID-19 Update March 14

Dear Members of RSA and Registrants of the 2020 Conference,

The past few weeks have been challenging for each of us and for our families, friends, and communities. Universities across the United States have canceled face-to-face classes, moving instruction on-line. Some colleges have canceled all non-essential travel. Students, international students in particular, have experienced both stigma and isolation. Scholars involved in international travel have faced difficult choices about when to return to the United States and, once they return, how to keep themselves and their loved-one's safe. Cities and states, such as New York, Oregon, and parts of California have banned any gathering of over 250 people. No doubt, some members of our organization are currently involved in social distancing and self-quarantine.

Amid this developing situation, which seems to change every day and even hour by hour, the Steering Committee and Board of Directors for RSA have been involved in research, deliberations, and negotiations about the 2020 RSA Conference in Portland, OR. In particular, RSA's Executive Director, Jerry Hauser and our President-elect, Michelle Ballif, have been in regular conversation with our conference management firm, our attorney, and our local hosts in Portland. Most obviously, we have not canceled the conference.

Our primary goal is to act in a way that promotes membership health and safety--both personal and financial. Our secondary goal is to protect the Rhetoric Society of America from a situation where its future viability is threatened. These goals are not antithetical, but the relationship between them puts enormous pressure on the timing of decisions made by Michelle Ballif, her conference team, and the Board of Directors. We have done our best so far, and we are grateful for the words of encouragement we've received. In this email, I want to outline the choices that RSA faces in this moment and offer an opportunity for individual members and non-member registrants to withdraw from the RSA Conference and receive a full refund of their registration fee.

If we cancel the conference under circumstances in which it is possible for most of our membership to travel to Portland, RSA will be exposed to contractual penalties and expenses that would threaten the organization's solvency. Although RSA has sufficient reserve funds to operate the Society for a full year, those funds are not enough to cover the penalties that the Society would incur if we cancel the conference too early. This is a key difference that RSA faces when compared to several other academic associations who have canceled March or April conferences. If the date of our conference was in early April, we could cancel today because the State of Oregon has instituted a four-week ban on assemblies over 250 people. Because the governor's actions are limited and the ban will end weeks before our conference begins, our current contracts remain in effect.

It is for this reason that the Board of Directors and RSA's Steering Committee are engaged in four activities:

  • We are negotiating with the conference hotel and various vendors to find either a solution to this situation or alternatives for the conference.
  • We are continuing to plan a conference that will, most probably, be smaller than our typical conference.
  • We are providing RSA members and non-member registrants with the opportunity to cancel their conference registration and receive a full refund. 
  • We are asking those members who can to refrain from cancelation as we attempt to pursue a resolution that protects both the membership and the Society.

If the crisis continues and the current travel-bans are extended or expanded, RSA will cancel the Portland, OR conference. If normal travel resumes in and around Portland in time for our conference, then RSA either will have to hold a smaller conference or pursue an alternative, such as rescheduling the event. We have investigated the option of holding the conference exclusively online in a virtual format. Unfortunately, the cost of securing a vendor and providing support staff and training for online sessions is more than what the Society can afford, especially given the uncertainty of this moment.

If you would like to withdraw from the conference, please send an email to In that email, identify yourself and your institution. We will look up your account and process it that way. If your college or university is no longer reimbursing non-essential travel, could you please state so in your email? Knowing how many institutions have canceled non-essential travel for the semester will be useful data as RSA negotiates its position with the hotel. We have the contact information for those of you who withdrew from the conference before today and will begin to process of returning 100% of your registration fee. To be clear, we are suspending our posted refund schedule, which means that RSA will return 100% of the registration fee for any registrant.

There are several things I need to stress regarding withdrawal from the conference. First, we cannot add you back to the program at a later date once you withdraw. That is the case for those of you who have canceled already and for those members who will cancel in the coming weeks. Second, any panels that drop to just one paper will be regrouped into single paper panels, and we will do our best to keep them in their original time slots. Third, we are refunding conference registration fees but not membership dues. Fourth, please be patient; refunds will take time. There is only one person, Kathie Cesa, who is processing each refund, and she must do it by hand. Fifth, after you withdraw, check with your airline immediately. Many of them are offering fee waivers or greater flexibility in repurposing tickets because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those waivers and exceptions are evolving as the crisis expands, so even if your airline will not refund or repurpose your ticket immediately its position may change in several weeks.

Finally, if you are not sure about whether you want to withdraw at this moment, I ask that you wait. Check with your airline and make sure you have a way to recoup your costs, but please consider waiting to see how the coming weeks develop. This will reduce work for the conference organizers who are revising the schedule just about every day as each person cancels. I cannot promise that we will know the event’s final disposition by March 31, but I can provide everyone with more information about the prospects of the 2020 Biennial Conference in two weeks.

I hope that each of you finds ways to keep teaching and researching and learning in this unprecedented environment. Most of all, please stay safe. You have my deepest gratitude and that of the entire Board of Directors.

In appreciation,

Kirt Wilson
President, Rhetoric Society of America

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