Chris Uggen's Blog: honoraria and felon fund

Thursday, January 26, 2006

honoraria and felon fund

sometimes when I give a talk these days, people offer me an honorarium. i guess this marks movement beyond the who is chris uggen? career stage, into the short-lived but delightful overrated stage. In academic life, an honorarium is simply payment to visit, lecture, review books for publishers, and do those other scholarly things we do. more formally, an honorarium is payment to any professional for services that do not legally or traditionally require a fee.

aside from travel reimbursements, i never request money to visit or talk. such visits are too much fun -- people treat you very well, the audiences are friendly and laugh at your jokes, and the intellectual exchange is great. the only downside is reentry shock when returning home to piles of laundry and dishes, students who are somewhat less excited about your lectures, and buying your own drinks. i try to give colloquia or talks whenever the schedule permits, though i try to limit guest-lecturing in actual classes to the minnversity unless i'm also doing a department talk.

no matter the amount, my benefactors always characterize it as a “small honorarium” or a “token.” sometimes said amount approximates my weekly take-home pay; other times it is smaller but never trivial. that is, if they are only going to give you ten dollars, they don’t call it an “honorarium.” instead, they call it “lunch.” one kind and generous host, who clearly had never seen my car, said that he hoped that their small honorarium ($500!) would not insult me. we use such language, i suppose, because actual famous people who get honoraria are either too rich or too pure to be be tainted by $500. so, we talk as though such amounts are trivial because donald trump (or bill cosby or bill clinton or nelson mandela) might really be insulted by a speaker's fee of $500. when inviting speakers to my department, i learned that a few famous sociologists -- often those the grad students would most like to see -- charge five-figure speaking fees. i guess they might be insulted by $500 too.

i’m never insulted, but I often feel guilty taking money to talk (i feel much less guilty taking money to review books because, well, i'm not the most voracious reader in the discipline). when a department chair hands me a check after a visit, however, it feels a little like bringing dirty cash into the pure house of love (just leave the money on the nightstand, honey). of course, i report my outside earnings to the government and the minnversity on a report of professional activities form. i also try to think of productive ways to spend it to assuage the guilt:

1. direct honoraria to charities. i sometimes try to redirect the honoraria to some group or charity i find worthy or interesting. last year i tried to divert an honorarium to a musician's hurricane relief fund. unfortunately, that created a hassle for the accountants. so, they still ended up cutting me a personal check.

2. formally redistribute honoraria to research assistants. sometimes i've involved grad students in public criminology work that does not pay or pays very little. so, i've cashed my check and then written them a personal check. because i'm still liable for the taxes on the income -- and i'm taxed at a much higher rate than the students -- my accountant thought this was about the funniest thing he'd ever heard. "ha ha! that's a good one - you're a real smart professor, all right. how long did you go to school? and you're teaching my kids?"

3. informally redistribute honoraria. this is a little sketchier. instead of cutting an actual check, i just try to buy meals and libations at conferences and such for grad students and friends. these are expenses i feel a little guilty about when the mastercard bill comes, but i assuage the "taking money off the family table to live it up in san francisco" guilt if i've got a little "honoraria" money offsetting it.

4. shovel it into the family furnace. sometimes i just put it into the checking account, where it burns away immediately, leaving not a trace of evidence that it ever actually existed.

none of these seem satisfactory. i'd really like to find some way to use the honoraria more meaningfully and productively. so, i've got a new idea, inspired by joseph 'jazz' hayden, a formerly incarcerated person. a few years ago, mr. hayden quieted a large group of lefty academics, activists, and policy types by raising a simple question. i don't remember his exact words, but it was something like, "i'm so happy and proud to see all you fine professors and experts here this morning to talk about prisoners. all your writing and talks and concern and activity is so very important. but can you just just give me one example and tell me one little thing that any of you have done to help the brothers in the penitentiary?"

ouch. his question really got to me. i've been making good money for the past decade talking and writing about crime and reintegration, but what have i really done to help somebody who is trying to rebuild their life after prison? not much. i've given tiny amounts to research organizations such as the sentencing project and the council on crime and justice, but nothing to former prisoners themselves. i hope my research and teaching counts for something, of course, but it seems stupid to worry about how to get rid of money when there are so many in need. so, i'm going to try another approach.

5. start a felon fund. henceforth, i'm going to redirect the honoraria into a little felon fund. my goal is to build a scholarship or fellowship for somebody returning from the system and giving it their best shot.

i'm not sure whether to direct the felon fund toward expungement or education or some other aspect of reentry, but the important thing is to get started. i figure that if i blog about it, i'll have to get off my butt and do it. what kind of sleazeball would write about setting up such a fund and then not actually follow through? given my, ahem, slowness in accomplishing any non-academic task, i'll try to enlist some help in setting this up (sorry, kim. we'll get the cards out too, i promise). i'll hereby guarantee to kick in at least half of any 2006 honoraria, with a greater percentage coming once i figure out the tax thing. for me, finding a personal answer to jazz hayden's question will be a marathon and not a sprint. the felon fund won't amount to much for some time, but it feels like a small step in the right direction.


At 9:35 PM, Blogger Mike W. said...

I'm not so certain there's a qualitative difference between honoraria redistribution plans #1 and #2.

At 5:29 AM, Anonymous shadd said...

I had a similar experience to your Jazz Hayden moment at one of the reentry roundtable meetings a few years ago. I don’t think you were at this particular event – you must have been giving a talk someplace. Anyhow, it was the usual academic suspects (probably the same reintegration folks that were at your panel with Hayden) sitting around the table talking about how much reentry research we needed and how much it was going to cost us to get a proper national sample. One of the two or three ex-prisoners invited to the discussion (sorry, forgot his name) made the following speech which I can only paraphrase unfortunately, but will never forget:

“All this research into reentry and all sounds good, you know. It sort of reminds me of when I was inside. Every time you’d get a visit or go anywhere, they’d strip you down and make you bend over, make you spread your cheeks, and they’d look up your ass with a flashlight to see if you was sneaking anything in. Now, I was inside for twenty years, man, and for twenty years, they would bend me over and look up my ass, and you know what? They never found a goddamn thing. But that didn’t stop them the next time from bending me over again the next day.”

There was some nervous laughter, a few of us clapped. He sat down and we went back to talking about what sort of sample size we’d need in order to really understand reentry and how we were going to convince the funders to give us all the money we’d need to do it.

Let me know when you get your felon fund up and running and I’ll donate my honorariums too (though I warn you, they won’t compare to your own – five figures? who gets five figures? What kind of figures?)

At 11:20 AM, Anonymous chris said...

mike, good point. advisors should do #3 anyway, honoraria or no honoraria.

shadd, my brother! your story makes the point far more effectively than mine. i'll take you up on your generous offer and appoint you to the board. the felon fund needs a little oversight, lest it become another human fund. for the record, i did receive a five-figure honorarium once -- paid in japanese yen.

At 10:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


GREAT IDEA, But how about starting a X-felon "EMPLOYMENT HELP fund" to help with the employment difficulties those that have convictions have happen to them (and it is truely dejecting time after time).

Most who have felony convictions and who have "paid their debt" are not allowed to move on but have to keep paying over and over as no one will employ one with a conviction today ---no one wants a hand-out, just a fair chance to work and get back into society, and live life as a good citizen and good person.

But, if you cannot find a job or work earning a decent wage, a/k/a a GOOD job, you cannot break the cycle --- and almost no help is out there for this aspect of employment as the inevitable question comes up: "(D)o you have any felony convictions"? which is on ALL applications (with NO time limit...not 10, 20, 30, 40 years, sad to say) and if you put down "yes", you can kiss that job app. goodbye as it will get "trash canned" real quick 99.0% of the time!

No matter if you go back to School for 7+ years, earn an AA, BA, and MBA -- think finding something substantial to work at will happen ? NOPE.

Since 9/11, background checks (which is code for felony convictions and..crazy thing is it would not have found those terrorists that way either) are a component of EVERY application process, (with the exception of the ban the box campain)even for sweeping the floor -- if you have a conviction most will not hire you AND IT IS LEGAL to do this under employment law !

Yes, help with employment would be a better idea IMHO and would be the best thing anyone who wants to help could do for someone with a conviction !

I DO commend you (and all who commented or offered their help), on WANTING to help, thats more than most people do !


At 11:27 AM, Blogger frankr said...

My name is Franklin and I have a family of six. My common-law is the only source of income we have because I can't find employment. Please help me find some resources because we are soon facing being homless soon. My wife's e-mail address is

At 11:26 AM, Blogger melisa said...

my name is melisa and i am an x-felon and am finding it very hard to go to school under pell grant and find work after they run a back ground check. If you have any helpful advice e-mail me back at

At 9:10 PM, Blogger Snow said...

I think this is an excellent idea. An ex-prisoner who is very close to me suffers a great amount because of all the expenses that go along with being a prisoner and felon. Not only is it hard to find a job with a felony (nearly impossible to find a GOOD job) , but felons are expected to pay (for my friend) for probation $330 a year for five years, and random UA's $16.50 per UA. And now 14 months after he has been released he gets a letter saying he owes $3,500 in restitution. I am not implying that restituion is wrong, but HOW IS HE SUPPOSED TO EVER GET AHEAD!?!


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