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Sabbaticals on Leave

March 6, 2009

Ah, the sabbatical …

Considered one of the great benefits granted college professors, the sabbatical is that rare occasion when a professor’s work can become his life.

No teaching.

No meetings.

Fewer, if any, early morning fights for a parking space.

It is perhaps no surprise that something that sounds as good as a sabbatical is now viewed in some quarters as a luxury these troubled times cannot abide. Several college leaders have announced in recent months that they will curtail or suspend sabbaticals altogether next year, opening a debate about whether granting research-intensive leave and professional development time is practical when colleges are laying off faculty or freezing hiring.

When Kent State University’s provost recently announced that the university would reject most applications for “faculty professional improvement leave” next year, Susan Roxburgh saw her research plans put on hold. Roxburgh, an associate professor in sociology, was planning to submit a grant proposal to the National Institutes of Health for her research on quality of life issues. The decision to cut sabbaticals "entirely contradicts the mission of the university and the mission of our new president, who has emphasized research,” according to Roxburgh, who was among nearly 60 eligible faculty members denied sabbaticals for 2009-10.

Roxburgh, who has already taken one sabbatical in her academic career, said the general public’s misconceptions about sabbaticals make them easy targets during tough financial times.

“I think politically it’s an easy choice for an administrator to make precisely for that reason,” she said. “I’ve frequently had people say to me ‘Oh, so where are you going [on sabbatical]?’ Well, I’m going to my office every day. I don’t do research in other countries; I sit at my desk and do [research].”

“There’s more broadly a misconception about what academics do,” she added. “People are, I think, secretly appalled when they hear I teach two classes a semester. The two courses doesn’t include my administrative work; it doesn’t include the grad students I supervise, which is extremely time consuming; and it doesn’t include my research, which always seems to come to the bottom of the list.”

At Kent State, as at many other colleges, tenured faculty members are granted sabbaticals after seven years of service. Bob Frank, the university’s provost, said the university could save as much as $500,000 by canceling the sabbaticals. He acknowledges, however, that the estimate is “very crude,” and it’s been challenged by faculty who say the short-term savings wouldn’t reach that level and the potential long-term gains in grants and contracts aren’t part of Frank’s calculation.

“I think it certainly challenges our aspirations to have the best research program we can develop,” Frank said of the decision. “We are looking at a series of stark choices. While it does create an extra challenge, it keeps our manpower. It’s not a great option. It’s not one we sought.”

When the university made its decision, Frank said that budget cuts of 25 percent were being contemplated. Estimated cuts are much lower now, and Frank said he hoped sabbaticals would return in the future. In the interim, however, Frank said he wants a special faculty committee to review the process by which sabbaticals are awarded, and “tighten up” the requirements for faculty to document what they’ve done while on leave.

“I think we just want to be able to demonstrate the value of this extraordinary luxury academics have in life,” said Frank, who has never taken a sabbatical.

Unions Try to Protect Sabbaticals

At Fitchburg State College, in Fitchburg, Mass., administrators granted only two of 11 sabbatical requests for next year. In a typical year, Fitchburg would “grant virtually all of them, if not all of them,” but budget constraints forced the decision to curtail sabbaticals, according to Michael Shanley, executive assistant to the president for external affairs.

The two requests that Fitchburg State granted were for one-year sabbaticals. Faculty who take full-year sabbaticals do so at half salary, as opposed to taking half-year sabbaticals at full pay.

The college’s chapter of the Massachusetts State College Association, which is affiliated with the National Education Association, has asked the statewide grievance committee to take up the issue of denied sabbaticals. Ann Mrvica, president of the chapter, said the chapter does not anticipate that the sabbaticals will be granted simply because of a union challenge. Even so, the chapter has questions about the process, including whether those who were denied will be given priority when sabbatical funding returns.

While Mrvica does not dispute that the college has the contractual right to deny sabbaticals for financial reasons, she said administrators should have considered each application individually instead of giving a blanket denial to all half-year sabbaticals.

“They were not considered for their academic merits,” said Mrvica, a professor within the Department of Communications Media. “They were just told no sabbaticals this year because there’s no money.”

The Massachusetts State College Association, which represents Fitchburg and eight other campuses, is currently in contract negotiations. The association is likely to pursue sabbatical revisions similar to those recently negotiated by the Massachusetts Society of Professors, an NEA-affiliated union that will vote to ratify its contract today.

Randall Phillis, president of the union’s chapter at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said the new contract will give faculty members greater flexibility. The current contract strictly mandates that the sabbatical be taken in a faculty member’s seventh year, but the new contract would allow faculty more control over timing.

“What we know from our members is sabbaticals [should] happen when the best opportunities arise, and those things don’t always happen in the seventh year,” said Phillis, an associate professor of biology.

Under the new contract, faculty could take sabbaticals before the seventh year, just not at full pay. Faculty could also wait longer than seven years without losing the opportunity altogether.

The union attempted to increase the university's financial support for sabbaticals, urging that faculty taking full-year sabbaticals be given as much as 80 percent pay, as opposed to 50 percent. There are certain projects – think measuring annual climate change in the Arctic – that require a full year, and faculty in those areas of study are sometimes unable to pursue worthy research because of financial constraints, Phillis said.

“I think the payoff is scholarly effort,” he said. “Sabbaticals are not vacations. Sabbaticals are scholarship opportunities where people are tremendously productive. … That brings prestige to the university; that brings grants to the university.”

Increased Scrutiny

Some campuses are stopping short of an outright moratorium or formal curtailment of sabbaticals, opting instead to simply give the strong suggestion that there’s a higher standard now for granting leave from teaching. The University of Toledo’s provost has asked deans, for instance, to be more conservative about granting sabbaticals because the teaching burden is greater now that faculty hiring is slowing down.

“If a faculty member goes on sabbatical, that’s one less person to do the work of the department that needs to be done,” Rosemary Haggett, Toledo's provost, told the Independent Collegian.

In many cases, however, a tenured faculty member who goes on sabbatical is replaced with a less expensive adjunct instructor. As such, some faculty say there’s room for debate about what sabbaticals actually cost the university in dollars or classroom sections.

At Fitchburg State, Mrvica surmises that faculty members on yearlong sabbaticals collecting half pay would leave the university with approximately $35,000 to carry a typical faculty load of four courses. Filling those courses with adjuncts would run the university roughly $32,000, and therefore “the yearlong sabbaticals are not costing them anything,” Mrvica said.

Mrvica's logic appears to have prevailed, since Fitchburg ultimately granted the two yearlong sabbatical applications, after first rejecting them.

If there’s a trend toward curtailing sabbaticals during the economic downturn, its full impact is unclear. The American Association of University Professors does not track sabbatical numbers across its membership. The impact on faculty at individual institutions, however, is beginning to come to light. At the University of Georgia, for instance, a new level of scrutiny for “leaves of absence with pay" -- Georgia's equivalent of a sabbatical -- has resulted in a major shift. The university approved just nine applications for paid leave this year, which is a third or a quarter of the normal number.

As for what the future holds at Georgia, Provost Arnett C. Mace indicated the conservative approach is likely to continue.

“We are not totally suspending professional development leave,” Mace said in a statement through Georgia’s press office. “But we will be very discriminating given the financial condition within the University of Georgia.”

 

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