Leaves and Expectations

C.K. Gunsalus considers what to do in a department where some consider time away from teaching duties to be a privilege and others consider it a right.
June 19, 2009

Dear Survival Guide:

We are experiencing a problem that I suspect may be generational. Our faculty members have very different views on how leaves are to be taken. Many of our younger faculty members see leaves not as a privilege, but as a right. Our policies are clear that all leaves require the approval of the department and must be structured around the needs of the institution. When faculty members are awarded recognition that carries with it funding for a leave, they expect to be able to take that leave immediately, without regard for teaching schedules, department responsibilities, or already-scheduled absences of their colleagues. When not instantly accommodated, they are seriously aggrieved. I don’t see how we’re going to staff all our courses next year if everyone who wants to take a leave gets one: almost a quarter of our faculty want to go on leave. The ramifications of this have begun to significantly affect the function and morale of the department. Help!


Tired of Being the Bad Guy

Dear Tired:

This is a hot topic right now, and a complex one. The underlying issue is that we in higher education send powerful mixed messages about what it takes to succeed, with a heavy emphasis on scholarly achievements. If we send the message that scholarship is all that matters for achieving tenure, getting promoted or for receiving what raises there are, then it’s only rational for faculty members to push hard for structuring their work in the way that is conducive to their highest productivity in that area. That is related to, but still distinct from, possible generational differences in perspectives about work and entitlements. As if this were not all complicated enough, there are also thorny definitional questions because we typically have so many categories of separate leaves available: paid and unpaid, university-based and externally-sponsored competitive fellowship programs. We have research-based leaves, sabbaticals, project-based leaves, and both internal and external programs that fund releases from some or all teaching for a period of time. And then there’s the current state of the economy: if the money to hire visitors to replace those on leave has evaporated, that might completely change how a department views a request to be away.

Messages sent and received. Let’s talk about fundamentals first. How well are your terms of employment and expectations laid out, especially for younger faculty members first entering the academy? Yours is a selective institution, so it’s a good bet that most of your young faculty have earned their degrees in places where they’ve worked with high-powered, well-established people. What did they observe about the value of teaching and service in their training years? When entering your institution, what kind of information did they get about what it takes to succeed? Messages on these topics are received not only from official orientation programs and handbooks, but also through the “informal curriculum” of how the senior people behave and the culture surrounding your young faculty. Is teaching something everyone schemes to get out of, or is it clearly established and fully expected that even the most senior scholars teach both undergraduates and graduate students? Likely, it’s somewhere in between, and varies across the institution depending on the local culture or microclimate in the faculty member’s department or most immediate group.

There are some questions it might be helpful for you and your colleagues to ask yourselves. In research universities, we talk a lot about a tripartite mission of teaching, research and service. Does your institution actually value teaching and service? Does your unit? Is there any consequence for a faculty member who isn’t carrying his or her share of the teaching load? What about departmental and campus service obligations? Are the people who pull their weight in these areas respected? What weight is accorded to service in annual evaluations? Do your forms even ask about it? Your administrators? What kind of messages, in appropriate settings, does your leadership convey to the faculty and to the public about the role of teaching in the life of the institution? Is it believable or does it come across as only lip service? These are all factors in the information your young faculty absorb. Does your administration and faculty understand how taking more than one paid or unpaid leave affects tenure clocks for the untenured? Is there a clear sense how a series of leaves might be read when it’s time for promotion?

Leave policies. Getting back to the definitional conundrum, are your policies clear about the different rules that apply to various sorts of leaves? For example, for sabbatical leaves, it’s usual for decisions to turn on the quality of the research statement and the faculty member’s overall productivity. It’s usually understood that a certain number of years of service are required before earning eligibility and then there are typically differentiations for the length of the leave and the percentage of pay available. Do your policies do all of this? If your rules on sabbaticals are clear, are other leave policies just as clear in terms of eligibility and the bases for decisions? Do your policies cover fellowships or competitive programs that support faculty travel and research?

Rules for buying out teaching. Do your policies cover internal and external programs that provide funding for faculty members to “buy out” of their teaching obligations? How do you “price” the cost of releasing all or part of a faculty member’s teaching responsibilities? At actual salary, or the cost for a visitor to replace the faculty member? Is it enough to pay for a graduate student stipend to cover classes? Are there special rules for competition-based programs that are only available in specific time windows, and those that bring special recognition to the home college?

Combining. Do your rules cover what happens when an entrepreneurially-minded person tries to combine different leaves? Could a faculty member win a competitive fellowship, say a Guggenheim, and then add onto it a semester of unpaid leave or a semester of teaching release time and effectively be out of the classroom for a year or more? What about time after a leave before eligibility for the next one? Could a faculty member be gone one semester one year and then another, from a different funding source, the next year? Three semesters in a row? Four? For each variety of leave that is possible, the guidelines and instructions on it should seek information about how the full range of the faculty member’s obligations will be covered, including teaching and service.

Application of the policies. There are other considerations that also factor in here. In the on-the-ground experience, how even-handedly are leaves awarded? Are overall department needs factored in before all leaves are approved, or is that only for some sorts but not others? Is there a de facto system of first-come-first-served, or is there a system for assessing how many previous leaves have been approved, how productive they were, where people are on the tenure track, and other relevant factors? Are these factors known and their application reasonably transparent? Is there buy-in (at least among the older, established faculty) of how the department’s priorities and systems work? Does the next-higher administrative level pay any attention to these factors? Monitor them? Give any feedback to units that deviate from the norm?

Most important of all, are your department’s practices consistent with those of similar disciplines on your campus and among your peers? If not, reach out more broadly on your campus to work on better consistency. No matter how strong you think your policy statements and practices are, take a fresh look to see if they can be improved. Redouble your efforts to frame all your processes in terms of the best interests of the institution: this leave is approved to advance your scholarship and because we are properly staffed to cover our mission that semester. Upon your return, we anticipate that you will be assigned X, Y or Z....

Forms and documents. Let’s assume that your department and college have a reasonable record of valuing teaching and service. It may be that it is time to revisit the language of your letters of offer, of your department written materials, and your practices for awarding leaves. Maybe the expectations you describe as being held by your young faculty are simply rooted in ignorance and understandable egocentric focus on their own drive to succeed. One part of the answer here might be improving how your university educates new employees about the norms and expectations for being a professor there.

Take a look, as well, at the forms on which leaves are requested and the practices and documents that surround how they are awarded. Are they clearly explained? Are there factors in the approval process beyond how it would advance the scholarship of the applicant? Do your documents list those considerations? If the answer to any of these questions is “No,” or “Well, it’s a little ambiguous...”, consider starting a process to revise the forms and their instructions. The goal should be to help set expectations about the process from the very beginning. Review what your handbook and any relevant websites say about leaves, and make sure they are also consistent with the expectations and practices that prevail -- or that should prevail.

Gen Whatever. Now let’s turn to the generational issue. As a broad characterization, there’s a perception in many places that younger faculty members -- whatever moniker you might want to assign to their cohort -- approach work and the workweek in ways that diverge from previous generations. In our exchange, you explained your perception that “the young generation is more technologically savvy, expect a quick turnaround on decisions, don’t buy into the 70- hour work week, want immediate feedback and work more collaboratively. For instance, one young faculty said he could stay in touch with his students while on leave using Skype and other technology. Boomers will argue you need to be in the same room or in the hallways. I don’t know that either is right but they represent different world views. I’ve read that while this generation respects authority they are not as invested in the hierarchy so will go over the executive officers head to get what they want or in the case of leaves not consult the unit head until they have secured the funding or course release time.”

If there are emergent generational differences, that only increases the responsibility upon institutions to be explicit up front about expectations and to be as clear as possible in all policies and forms. The university needs to speak with a consistent voice on these matters.

Being the bad guy can be your job. After you’ve collected the answers to all these questions and considered how the environment looks to those seeking these leaves, as well as whether your policies can be improved/strengthened, the moment will come where it might just be your job to be the bad guy, no matter how tiresome that might feel. Just as the faculty member might feel the imperative to ask for the leave to meet his or her perceived personal goals, it’s your job to look out for the good of the whole. More times than feels comfortable, this can require saying “No.” The more you understand how it looks from the other end of the telescope, the stronger your own decision-making will be, and the better your responses.

This may be a generational issue. It might also be a communication issue. It’s likely some of both, and increased clarity in communication is essential in addressing it.


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