Renewing the Presidency

Sabbaticals are common in higher education -- for professors. Should more college chief executives take them?
April 5, 2006

David E. Shi loves his job. But two years ago, almost a decade into his presidency at Furman University, he found himself at a career crossroads. An established historian, Shi yearned to research and write again, and like many college presidents, he felt worn down by the increasing demands of the job -- particularly after an emotionally wrenching year in which members of the South Carolina institution’s soccer team had been killed in a traffic accident.

With one major fund raising campaign winding down and Furman officials beginning to think about a new one, Shi thought it might be time to pack it in.

“In advance of the campaign getting launched in a public way, it seemed like it might be an opportune time for me to revert to full-time professoring and scholarship,” he says.

When Shi mentioned that possibility to leaders of the Board of Trustees during his annual review in 2003, they were loathe to lose him. So they suggested an alternative: a sabbatical that would give Shi a chance to do the research he longed for and, importantly, recharge his batteries.
“If it all went as you hope it would, we’d get a guy back who’s refreshed and ready to go,” says Bill Howes, chairman of the Furman board. “If David can come back fired up, and we can go into this next campaign and accomplish our two goals – a science building renewal and building that endowment – the school will have made 60 years of progress in David’s 15 years.”

Next fall, after the freshmen get settled in orientation, Shi will leave Furman, not to return until a few weeks before graduation -- eight months in all.

Many colleges give their chief executives a sabbatical as they leave their jobs, usually to help them make the transition back to the faculty (though occasionally to entice them out of the president’s office). Statistics compiled by the American Council on Education in 2001 show that 17 percent of all presidential contracts had provisions calling for sabbaticals. But sabbaticals in the middle of a president’s term are relatively uncommon, and extremely rare outside a relatively small group of private liberal arts institutions.

That may be partially due to the mechanical challenges posed by the idea of a presidential sabbatical – how and when can a president afford to leave? who should fill in while he or she is gone? – and partly by the political challenge of “selling” the idea of a president taking time off to board members or, at public universities, legislators.

But presidents who’ve taken sabbaticals and some experts on the academic presidency say they believe more boards should consider providing leaves as a way of extending the life of successful presidencies.

“We recommend that board chairs consider the value of a sabbatical to a long-serving president,” says Susan Johnston, executive vice president of the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities. “It’s a way to sustain a president’s interest in serving the institution, and to recognize the pressures, the workload and the time commitment that are growing in those jobs.”

Time-Honored Tradition

Sabbaticals are standard practice in higher education, more than in any other professional field; many if not most colleges have policies allowing paid leave for their faculty members after a certain number of years of service – usually six or seven.

Columbia University’s trustees, in 1907, offered a rationale for why: "The practice now prevalent in colleges and universities of this country of granting periodical leaves of absence to their professors was established not in the interest of the professors themselves but for the good of university education. University teaching must be progressive; it requires on the part of the teaching body, as it were, a periodical refurbishing of its equipment. It is not merely national, it is international; contact with other institutions, with specialists of other countries, with methods of acquiring and imparting in vogue elsewhere, which cannot be obtained during the summer vacation as this is a period of rest practically everywhere, is for the real university teacher an intellectual and practical necessity."

If sabbatical leaves make sense for faculty members, “it’s hard not to think it would be good for presidents as well,” says Kathryn Mohrman, who as president of Colorado College took a one-semester sabbatical in 2002 in which she taught American studies at China’s Sichuan University. (She is now executive director of the Hopkins Nanjing Center at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.)

But political and practical considerations of various kinds make that not so, she and others say. The idea seems especially foreign at public institutions, “because of the accountability issues that public presidents are always dealing with,” says Claire Van Ummersen, vice president and director of the Center for Effective Leadership at the American Council on Education.

“Imagine,” she says, “a public board meeting in which the chairman says that the board is going to let the president go for four or five months and pay his or her salary.” In a climate of increasing scrutiny of executive compensation, she says, “you can just see the board chair being called in to the governor to try to explain why.”

Presidential sabbaticals might face fewer political obstacles at private institutions, and particularly small ones, Van Ummersen says, “because those institutions do not have huge research agendas and are not dealing with pressure of the legislature.” Liberal arts colleges are “something you can get your arms around a little more easily,” adds Frances D. Fergusson, who took three sabbaticals during her 20-year term as president of Vassar College, which ends this summer. But even at those institutions, she and others say, mechanical considerations may limit their likelihood.

“What might give a board pause is, ‘So how do we manage this? Who runs the institution while the president is away?’ “ says Johnston of the Association of Governing Boards.

While those practical considerations can present some meaningful hurdles, many experts on the academic presidency argue that the benefits of sabbaticals outweigh the potential risks – especially in an era in which the demands on college chiefs are growing.

“The demands are clearly growing, and these jobs have a 24-hour nature,” says Eugene L. Anderson of the American Council on Education’s Center for Policy Analysis, which publishes The American College President, an occasional survey.

“The life of a president is a very frenetic one, carried out very much in the public eye, and one has less opportunity than would be desirable to reflect and recharge,” says Joanne V. Creighton, president of Mount Holyoke, who took a 2002 sabbatical in which she traveled, served as a dissertation reviewer, wrote scholarly papers and “reflected on her presidency.” “It was an opportunity to pull out of the heat of the schedule of a president, and it had significant recharging benefits – especially intellectual recharging. Presidents are people, too, and they get tired.”

Adds Stuart Bounds, who, as president of Maryland’s Chesapeake College, was the rare recipient of a sabbatical at a public community college: “The inherent nature of the job is such that you get so caught up in keeping up with the day to day issues on the campus and in the community that, if you’re not careful, you will really lose sight of the most important issues that drive your thinking and commitment to the college and higher ed in general.” After his three month leave last summer, in which the president participated in the Oxford Round Table in Higher Education Leadership at the University of Oxford and examined the role and future of community colleges, Bounds says he returned “with a sense of starting anew, and a fresh commitment to the job I’ve had since 1984.”

Looking Forward at Furman

That outcome is precisely what trustees at Furman had in mind in suggesting a sabbatical for David Shi. Howes, the board chairman, says that Shi has done a "marvelous job" as president, and that when he made noises about returning to the faculty full time, the board did not relish the idea of beginning its next fund raising campaign with anyone else at the controls.

So board leaders suggested that Shi explore the idea of a sabbatical, with the idea that it would produce a "renewal of energy and spirit on the part of our president that benefits the university because he reups his commitments, intellectually and in terms of energy, and we get to to see how another member or two of our administration perform with David being gone," says Howes. "It just seemed like a win-win situation."

After mulling it over, Shi thought so, too. It will allow him to complete the eighth edition of America: A Narrative History (W. W. Norton), the nation’s best-selling history textbook, and design a seminar he plans to teach as part of Furman's new core curriculum for freshmen. He will leave early in the 2006-7 academic year, after convocation, and return about two weeks before graduation, in time to hand out the diplomas and help with the public launch of the fund raising drive. Thomas Kazee, Furman's vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty, will act as president, and Linda Bartlett, associate academic dean, will fill in for Kazee as dean.

"It's the best of both worlds: This will allow me to get done what I wanted to do from a scholarly and teaching standpoint and then come back and get this campaign back to a roaring start and ideally see it to its fruition," says Shi, who describes presidential sabbaticals as "another tool in the toolbox that boards of trustees can use to nurture and sustain effective presidencies."

Oberlin College, often a pioneer in higher education, was out front on this approach, too: Every Oberlin president since the turn of the 20th century has taken a sabbatical, says President Nancy S. Dye, who, like all her predecessors, visited Asia on her 2000 leave. Dye says that her time away "changed the way I see undergraduate education, and changed what I think the priorities of Oberlin should be," with a particular emphasis on international education.

The sabbatical was "good for the college" as well as "an enriching experience for me intellectually" -- so much so, says Dye, , who is finishing up her 12th year at the Ohio college, that she's "looking forward to putting in a request for another one."


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