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Different hands holding different signs saying “sabbatical leave”

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This spring, I returned from what was only my second sabbatical in a 25-year academic career, and I have some thoughts about the experience. I’ll cut to the chase and say that if you’ve been putting off your sabbatical, it’s time you submitted your application. You’ve earned that time to recharge your battery and explore new directions. And if your institution does not offer sabbaticals to people with roles like yours—staff members, administrators, lecturers—it’s time to start advocating for them.

In today’s economic and sociopolitical climate, the sabbatical can be a contentious subject. At some higher education institutions, sabbaticals are becoming an expensive privilege and administrative nightmare. For instance, department and university leaders might need to cancel classes, cover the same courses with fewer faculty, or incur additional costs over and above any salary savings to hire instructors. I have heard administrators belittle sabbatical proposals that will not lead to new revenue (e.g., writing a grant proposal) or directly enhance the institution’s reputation (e.g., publications).

But while we certainly need to review sabbatical applications responsibly to ensure the time is being used well, revenue, reputation or productivity are not the only metrics to consider. It may be hard to put a price on sabbatical-born ideas that might lead to faculty, student and institutional success, but it’s worth considering that we cannot always predict which sabbaticals will be “productive,” in an expansive view of the term.

A bit of history: Sabbaticals are rooted in the Biblical practice of restoration and the right relationship with God and creation. Working without ceasing tires our minds, bodies and spirits. Indigenous peoples and wisdom figures have long understood that human beings require rest and rejuvenation to cultivate creative solutions and actions. In 1880, Harvard University offered the first known faculty sabbaticals in the United States to encourage rest, rejuvenation, creativity and, yes, productivity. Other colleges and universities soon adopted the practice.

Today, some administrators unfortunately think faculty members feel unduly entitled to sabbaticals. But I’d like to encourage us to become reacquainted with the idea of the sabbatical as getting back into right relationship with work. Trashing sabbaticals and making them harder to obtain will only lead to even lower faculty morale and engagement at our institutions.

When I was an associate provost at a top research university and a dean at a predominantly undergraduate institution, I had the opportunity to review many sabbatical proposals. Most included references to specific research, scholarly or creative projects that were difficult, if not impossible, to complete while meeting expectations for teaching and service. Some proposals also included activities to revamp course content and pedagogy, which is a type of research all its own. Others included upskilling and nurturing generative collaborations. Often, people returned from sabbaticals reporting that things did not go as planned. Almost to a person, their plan was too ambitious—we consistently overestimate how much we can get done, even on sabbatical.

Yet aside from what was openly planned, they received myriad benefits from the break from routine, the relaxed schedule, and not having to watch the clock. Their sabbaticals freed them up to explore questions they hadn’t considered before. It changed their perspective so that they could be more creative.

Let me provide a personal example. A major outcome from my first sabbatical year was an idea to develop a novel therapy for chronic pain, which led to a National Institutes of Health grant and several publications. What did I do on my sabbatical that led to these outcomes? Yes, I read a lot, I wrote some, and I networked with scholars who had relevant expertise. I also did other things that, to some people with limited imaginations, might seem like a waste of time or money. I went on a silent retreat with my sister and my mom, whose health was declining. I took time to see the sights during my travels—including walking around Stonehenge, Glastonbury, and Wells in England, and sampling the flower and cheese markets in Ghent, Belgium.

Those activities contributed to a healthier self in the moment, allowing space for me to think about what I was learning. They also refreshed me, so I felt readier to teach and continue my research when I returned to campus. My freer self was able to entertain more expansive ideas, which led to my ability to create and inspire others to do the same.

Based on my own sabbatical experiences and lessons I’ve learned overseeing sabbatical leaves for other people, I offer the following advice to help institutional leaders rethink sabbaticals and develop practices that promote learning, growth and creativity.

Recognize that the full value of a sabbatical may not be immediately evident. The outcome of a sabbatical is more than a list of revenue-generating and productive projects. New ideas born during sabbatical may need time come to fruition.

Lower the bar for entry. Forcing applicants to generate grand plans that they will not be able to achieve is a waste of time for everyone, including the applicants themselves and the reviewers who must read the proposals. Encourage applicants to explain their desired outcomes rather than providing a laundry list of specific activities. This approach would require some letting go of our attachment to bean counting, but it is more realistic of what happens on sabbatical. Trying to guard against the few instances of “waste” punishes everyone, and raises the anxieties of well-meaning faculty who fear being denied a sabbatical in the future if they don’t hit all their ambitious targets.

Acknowledge that health and wellness is a beneficial outcome of sabbatical. And that’s the case not just for the individual but also their unit and the institution. Rather than killing an application, mentions of how a sabbatical will be rejuvenating should be considered an indicator of future success.

Broaden opportunities to people who don’t currently have access to this benefit. Writing days or retreats for faculty and staff members, as well as students, are one iteration of sabbatical-like time. For staff members, even one-day sabbaticals on a regular basis can be beneficial—offering protected time to read, participate in online workshops and reflect on an aspect of their work they would like to improve.

Advocate for your own sabbaticals. The scale and pace of leaders’ jobs these days can create a recipe for overwork and burnout. Leadership sabbaticals may be a way for you to recharge and bring new learnings back to the campus while also ensuring your longevity, something many institutions would prefer to the leadership churn currently plaguing higher education. A side benefit is that your next-level leaders can step in as interims to learn new skills for their own development.

I also offer the following advice to faculty and staff members who are considering pursuing a sabbatical.

If you are eligible for a sabbatical, apply for it! Time is finite, so putting off a sabbatical means you will have fewer sabbaticals in the future. As a Latina, I especially urge women of color and others who have experienced marginalization to take your sabbaticals when you are eligible. Disengaging from toxic environments is essential to our continued health and well-being. Our early career colleagues and students are counting us to take care of ourselves.

Build in “aimless” time or activities. You’ll be surprised at the positive benefits that can come from unscheduled time to rest, explore your surroundings or socialize without productivity in mind.

Recreate the experience of a sabbatical in place. Don’t have the option for a sabbatical, or other things are getting in the way? What energized you about your time away? What helped spur new ideas? As best you can, replicate the best of your conference travel while at home. Being in different surroundings? Not cooking, cleaning and caring for others? Time alone? Unstructured time with good colleagues who share your life experiences or values?

Build mini-sabbaticals into each month and week. Attend your campus’s monthly writing retreat, or create your own with willing partners on campus, at a public library or coffee shop. Reclaim your religious tradition’s Sabbath day, or identify your own day of rest and rejuvenation that allows you to plug into the transcendent.

If you are negotiating the terms of a leadership position, request a one-year sabbatical in your contract. I speak from experience when I say that one semester is not nearly enough time to recover from the demands of high-level administrative jobs if you are leaving one and preparing to re-enter the faculty ranks.

Sabbaticals may have gotten something of a bad rap in recent years, and institutional financial concerns have not made things easier. But imagine if everyone had an opportunity to take a sabbatical or sabbatical-like time for reflection and deeper engagement: from top leadership to full-time and part-time faculty to academic staff members and those in other domains including grounds, public safety, janitorial and food service. Imagine the health of an institution and the way we could all be more present to students and our communities if we took this engaged time away.

What could some of the important benefits be?

  • New ideas for how to approach stubborn problems.
  • A more engaged workforce.
  • Strong recruitment and retention numbers.
  • Reflective people who have the time for each other.

Let’s advocate with and for each other to support the growth and learning that sabbaticals afford.

Annmarie Caño is a professor of psychology at Gonzaga University and a board-certified coach. She previously served in a variety of university leadership positions including dean of a college of arts and sciences and associate provost for faculty development and success.

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