Friday, October 16, 2009


Sabbaticals and Layoffs

Should a college doing layoffs simultaneously fund sabbaticals?

First, some context. My college doesn't have a publication requirement for faculty. Most faculty here don't publish with any frequency, and nobody has ever been fired here for lack of publishing. It's a teaching-centered institution, and the promotion and tenure requirements reflect that. So denying someone a sabbatical might put a dent in his overall plans, but it won't put a dent in his tenure or promotion application. In a research university, or a college that styles itself as research-driven, the context for the question is markedly different. I'm talking about a community college.

We have a process for deciding on sabbaticals, and a set of published criteria. Without giving too much away, I can share that the point of sabbaticals is supposed to be to develop or focus on something that will be of benefit to the college over time. They aren't intended for personal renewal, and they aren't entitlements or compensation. (The faculty union contract acknowledges this.) They're basically purpose-driven course release taken all the way out. They're paid, which distinguishes them from leaves of absence.* They're discretionary expenses meant to reassign a professor to something that is supposed benefit the college as a whole. (Since the proposals come from the affected faculty, of course, that rule has been applied with varying degrees of stringency over the years.) The effective cost to the college is the cost of the adjuncts to teach the courses the sabbatical recipient would otherwise have taught. Although the college has a history of awarding a few sabbaticals per year, the number has fluctuated over time, and there has not been a past practice of everybody getting one every x years.

That said, of course, sabbaticals are interpreted differently by different people.

Some professors see sabbaticals as inhering in the role of 'professor,' or as moral (if not technical) entitlements. Others see them as irreplaceable elements of their long-term professional development, arguing (reasonably) that maintaining currency with changes in their fields, or technology, sometimes requires stepping off the teaching treadmill. And there's a perfectly valid objection that in the current climate, anything taken completely off the table is unlikely to reappear for a long time, if ever.

That said, though, there's something fundamentally difficult about explaining why some people are being paid for a full release from their regular job while others are losing their jobs entirely. I can just imagine the headline in the local paper – staffer x loses job while professor y gets full salary without even showing up on campus for months. Ouch. As a public institution, we ignore public opinion at our considerable peril.

The timing cycles don't match up well, either. We have to make decisions for next Fall's sabbaticals, if any, by mid-winter. But we won't know the full extent of state cuts until next summer.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think? Is it reasonable to juxtapose the two categories, or would it be fair to do both at the same time?

* We also have a category of reduced-load-for-reduced-pay arrangements that can be offered by mutual agreement. Since those involve unpaid intervals, they can be used for personal purposes. I consider those a variation on unpaid leaves, even though some people call them sabbaticals.

Put the applicatipn drop off / request review meeting in the office of a terminal employee.
Have you cut all spending on long-range improvements?

If so, there's a good case for a (temporary) hiatus in sabbaticals too. If not, then expect to have to explain why budget item x is more important than sabbatical y.
"why some people are being paid for a full release from their regular job while others are losing their jobs entirely."

You're right: if a sabbatical is just another word for "paid vacation" then that would be hard to justify. Except as you write in the post, sabbaticals are designed at your institution for people to do work that benefits the college (just as they do all the time when they're not on sabbatical, just then they're teaching, not doing whatever this sabbatical work is). Are those who receive sabbaticals expected to account for what they accomplished? If so, I don't see how giving sabbaticals is difficult to justify. These people who are awarded sabbaticals are still working for the university, or are supposed to be.
Should a college doing layoffs simultaneously fund sabbaticals?

Yes. Perhaps, if the standards to judge their utility have been relaxed over the years, you ought to see that they're properly applied.

Perhaps the number might be lower for the next year(s), but to eliminate them altogether sounds as if you don't really think that sabbaticals offer true value to the institution.
People need time to think about what they are doing, whether they be professors or students. We need to think about the basic principles and how to move from there. Sabbaticals are critical. Students should be able to take a year off, either before college or during. See "Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better" on amazon.
You've been posting for months about how you have no room for error. Budget cut this, hiring issues that, blah blah blah. So you must avoid the fundamental mistake of pissing off people who can and will directly affect your budget.

In a nutshell, of course you suspend sabbaticals. Did you miss the public furor over the AIG people getting bonuses? The NY branch of the Fed basically said "Huh? We didn't think [the public relations aspect] was important" And promptly got shown how wrong they were.
What's the new normal?
I have asked twice for a sabbatical but was turned down due to the "budget" and both times it was to work on a pretty significant publication. Yet we have a few profs who have taken on additional "service" which gives them release time (one is earning a terminal degree ostensibly to look for another job elsewhere) so to fill in their load, we have to hire adjuncts. Does this make sense???????????? -- CC prof.
The furor over AIG resulted from a combination of AIG being the recipient of a huge federal bailout and the idea of rewarding the same people whose actions resulted in the need for the bailout, neither of which applies to his community college.
A problem is that to the general public, "sabbatical" is not that far removed from "vacation," and that public mood is vital when it comes to public funding. It could be a big political problem.

When the time comes to work out a state's budget, professors on sabbatical are an easy target for politicians. "We're just scraping by, and those pointy-headed inty-lec-shools are giving away 'a year off with pay' to their own!" From the outside, it's easy to paint it as wasted money.

So, politically, it is kinda close to the AIG outrage -- "our tax dollars are going to feather the nests of lazy, good-fer-nuthin' America-hatin' professors!"

No, it's not fair, but it's also true. The gap between "should be" and "is" in the realm of politics and money is enormous. Also, claiming that the fault lies in the academic administration for not making the value clear to the politicians or the public at large, well, I'll just say that such a task is a lot harder than it sounds.

Fortunately, the sabbatical is a longstanding institution, and its value isn't incomprehensible, if explained. "Dr. X took a year off of teaching, but not working, to update his knowledge of physics so what he teaches your kids isn't wrong" is easily swallowed, provided people are willing to listen. Problem is, in times of crisis, they seldom are.

Then there's the whole internal politics, of course. Gack.

This is why I do not envy my brother his job. Well, among other reasons.
When organizations set high expectations for sabbatical goers - personal and professional individual goals plus high returns for the organizations - the business case for why this program exists has hard edges. If the program is less robust, the soft edges allow the kinds of questions you are posing to creep in. And hard data evaluations/roi substantiates value. Perhaps your dilemmas suggest some sabbatical program changes.
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