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.