I’m on sabbatical.
There. I said it.
A number of my academic colleagues discouraged me—jokingly, or maybe not so much—from talking about this publicly. Sort of the way, if you found a $500 bill on the sidewalk (are there $500 bills?), you would tend to keep it quiet. What good can come of blabbing?
But BloggEd is all about the truth, and I will not be deterred. I’ve found that people not actually on college faculties are a little unclear about exactly what a sabbatical is, so here goes. Generally speaking, professors with tenure (a topic for another day) may take, once every seven years, either a semester off at full pay or a year off at half pay or three-quarters pay. I’m doing the one-semester option.
Periodically, chagrin is voiced about this custom, usually by people whose skepticism about colleges in general gets expressed in a belief that they should conduct themselves more like regular businesses. Ron Lieber of the New York Times, in a recent article in the business section about holding down tuition costs, seemed genuinely dismayed that Lafayette College, on which he focused as a case study,
grants faculty members a year off every six or seven years for a sabbatical. How does a college defend such a practice to parents who have had to work ever harder to pay the growing tuition bill?
Now, wait a minute. First of all, a business reporter should be able to fact-gather and cypher well enough to know that sabbaticals are a semester without teaching every seven years, not “a year off every six or seven.” More important, the “year off” wording gives the impression that we all jes go fishin’, or catch up on our Zs, like the gent below (who is not me, I hasten to point out).
At research universities and top liberal arts colleges (like Lafayette), sabbaticals evolved from the long-held understanding is that much of the value of a faculty member in the classroom lies in his or her doing important and ongoing research outside of it, and that occasional extended time for research and writing is vital to this endeavor. At the University of Delaware, professors are required to apply for sabbatical leave by demonstrating that they will use it to pursue a significant research project. Then, when they’re done, they have to show they actually pursued it. Failure to do so would probably not result in having to pay back the salary, but would mean no sabbatical granted the next time around.
It is far from clear that the practice is a financial drain on colleges (and thus is something that leads to higher tuition). Anyone should feel free to correct me if I’m wrong here, but my impression is that the salaries of science professors on sabbatical are normally paid by outside grants they’ve been awarded, and that their university accrues overhead costs from the grant, for a net gain. Even in the humanities, UD does not hire replacements for faculty on leave—the slack is taken up by colleagues, in the form of higher enrollments—so it’s revenue neutral. And when a faculty member takes a full year off (at three-quarter pay, at our school), the university comes out ahead, by saving one-quarter of the prof’s salary.
Still, as I have had reason to say elsewhere, I am not a dummy, and I realize how odd, or even unseemly, it appears when professors are regularly excused from their teaching duties—which are often not killingly onerous to begin with. Nevertheless, sabbaticals aren’t going anywhere for a while. Yet another thing I’m not an expert on is labor economics—but I’m sure that in competitive industries where the market for skilled labor is robust, major benefits givebacks are rare or nonexistent. If Lafayette or the University of Delaware or some comparable college announced it was ending sabbaticals, it would have zero chance of beating out its competitors to hire the next top young sociologist or art historian, and slowly but surely the quality of its instruction, and then its students, would decline.
And then there’s this: sabbaticals may seem like and be a luxury, but they serve a purpose. Lieber quotes Lafayette President Daniel Weiss:
“What parents should be looking for is the opportunity for their children to have their lives transformed by what happens inside the classroom and out of it,” Mr. Weiss said. And that cannot come, he continued, without access to faculty members who have had the opportunity to recharge their own intellectual reservoirs. “At the end of the day, parents should want their children to have that experience, and we believe that’s the cost of it.”
My first two sabbaticals allowed me to write (without wrecking my home life) two big books that, unquestionably, made me a better teacher, with more to offer my students. With this leave, I have had the luxury (that word again) of working on an assortment of articles and essays, to troll without pressure for a new book topic. And to write blog posts about sabbaticals.