When faculty step away from campus

Policies and practices for granting, managing and tracking faculty leave in a climate where its value is questioned

There’s a standard practice in academia that’s highly valued; yet, at many colleges and universities, the policies and procedures surrounding it haven’t changed in decades. Until now.

The faculty sabbatical has been around since Harvard University first offered it to its teaching staff in 1880. Since then, sabbaticals have become a rite of passage for tenured faculty. They aim to provide professors with opportunities to enhance their teaching skills and conduct research that benefits their school, students and society.

But not everyone sees it that way, and at some schools the number of these leaves has been capped by state or institutional officials. At others, it’s business as usual except for the addition of automated leave-tracking processes. No longer sacred, sabbaticals and other forms of faculty leave are under the microscope, causing changes in the way they’re being granted and managed.

Easy target

Tom Rice, associate provost for faculty at the University of Iowa, remembers discussing with a neighbor the 3 percent cap that the state’s legislature placed on faculty sabbaticals in 2009 for UI and other public universities throughout the state.

“He said, ‘Let me get this straight. You work nine months a year as faculty. You have three months off in the summer and another month off at Christmas. So you have four months off a year. In five years, you’ve had 20 months off and now you want another three months off?,’ ” recalls Rice.

“That’s tough to answer,” Rice says. “We have to be sharper and better at communicating the value of those leaves.”

Of the 2,000 faculty at UI, the university awarded 66 sabbaticals this academic year, down from between 80 and 100 before the cap was implemented. In the past, 92 percent of its faculty applying for sabbaticals received them. That number has since dropped to 70 percent, he says.

Absence management: Creating a level playing field

Although faculty sabbaticals are routine practice within higher education, other forms of leave can cause big headaches for colleges and universities, says Michael Dunst, assistant vice president and national practice leader for absence management at The Hartford, a provider of absence management services.

One common problem involves lack of consistency regarding faculty and staff leave benefits. At many schools, faculty, especially those who are tenured, are treated like royalty.

“It becomes a challenge to manage their day-to-day comings and goings,” he says. “When you’re tenured, you don’t have a whole lot of oversight of what you’re doing even though the federal and state regulations apply to everyone equally.”

Consider the Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA). If nonfaculty members exhausted 12 weeks of federal leave, their job would no longer be protected. Either they return to work or risk being replaced. But that may not apply to tenured faculty, Dunst says.

Sometimes, schools grant additional leave to faculty beyond the 12 weeks provided by FMLA. At that point, the employee must be alerted that the absence is either an extended leave allowed by the institution’s policies or is unpaid, personal leave, says Dunst.

It’s critical for schools to be consistent across the board to avoid appearances of favoritism or discrimination, which is illegal under federal and state laws.

Once tenured, faculty members are eligible for sabbaticals every 10 semesters—sabbaticals that are fully paid for 15 weeks. Alternatively, a professor can receive a half salary for one year.

In the past, there wasn’t as much accountability or concern over work performed while on leave, says Rice, adding that with all the scrutiny around state spending, “the last thing any school needs are stories about people on sabbatical who were on the beach.” Over time, he believes more institutions will be asked to justify sabbaticals by their board of trustees and state legislature.

While Rice is supportive of the sabbatical concept, he says faculty can no longer consider leaves to be an entitlement. Instead, colleges and universities should require faculty to apply for grants to help offset the cost of their sabbatical.

The total annual cost of sabbaticals at UI, for example, is approximately $100,000, Rice estimates. But that’s a cost that can be driven down by other professors in a department covering a course, class size doubling or not offering the course a particular semester. In addition, he says, grants can still provide salary offset money or cover supplies and travel sometimes covered by university departments. Just as important, he adds, obtaining grants also brings prestige to the university.

“It’s time we … act more responsibly in allocating those very special benefits to only those who are worthy,” he says. “We have to demonstrate the value of these things. The rhetoric doesn’t carry any longer.”

Promoting faculty research during sabbaticals may be one way to do it. Last year, dean of the faculty department at Brown University began publishing digital and print newsletters to publicize the work of faculty on leave.

The key goal is to create awareness among the school’s estimated 740 faculty about the kinds of research projects their colleagues are involved in while on leave, says Kevin McLaughlin, dean of faculty and a professor of German and English comparative literature.

The newsletter is distributed at the first faculty meeting of the year and provided to the school’s corporate members and public relations department to further generate community awareness. McLaughlin says the reaction was “overwhelmingly positive” from colleagues on campus, alumni and staff who enjoyed learning more about faculty’s research. Although the newsletter is an internal one, it’s an effort to spread understanding.

The norm seems to be institutions not sharing with the world what’s going on with faculty on sabbatical. “Sabbaticals are not well understood,” he says. “Many outside the university think they’re vacations.”

Less staff to more pay

Under Brown’s current sabbaticals policy—introduced about a decade ago—tenured faculty are eligible for one semester of leave at three-quarters pay after six semesters of teaching, and full pay after 12 semesters.

And this year, Brown introduced the “the post-tenure sabbatical” policy for tenure-track faculty. It was designed to help associate professors become full professors by granting a semester of leave at full pay after six semesters or three years.

“At this point in their careers, their salaries are not that high so taking a salary cut and going on a 75 percent sabbatical is very difficult for most of them,” McLaughlin says. “We decided [to] carve out a special semester of leave for recently tenured faculty so they could keep their research going and eventually get promoted to full professor.”

What might be said of faculty leave is this: If you’ve seen what one institution does, you’ve seen just that—what one single institution does. It appears no two schools share the same faculty leave policies, especially regarding sabbaticals. Management of sabbaticals also varies. Here is how practices are evolving at a handful of institutions:

  • University of the District of Columbia activated the Time and Labor module of Oracle’s PeopleSoft Enterprise Human Capital Management family of applications system two years ago, says Myrtho Blanchard, vice president of HR. Once the provost signs off on a sabbatical, HR is notified and enters the approval into the system. The module has helped reduce the number of staff needed in many colleges and changed the responsibilities of employees called timekeepers who spent half their time tracking faculty or employee time.
  • California State University, Dominguez Hills also uses PeopleSoft to track leave for its estimated 300 faculty, says Griselda Gomez, academic personal assistant at the office at faculty affairs. A separate tracking database that contains all pertinent information on a single screen, from the faculty’s members’ department to the date of their last sabbatical, is also used—both as a back-up system and as a way to show more information at a glance.
  • Jacksonville State University in Alabama administrators recently merged all information about professional development leave, including sabbaticals, in one spot on its website. Rebecca Turner, provost and VP for academic and student affairs, says the institution supports a self-imposed annual cap of 2 percent or less on sabbaticals for its 317 full time faculty members. Raising that to 3 percent could allow for more international teacher exchange opportunities, she adds.
  • Pomona College in California has had an online application form for sabbaticals in place for several years. A professor can upload a completed application and related attachments into a dropbox folder, says Sandra Fenton, grants administrator and assistant to the associate deans at the school. The applications are then reviewed by three faculty committees and their recommendations are presented to the educational quality committee of the board of trustees. Final decisions are approved by the college’s full board of trustees.
  • Kansas State University created and filled a new position this summer called vice president for human capital, which facilitates the recruitment, retention and development of a diverse, high-performing workforce. Susana Valdovinos, director of the office of academic personnel, says she hopes transactions such as manually tracking sabbaticals will soon be automated. Meanwhile, the Office of Planning and Analysis prepares a report that includes the number of sabbatical-eligible faculty for each college or unit along with their salaries. It’s distributed to Valdovinos’ office, the provost and the vice president for administration and finance. Roughly 50 of the school’s 1,370 faculty members (4 percent) are typically eligible for sabbaticals each year.

No guarantees

Despite their long and stable history, the future of sabbaticals and how they are processed and approved is not set in stone. While higher ed institutions are slow to change, current discussions about how sabbaticals could drop due to tight budgets and adverse public opinion may prove to be more than speculation.

Still, faculty should not perceive themselves as victims. “We lived for too long thinking we don’t have to justify [sabbaticals],” says Rice from the University of Iowa. “If we can’t do it, then maybe they should shrink. If we can’t convince people that these are valuable, then maybe it’s us who are wrong.”

Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based writer and UB’s Human Resources columnist.


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