Monday, August 9, 2010

Our View - Taking time off from teaching to focus on research

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Dec. 18, 2009

Our View - Taking time off from teaching to focus on research

The Iowa state Board of Regents is considering whether approving 111 faculty "sabbaticals" would send the wrong message at a time when:

• Other state employees face layoffs and mandatory unpaid time off and

• Students will be charged extra next semester to offset budget cuts.

The regents agreed to let board president David Miles make the final call after more scrutiny, and Miles expects to make a decision this month.

We can understand why some people are worried about these "sabbaticals." After all, enrollment is remaining steady at the three universities while hiring has slowed on the campuses. That means that fewer professors and teaching assistants are around to share the same teaching burden.

But we're not sure whether these "sabbaticals" are being singled out as a budgetary rallying cry because critics misunderstand the practice or because critics are willfully misrepresenting it to hurt the university's image at a time of budget crunch.

In truth, we shouldn't even be using the word "sabbatical" at all when discussing the 111 requests from professors at Iowa's three regents universities (56 from UI). After all, the word "sabbatical" usually conjures up images of some kind of imaginary job perk in which stuffy professors get to take every seventh year off to read books and to play around before they have to come back to cushy teaching jobs.

And even if there ever was once a time when Iowa professors enjoyed such automatic time off, that practice has long been out of use. Because professors at public universities will be lucky if they can hang on to tenure for another generation, the idea of regular leisurely sabbaticals is a mere fantasy.

These 111 professors aren't asking for a chance to get out of doing their work altogether; they are asking for a temporary reprieve from their teaching responsibilities -- and in some cases their service responsibilities -- so that they can focus on their research responsibilities. They're asking for the time necessary to improve their grant applications, to make big discoveries, to write books and even to re-immerse themselves in the language and cultures that they are teaching about back in Iowa.

The regents universities don't even call these requests "sabbaticals" any more. They are "professional development assignments" or "career development awards."

This year, because of the budget crisis, the deans and provosts at UI, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa are under internal and external pressure to ensure that none of these requests are going to be embarrassing. Each university long ago implemented plans for evaluating professors' proposals and then for documenting afterward how well the professors delivered on everything they promised to do. (UNI goes as far as to avoid all replacement costs by ensuring that all teaching responsibilities either are covered by other faculty or the classes are left untaught.)

We think it's fine for Miles to go through the proposals and to weed out any that might come across as less important (or comprehensible) when read by state legislators and their non-academic constituents. But we agree with the university that deferring all of these research requests would be damaging to the professors' research careers and, eventually, to the quality of research and teaching offered at our public institutions.

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