Although a proposal in the state legislature to temporarily suspend use of sabbaticals at Iowa universities has been weakened, discontent in academia continues.

Gov. Branstad is expected to sign the resolution to cap sabbaticals. Source: Gov. Branstad's website.
Gov. Branstad is expected to sign legislation that includes a sabbatical cap. Source: Gov. Branstad's website.

Some professors at the University of Iowa still are unhappy with the attack on sabbaticals even though a compromise has been reached. The latest proposal (HF 45, Sec. 17), which has passed the House and Senate, would prohibit universities from letting more than three-percent of their faculty take sabbaticals during a year. The entire package was sent to Gov. Terry Branstad late last week for his expected signature.

The cap proposal emerged recently after faculty strongly opposed the earlier plan to place an 18-month freeze on sabbaticals, also called professional development awards.

The legislation was created early in the legislative session to cut state funding. That version passed the House and would have created a savings of about $500 million over two-and-a-half years.

But the Senate stripped the measure down to $10 million and approved a final version that also changed the sabbatical provisions to their current form. The entire measure was sent back to the House where it was approved Feb. 21 before it went to Branstad’s office last week.

Research sabbaticals have always been a major part of universities that are classified as research institutions, like the University of Iowa. About every five years, professors are allowed to apply to take either a semester or a year off to conduct fieldwork, complete research or do another task to further their knowledge in a particular field. Professors are able to improve their teaching methods as well as promote the university with their work.

Since 2007, the Board of Regents has granted sabbaticals to anywhere from 2.8 percent of the eligible faculty to 5.1 percent, according to the Board.  This past year, the regents granted sabbaticals to 2.9 percent of the eligible faculty.

Rep. Jeff Kaufmann, R-Wilton. Source: Iowa House Republicans website.
Rep. Jeff Kaufmann, R-Wilton. Source: Iowa House Republicans website.

Rep. Jeff Kaufmann, R-Wilton, said he became involved with the legislation by default because he has been working with Board of Regents issues for some time. He said that when creating the legislation, representatives “looked for savings that would have the least effect on students.”

Kaufmann thinks the permanent three percent cap is a fair compromise so professors can still do research but mainly focus on teaching students.

Controversy over sabbaticals arose because some legislators think professors use them for vacations instead of research.

“Why should taxpayers of Iowa be paying to basically give these folks a year off from teaching?” Republican House Speaker Kraig Paulsen said an Associated Press story last December.

Some reports have estimated that minimizing sabbaticals could save around $160,000. Kaufmann said it would have an effect “much higher than $100,000” but could not provide a specific amount. In addition to the three percent cap, Kaufmann said the universities and the Regents would be responsible for creating a more strenuous selection process.

Referring to the Regents, Kaufmann said there “has to be a transformation in what they do” and that awarding sabbaticals to unworthy teachers is unacceptable when tuition is high and Iowa is in debt.

Although the three-percent cap seems more positive to faculty than a complete freeze, teachers are concerned that they will not be able to complete their necessary amount of research time.

Meenakshi Gigi Durham, associate professor at the University of Iowa. Source: University of Iowa website.
Meenakshi Gigi Durham, associate professor at the University of Iowa. Source: University of Iowa website.

Meenakshi Gigi Durham, associate professor at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa, said sabbaticals are an essential part of a public university.

Durham was granted her second professional development award for the fall semester of 2010.  During this time she worked on a book manuscript, talked to publishers, published an article in a peer-reviewed academic journal and a book chapter, created an online bibliography for Oxford University Press, gave lectures at other universities, applied for a grant fund for her book project and revised her class syllabi.

“I think placing a cap on the number of research leaves awarded would significantly impair faculty development and success,” she said.  “These kinds of crackdowns would also make it difficult for the university to recruit and retain excellent faculty,” Durham said.

At research universities, the faculty has to produce scholarship and they need time to do research in order to keep their disciplines active, Durham said.  She added that professional development awards are essential to boost the reputation of the university and its scholars.

Kathleen Diffley, an English professor at The University of Iowa. Source: University of Iowa website.
Kathleen Diffley, an English professor at the University of Iowa. Source: University of Iowa website.

Under typical tenure obligations, professors must dedicate 40 percent of their time to teaching, 40 percent to research and 20 percent to service.

Kathleen Diffley, an English professor at The University of Iowa, said “tenure and promotion still depend on completing such projects, on winning national and even international recognition, and on bringing new knowledge to university classrooms.”

Kaufmann agrees and said the tenure requirements will be affected if professors get 40 percent of their salaries for doing research.

He said he hasn’t seen professors “overburdened with their classroom activities,” and he argued they could complete a large amount of research during this time.

Mary Campbell, a sociology professor at the University of Iowa, disagrees with Kaufmann and said that, “it is very difficult to dedicate 40 percent of your time to research,” while teaching as many students as the professors do.

The Board of Regents granted 95 teachers sabbaticals for FY 2012, and they will all be granted if the three percent cap is passed.

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