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My university (in Europe) is currently reconsidering its policy regarding professors (assistant through full) buying out of certain duties using funds from research grants. The new proposal is that the grant money will only be used for buying out of all of the duties at once (research, teaching, administration, ... -- all of them). This is in contrast to, say, buying out of teaching alone or out of all duties but research selectively.

The proposal also includes a clause that the funds obtained by the university from researchers buying themselves out of duties, specifically the amount corresponding to the research duties, will be used for "other initiatives and priorities", i.e. not for supporting research directly.

I see some problems with this policy and wonder if my concerns are justified.

  1. If one does not have a grant, one uses, say, 50% of one's time for research as stipulated by the job contract. One gets remunerated for all the work one does, including research (that seems a natural assumption to me). Under the proposed policy, if one has a grant and buys himself/herself out of all duties, one will still do research for 50% of the time as before, plus another 50% of the time because of the research grant.
    What is the logic behind buying oneself out of the 50% of the job one will actually be doing anyway?

    Perhaps this could be understandable if the funds were used by the university to employ another person to do all the duties of the original job position, including 50% research, but this is not the case according to the proposed policy. The grant money corresponding the 50% of the research work will not be used to fund another researcher but rather to fund other activities. This seems to partly defeat the purpose of the research grant: the money that is earmarked for research is taken by the university and spent on something else.

  2. Even though one has to buy oneself out of all duties, the university still expects to have its name on the academic production from the grant. So even though the university is not supporting the professor financially, it still wants to receive the benefits that come with achievements in research.

I might be oversimplifying things as I am not very familiar with the system, but the elements indicated above seems problematic to me.

Questions: Does this policy proposal sound fine? Is such practice popular in other universities?

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    Actually, if the university provides an office and the services of other offices (admissions, internet, etc), then it isn't fair at all to say that the university isn't supporting the professor. This is often considered to be about half of the value of any grant. It can be even more if the university provides basic lab services. – Buffy Apr 30 at 18:29
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    @Buffy, that does make sense, to a degree. On the other hand, wouldn't it be "fair" for the professor to compensate by grant money any costs to the university incurred by him/her not doing his/her duties, but not beyond? Why should the university suddenly appropriate 50% of the professor's salary just because the professor managed to get grant funding? OK, perhaps it needs to provide office space for the new employee, then subtract that amount. But this does not look like close to 50% of the salary to me. – Richard Hardy Apr 30 at 18:48
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    Wait, hang on... As a grant holder, one of your duties is to do research related to the grant. So what does "buying out of research duties" even mean? I can't imagine any grant agency allowing anyone to use grant money to buy out of using the grant for its intended purpose. – JeffE Apr 30 at 19:13
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    @JeffE, Well, you would be buying out of your regular research, not of that specific to the grant, I suppose. So if the grant-specific reseach is not in line with your regular research, the proposed policy makes sense. But since your grant-specific work does not coincide with any of your regular duties, you should simply be taking unpaid leave from the university for the time you are going to do the grant-specific work. – Richard Hardy Apr 30 at 19:24
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    I'm not sure I understand the distinction between "regular research" and "grant-supported research". – JeffE Apr 30 at 19:30
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A university doesn't "obtain" funds through buyout -- rather, it frees up salary money that it would otherwise have to spend if the research funds were not in place.

What a university is allowed to do with such funds likely has to do with where the money came from. In many cases, such funds will be unencumbered, and they can do whatever they want with them.

There are certain kinds of funds that might need to be used to support research, like (in theory) indirect funds from a granting agency. "Support research" can have broad meaning, such as pay library staff, or keep the rooms where research goes on heated.

I'm not sure I understand the whole situation, the way you've expressed it, but it seems like it gives the university more freedom to creatively release people from responsibilities, and it doesn't set up any alarms for me.

  • Thank you for your insight. I guess my own concern (being an assoc. prof.) is that this seems "unfair", compared to my impression of the common practice in other places where professors can selectively buy out of teaching but are not forced to buying out of research at the same time. Perhaps my impression is wrong (it is certainly superficial), hence my post. – Richard Hardy Apr 30 at 18:44
  • @RichardHardy Is this 'research' time that you are buying out of time supported from some general university funds? I wonder if from an administrative standpoint they are thinking of that time as sort of indirect compensation for teaching or doing other university work, and they want to allow well-funded people to buy out all their time but don't want others to pick and choose only the most time-consuming activities for buyout. – Bryan Krause Apr 30 at 19:46
  • @BryanKrause, the professor just gets a salary and has a set of duties, the main ones being research, teaching and administration. The salary is not explicitly split into the corresponding bits (you would not find such a split in the employment contract), but my understanding is that all of the duties are considered as duties (research is thus just one of them). There is no other compensation or funding aside from the salary that a professor is getting, unless he/she has a grant (or a few). Not sure if I answered your question. – Richard Hardy Apr 30 at 19:53
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    @RichardHardy Well if in the current system you can buy out your teaching alone, that means the salary must be split into corresponding bits in some way: the amount corresponding to teaching would be the fraction you have to buy out if you wanted to only buy out your teaching. What I meant is that the way the university sees it, if everyone buys out their teaching they need to hire more professors and pay them to teach+the other support. If they only save 30% per professor on the buyouts, they are stuck with another (70% minus grants) to fund. – Bryan Krause Apr 30 at 19:58
  • @BryanKrause, I guess this is roughly so. The salary is known, the duties are specified in percent, e.g. 50% research, 40% teaching and 10% administration. Then a "fair" system in my understanding would require the grantee to pay as much of grant money to the university as is needed to cover for the substitute teacher (when buying out of the teaching part), even if that is more than 40% of the professor salary. – Richard Hardy Apr 30 at 20:02

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