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I am a faculty member at an R2 institution in the US, looking ahead to a sabbatical. On paper, my university has a typical sabbatical policy: every seven years, a semester at full pay or a year at half pay. However, the administration has recently created policies, apparently for financial reasons, whose effect is to make it harder to actually take sabbaticals. I may not be allowed to take a sabbatical of the length I had planned, or I may be forced to delay it to some unknown future term. There is considerable uncertainty as to what will happen in the long run.

I am wondering whether this kind of thing is common.

Teaching loads at my institution are high, and I had been looking forward to sabbatical as a time to focus on my research, which is very important to me personally and professionally. So I am wondering whether this is a sign that I ought to consider looking for a job somewhere else, or whether I'm overreacting.

I don't really know whether this is the sort of general annoyance that one might occasionally encounter anywhere, or whether it is truly an indication that this institution is not going to be a good fit for my professional goals. Basically, would it be reasonable to quit over something like this?

I understand that sabbaticals sometimes have to be postponed or restructured due to operational considerations, e.g. whether the department will have sufficient faculty to teach all required courses that term, and that this could happen anywhere. But the present case is more systemic.

Edit: I should clarify that the new policy is not about increasing academic standards for sabbaticals. There is already a process for reviewing proposals based on their academic merit, as well as a requirement to report on the results afterward, and I have no problem with that. The new policy is on top of the existing process, and is based purely on financial considerations; academic merit will not be taken into account at that stage.

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    I'd be more concerned that your university might be in significant financial difficulty, possibly to the extent it might have to eventually declare financial exigency and lay off tenured faculty. A significant cutback of sabbaticals is not a good sign, especially since having you take a full year at half pay ordinarily costs the university very little if anything, since your sabbatical replacement won't run at much more than half your salary anyway. – Alexander Woo Oct 21 '17 at 21:37
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    My (R1 US public) university has a long-standing policy that at most 10% of the faculty can be on sabbatical in any given year, even though faculty are eligible for a full-year sabbatical every seven years. So not everyone who is eligible for sabbatical actually gets a sabbatical on their first application. – JeffE Oct 21 '17 at 21:41
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    You didn't go into too many details. Offhand, I'd say this certainly sounds like a reason to consider looking, although not yet to do anything drastic. Testing the job market is (generally speaking) a perfectly ethical thing to do -- especially when your employer is encountering financial difficulties. – Anonymous Oct 21 '17 at 22:54
  • I've also heard around school that sabbaticals are harder to get than before. This seems possibly related to the recent explosion in college and university "administration" as a pursuit unto itself. – Aaron Brick Oct 22 '17 at 4:22
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    I think that people are confused by the vagueness here. "Apparently for financial reasons" and "financial considerations" are often things that administrators say because they want money to be well spent and want to contain abuses. So the answers relate to abuses which you dislike because you don't see that as the crux of the issue. Unless you can be less vague, people are going to assume that these phrases are administrative cover for containing abuses (but admin doesn't want to admit that abuses exist). – Dawn Oct 23 '17 at 15:09
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I work at an R1 institution and we've had a similar, if not more stringent policy in place for at least a decade. I will say that the sabbatical review, like the tenure review, process is different for different disciplines, but I can also say from first-hand committee experience that the policy changes are stemming from what some might call the abuses by the older, tenured faculty, not young tenure-track faculty.

The internal soap opera at many schools right now is around the senior faculty who teach one or two classes a year, advise two or three students a year, and claim their sabbatical every 5 years in order to re-edit a book they published decades previously. Upon completion of their sabbatical, those seniors submit a one-page memo to the Dean declaring the whole experience a success because they updated the footnotes of said book. Meanwhile junior faculty are teaching 500+ freshmen in each of their 3 classes, trying to publish, patent, and mentor.

Honestly, the process of documenting or time-tabling the work of the sabbatical is meant to provide accountability on both sides. If you are a scientist who needs computing time or a laboratory and the department has committed the resource to you during your sabbatical and then fails to deliver, you have proof of the broken deal. Deans and Vice Presidents of Research are starting to take this seriously, and they are starting to notice when some departments systematically fail to deliver.

The assumption that the policy is meant to or might potentially harm researchers is misplaced. If you see hardworking, grant-carrying faculty who want to finish their NIH R21 and is denied sabbatical, start asking questions. If you see the guy who only ever shows up for the faculty retreat and hasn't published since the 1980s get denied, go kiss your regents.

  • I have clarified the question. The academic merits of the sabbatical proposal are not the issue here. We already have such a process for academic review of proposals and documenting what was done, and it is not changing. The new policy would have the effect of denying, for financial reasons, sabbaticals which would have been approved on their academic merits. There is good reason to believe that even "hardworking grant-carrying faculty" are at risk. – someone Oct 23 '17 at 13:34
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    +someone: In small programs, for example our Nanoscience, which only has 3 faculty members, we would deny someone's sabbatical if another member of faculty was incapacitated (ex. maternity leave). I know that we made a linguist wait on his sabbatical because he was 1/2 regional experts and the other was doing a Fulbright; we would not permit both to be gone because it would harm recruiting and teaching cores. That's financial, but also maintains fairness of workload among colleagues. I wouldn't be alarmed until you have precedent of unfairness. The wording sounds like a legal CYA move. – Quixotic Oct 23 '17 at 16:25
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If the fact that you have to explain the benefits of your sabbatical to your employer before you're allowed to actually take it, makes you consider changing employers then you've got your head in the wrong place.

That's because I think it is entirely legitimate for an employer to require you to explain in detail why they should continue to pay your salary for 6 months without you actually working for them during that time. After all, the policy you describe does not actually abandon the (objectively speaking, rather generous) possibility of taking a sabbatical. While you don't describe the details of the policy, for the moment I will simply assume that they're similar to the ones that Texas A&M put in place while I was there: as an applicant you had to explain why you wanted to take a sabbatical, how this benefits your research, and how it benefits the university. It then went to a panel at the college level that evaluated all applications. I don't know any research active faculty who actually got their applications denied. But the effect of the policy change was that in practice those old-timers in the department who were not doing much research any more, were now either not approved any more, or more likely not applying any more. I suspect that Texas A&M is not the only university that changed their policies in this way.

Now, I do know that faculty are attached to their privileges. I am too. But I do think that in order to preserve them, we also need to be reasonable in what we're asking for, and that might include having to explain to our employer what the likely benefit of a sabbatical is.

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    Seriously? Why should the administration feel bound to a contract? It's not "6 months pay without actually working". It's "6 months sabbatical after having worked 7 years". It's one thing to change the policies going forward, but this smells like backtracking on existing commitments. Even where that would be legally allowed, the question is whether you should stick around. You don't want to deal with management that is pushing the legal boundaries. – MSalters Oct 23 '17 at 7:23
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    @MSalters If this is in the contract, I am sure there is some legalese around it to make sure "any and all prerequisites given by the employer need to be accounted for before you can take your sabbatical". Changing the prerequisites might not break any contract at all. – skymningen Oct 23 '17 at 11:09
  • @skymningen: That's why I added the "even where legally allowed" - you don't want to work for an employer that's looking for every loophole allowing them to take advantage of their employees. For instance, if the university simply refuses to hire a replacement for the 6 months and says that's now your responsibility - that's not exactly a paid sabbatical anymore? This very much smells like an "I am altering the deal. Pray I don't alter it further" situation. – MSalters Oct 23 '17 at 11:21
  • I have clarified the question. We already have a process for evaluating sabbaticals for academic merit, and reporting on their results. The new policy would have the effect of denying, for financial reasons, sabbaticals which would have been approved on their academic merits. – someone Oct 23 '17 at 13:32
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    @someone: Well, but does it? I see it as fiscally prudent to have a policy that only makes sabbaticals available if there are funds. The question is whether, as you are concerned, this new policy is (i) either abused by the administration, or (ii) whether the university really is in a fiscally unsound position and will have to use the policy. I see no reason that the inference "policy is on the books" -> "policy has an actual effect in practice" is correct. – Wolfgang Bangerth Oct 23 '17 at 13:57

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