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March 12, 2006

slow news day?

Don Herzog: March 12, 2006

Today's front-page banner headline from the Detroit News screams, PROFESSORS PAID NOT TO TEACH.   I confess I was briefly puzzled:  wow, I thought, some people teach so badly that they get paid to stay out of the classroom?  Okay, so I hadn't yet had enough caffeine.  I quickly realized that the actual story is about sabbaticals.  The state's public universities have different sabbatical policies.  But a routine policy runs this way:  for every six years of teaching, you may apply for either a year off at half pay or a semester off at full pay.

The News reports that about $23 million a year goes to funding these sabbaticals, and they remind the reader that in-state tuition has been steadily climbing.  Yes, they acknowledge, public universities have lots of revenue sources besides tuition and allocations from the state.  But still....

There's no point huffing and puffing about philistines in response to such stories.  If public universities can't tell a persuasive story about what they're doing, they should properly expect to answer to their (partial) paymasters.

Sabbaticals aren't vacations.  Or at least if you use them as simple vacations, you're cheating.  The routine reporting requirements — on returning from leave, you're supposed to file a brief report on what work you've done — are some check on cheating.  The News also reports that some people never get around to filing those reports:  that's bad.  And I suppose people willing to cheat about what they've done on leave are willing to lie on reports.  But in fact it's also routinely true that if you just check out of doing scholarly research, as do some professors everywhere, you will find it harder and harder to get sabbaticals.  And I literally don't know anyone who cheats on this one.  My colleagues are mostly eager to get more research done.  Even those with tenure, who could I suppose just kick up their feet and relax.  So the real headline is:  PROFESSORS PAID TO DO RESEARCH.  But it's hard to plaster that across the front page, isn't it?

Don't we profs have time to do research during the regular teaching year?  Yes, though my own experience is that I'm so busy then that it's hard to scrape out time to do any serious work of my own.  And summers?  You bet, I do lots of research over the summer.  But I really do rely on sabbatical leaves to get sustained reading and writing done.

I don't doubt that a lot of scholarly research in a lot of fields, emphatically including my own field of political theory, looks arcane or worse.  And anyway professors are faintly ridiculous.  Okay, maybe not so faintly.  So the state's taxpayers might well wonder whether they should, indirectly or not, be funding research.  One answer (not my favorite) is:  look, colleges and universities just about everywhere do this; if Michigan's public schools stop doing it, they will lose talented profs to other places.  Another is:  engaged scholars make better teachers.  Yet another is:  scholarship is a good thing, and not only when you can readily trace direct social payoffs, say from basic science to engineering to consumer technology available at the local big-box store.  Nor should you think, well, can't we fund only the stars?  The gradual-accretion-of-knowledge story isn't all right, but it isn't all wrong, either, and without us lesser mortals toiling away, significant breakthroughs would come more slowly, if at all.

On this blog, David V. has been patiently reasserting the case for universities enjoying institutional autonomy, as against the likes of David Horowitz, and I have joined him.  But that's wholly compatible with thinking that it's legitimate for the public to wonder what public universities are doing, and legitimate for a newspaper to ferret out some facts.  It just means that part of the response is explaining why it's best for universities to be left alone to decide how to fund research.  So I didn't cringe when I read the News story, though, as my title suggests, I did wonder at its placement as the day's lead story.

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Comments

Posted by: Steve Peterson

From the article:

"Sabbaticals are one manifestation of a university bias in favor of research at the expense of teaching, he said."

The odd bit is that there are already market forces in place to control this.

Parents are fully able to send their kids to schools that do emphasize teaching -- community colleges and many four year colleges are often very affordable and have smaller class sizes compared to the big public universities.

But parents don't want to send their kids to those places because they want their kids to go to prestigious schools, which are prestigious because they emphasize research by giving their faculty plenty of time and support to do it.

Posted by: Steve Peterson | Mar 13, 2006 12:47:19 AM


Posted by: johnt

So why sabbatical,after Sabbath, day of rest? Maybe a name change is in order. There does appear a whiff of tax payer funded leisure about this joined with a suspicion about the overall value of much of the research. I'm sure this is not entirely accurate but equally sure there's an element of truth to the attitudes. In my area high school teachers can qualify for sabbaticals and it would be interesting to know more about their research. Headlines being headlines and newspaper sales connected to those headlines, rigor is not to be expected. But concerning a benefit unknown elsewhere it plays to a receptive audience.

Posted by: johnt | Mar 13, 2006 7:48:37 AM


Posted by: Steve Horwitz

Steve P:

As a faculty member at one of those teaching-oriented liberal arts colleges, I might note that our sabbatical policy is the same as Michigan's, only the application process is pretty much pro-forma. I haven't seen one turned down in forever. So the parents who shell out $40K per year for my place could voice the same complaint as the DN article suggests - we're getting paid not to teach at a teaching school! (I should add that we also support research in other ways, including one of the more generous travel budgets I've ever come across.)

Thankfully, the administration here has long recognized just the point Don raises: engaged scholars make better teachers. And happier ones too.

In fact, I'd argue that sabbaticals are even more important at places like mine, where a 3-3 teaching load, lots of direct student contact out of the traditional classroom setting, plus an expectation of commitment to university service, make the time for faculty research during the academic year quite scarce. Yes, we have summers, though they are often taken up with faculty development work and just plain recharging. The sustained time that a sabbatical makes possible is the primary way in which folks at places like mine stay active scholars. So even where teaching rules the roost, the sabbatical is key (perhaps more).

As Don says, the burden is on us, as faculty, to make the argument for why time away from classroom teaching is so essential to what we do. I think the case can be made.

Posted by: Steve Horwitz | Mar 13, 2006 8:52:54 PM


Posted by: Mark Engleson

The sabbatical policy at my alma mater, Oberlin, was either 5 or 6 years. I feel that improved the quality of my education immensely. For example in my *intermediate* (as in between intro and seminar) Normative Ethics class, in addition to reading Parfit, Kagan, Thomson, Foot, Rachels, Nagel, Quinn, and many others, we had the opportunity to read an early draft of Scanlon's "Intention and Permissibility."
In a number of departments, students colloborated with faculty on research. The faculty having time to keep up with cutting research and to keep up their visibility by publishing, made these experiences more rewarding, and it puts more weight behind letters of recommendation.

Posted by: Mark Engleson | Mar 15, 2006 10:52:57 AM


Posted by: SLS 1L

The rhetorically easiest response is that this is just market forces at work. If they stop offering sabbaticals, they'll lose their better professors to schools that offer them.

Posted by: SLS 1L | Mar 16, 2006 1:25:25 AM


Posted by: Mona

Totally off topic, and I apologize Don. But I've missed L2R, and having long wandered in a cyber wildnerness eventually took up a new home, where the focus for months has been on the travesty of Bush's warrantless (and illegal) NSA surveillance program.

If comments are going on here again -- if the, uh, sabbatical is over -- I'd like to be back. In the meantime, I've been doing some guest-posting at (new home) Glenn Greenwald's Unclaimed Territory blog, with stuff like this about an issue that really merits much more attention than it receives.

Don't be fooled by the pseudonym; it is sort of an open secret that Mona = "Hypatia."

Anyhoo, is Mr. Ridgley still around? It would be nice to have the old gang reconvene.

Posted by: Mona | Mar 28, 2006 11:23:21 PM


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