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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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