Iowa House targets professor sabbaticals at public universities

Amy Scott Dec 10, 2010

Iowa House targets professor sabbaticals at public universities

Amy Scott Dec 10, 2010


Kai Ryssdal: The National Conference of State Legislatures had some disheartening news this week. The group said the budget problems that’ve led to so many deep cuts in services already are probably going to last another three years. So states are trying to save more money, any way they can. In Iowa, lawmakers are targeting a sacred cow in academia.

From the Marketplace Education Desk at WYPR in Baltimore, Amy Scott explores the economics of the sabbatical.

Amy Scott: Ever wondered what professors are really up to on sabbatical?

Sounds from a video game

Woman 1: Ugh, come on, come on.

Man 1: Hey, honey. How’s your research coming? Wait, are you playing Halo?

Woman 1: Not… Jason, I’m defending the base from the Covenant. Hold on. Ah, man. Duh!

From the outside, the professor-ly life might seem pretty cushy. Summers off, the job security of tenure, a paid leave every six years or so to do research. The sabbatical. It comes from the word sabbath, by the way, day of rest.

Kraig Paulsen isn’t accusing anyone of playing video games. He’s incoming speaker of the Iowa House of Representatives. But looking down last year’s list of sabbatical proposals in his state, Paulsen saw some possible savings.

Kraig Paulsen: It’s awful hard to look a taxpayer in the eye and say, “You need to pay higher property taxes so that a professor can take a year off from teaching to go research superstitions on the Middle Ages or write a musical.”

Republicans tried to cut sabbaticals at Iowa’s public universities this year, when their party was in the minority. After taking the Iowa House in this fall’s elections, they plan to try again in the new year.

John Curtis: I think that this particular instance reflects a misconception of what sabbaticals are about on two counts. First, that cutting them is actually going to produce any significant savings. And second, that all faculty members do is teach.

John Curtis is director of research and public policy at the American Association of University Professors. The Iowa Board of Regents estimates next year’s sabbaticals will cost about $422,000. That covers substitute instructors and doesn’t include the millions of dollars in salaries paid to faculty members studying yoga in Arizona or writing a book about free speech. But Curtis says the professors on leave last year brought in more than $5 million in grant funding to their universities.

Curtis: So clearly faculty members being involved in sabbaticals actually is a net revenue generator.

One of those revenue generators is Tom Casavant. He’s a professor of… you know what? I’ll just let him say it.

Tom Casavant: I’m a professor of electrical and computer engineering and biomedical engineering and genetics at the University of Iowa.

In his 25 years teaching, Casavant has taken three sabbaticals to study high performance computing and something called bioinformatics. In any case, he wasn’t goofing off.

Casavant: The first sabbatical that I took in Switzerland probably led directly to what’s now over $100 million in research funding that’s come to the University of Iowa in this area of collaborative research. So I have a hard time seeing how it’s not a good investment in really practical terms.

But Casavant says he hates putting it that way.

Casavant: Because it really isn’t about that. I really think that in any discipline there’s enormous value in stimulating faculty to have experiences outside their normal scope of research and teaching.

That idea has caught on in the corporate world, too. Many businesses offer paid leaves to do volunteer work or just reboot. But for cash-strapped states, those experiences are an easy target for cuts. Universities in several states have canceled or reduced faculty leaves. Even Casavant’s employer, the University of Iowa, has cut sabbaticals by half to save money. Next spring, he’s planning to take his fourth leave, to study plant energy biology in Perth, Australia — unless the Iowa legislature votes otherwise.

I’m Amy Scott for Marketplace.

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