Sabbaticals to be pretext for major education cuts?

The Board of Regents unanimously approved requests last week for 95 sabbaticals in the coming year, to be taken by faculty at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa. That number was way down from the 167 sabbaticals approved a few years ago. But Republicans, including the next Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, had called for a moratorium on sabbaticals to save money.

House Republicans have estimated that eliminating sabbaticals at the regents universities for a year would save taxpayers $6 million. However, “According to the regents, the 95 sabbaticals carry a $422,000 cost for replacement teachers, and last year’s sabbaticals generated $5.2 million in grants.”

Oops. The Republican savings estimate is off by more than a factor of ten. How did that happen? The Iowa City Press-Citizen explains:

[Iowa House Republicans’] projected savings apparently includes salaries that professors will earn whether they are on sabbatical or not.

Great fact-checking there on the House Republican staff. You’ve been circulating this $6 million figure for months, based on a false assumption that if universities stopped granting faculty sabbaticals, they could stop paying those professors’ salaries.

In a rational world, politicians wouldn’t try to micromanage affairs at the state universities, and would recognize their mistake in exaggerating the cost of sabbaticals. But Republicans have found an issue with a lot of symbolic punch. Like Paulsen says, “Why should the taxpayers of Iowa be paying to basically give these folks a year off from teaching?” Good universities have controls to ensure that faculty have research and publications to show for their sabbatical time, but the breaks from teaching can easily be portrayed as a big paid vacation for elitist eggheads.

Steve Kettering, who will be minority whip in the Iowa Senate, told the Press-Citizen that the regents’ vote on sabbaticals “is a thumb in their eye […] It just furthers the distance the people of Iowa feel about their universities. There is just a difference between the lives Iowans lead and the lives of the people in the university sector.” Kettering said legislators may respond either through reducing appropriations to the regents universities, or by passing a law to stop sabbaticals. I don’t think Republicans would be deterred by a Legislative Services Agency analysis showing the cost savings in the range of a few hundred thousand dollars, rather than the $6 million Republicans dream of.

Under Democratic control, the Iowa Senate probably would not pass a specific law halting sabbaticals, and senators would resist deep cuts to the regents universities’ budgets. However, if the Republican-controlled House appropriates far less to the universities, citing the regents’ failure to control costs, the final budget deal struck between the state senators and representatives could end up reducing appropriations by a lot more than the true cost of sabbaticals. The three state universities’ operating request for fiscal year 2012 is about $639 million.

A related concern is that yet again, we learn that a Republican proposal to save millions of taxpayer dollars isn’t supported by facts. Paulsen has made big promises about cutting hundreds of millions of dollars from the state budget in the current year and beyond, in order to pay for GOP tax-cutting plans. Where will that money come from? Laying off some state employees and axing a few Democratic initiatives, like the Power Fund and voluntary preschool for four-year-olds, won’t add up to enough in savings. Significant cuts to higher education may be on the way, and the Board of Regents could become the scapegoat.

LATE UPDATE: University of Iowa President Sally Mason and P. Barry Butler, the university’s interim executive vice president and provost, published a guest column in the December 28 Des Moines Register defending “career development assignments.” Excerpts are after the jump.

Exceprts from Investing in faculty development pays off, by Sally Mason and Barry Butler:

Career development assignments provide selected faculty with a one-semester release from teaching obligations. The release from teaching is not a sabbatical or leave. Instead, the faculty member spends the semester working on projects that will increase the faculty member’s long-term productivity.

Some faculty members pursue research projects aimed at increasing their knowledge of their subject and contributing to the advancement of learning in their field. The increased expertise they gain from this work translates into better future teaching, research and service to the people of Iowa.

Other faculty use career development assignments to make curricular improvements. This is critical to ensuring that students receive the cutting-edge education they’ll need to compete in their future careers – whether they work in traditional businesses and professions, or in emerging industries, such as biotechnology, nanotechnology and wind power.

These investments in people pay enormous dividends.

Over the past five years, University of Iowa faculty on career development assignments have developed 90 new undergraduate courses and 260 new graduate or professional courses. In addition, dozens of existing undergraduate and graduate courses were significantly revised and brought up to date.

During the same period, faculty on development assignments made 234 successful applications for grants from outside businesses or agencies to support research, teaching, or outreach at the university.

The Board of Regents staff has conservatively estimated that faculty on development assignments last year brought more than $5 million of outside funding into Iowa to support world-class educational activities in our state.

Faculty on development assignments during this period also wrote more than 100 books or monographs and more than 1,000 articles for research journals, improving their own expertise, advancing human knowledge in their fields, and enhancing the university’s reputation as one of the nation’s top higher-education institutions.

The cost to the university for this program averages less than $400,000 per year, most of it spent to hire temporary replacement instructors. This cost amounts to less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the university’s budget and is significantly less than the grant funding that is typically generated by faculty on development assignments.

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  • Higher Education?

    It’s not a question–it’s the name of a book. Has anyone here read Higher Education?  I think it has some comments on sabbaticals.  It certainly gives a green light to those doubting the evolution of our universities into the giants they have become today.

    • haven't read the book

      I am not an expert on education policy. No doubt improvements could be made at the regents universities, but my hunch is that improving the quality of education will cost at least as much as we are now spending, if not more.

  • Republicans all about resentment right now

    And it hurts their ability to ask the kinds of questions they ought to be asking – the kinds of questions we as Democrats sometimes don’t like to broach because they tread on too many toes.

    There’s no question that there are serious problems with higher education.  But if the Republicans would take their Nixon pins off for a moment and use their minds and their research skills, they’d realize that sabbaticals aren’t a serious problem.  Far from it.  They’re a cash cow for university-sponsored research, and they are very helpful in getting PhD or professionally-degreed people to work for what in the private sector would be BA or MA pay grades, so they enable the university to hire and retain an excellent workforce for less money.

    If the GOP were actually serious about dealing with problems and not just stoking political resentment, maybe they’d ask if hiring and tenure criteria at universities like Iowa and ISU and UNI sufficiently consider teaching performance; and why so much is farmed off to graduate assistants; and why at most universities and colleges, even the non-research ones, both faculty and GAs hardly get any formal or on-the-job teacher training. Maybe they’d ask how we got from graduation in four years to graduation in six.  Maybe they’d ask what students aren’t learning in high school and how that forces people to go to college when they don’t want it and should not need it.  Perhaps they’d ask whether the state schools are rewarding programs that run budget surpluses and boost student numbers, or just using those surpluses from the good programs to bail out failing programs.

    Of course, here you see where the serious problems are with the Republicans themselves.  Time was that the Republican Party asked lots of smart questions and got good answers and good policy out of it.  But Increasingly, they don’t ask questions at all.  They just take a talking point that runs well on Glenn Beck and they run with it.  And that’s a sad loss to our system of government.  It doesn’t help.  It doesn’t fix the problem.  It doesn’t give taxpayers value for money.  It doesn’t even meet GOP goals of downsizing government.  And it comes from the fact that in today’s GOP, if you talk about making government better rather than simply getting rid of it, you’re considered as being off the reservation – even if your ideas for making government better involve making it smaller.  

    • all good points

      There may be serious problems at the regents universities, but the debate on sabbaticals is a sideshow.

      I asked a U of I administrator about graduation policy earlier this year and was told that the U of Iowa guarantees students that they can graduate in four years IF they don’t switch majors. This administrator claimed the percentage of students graduating in four years is on the upswing, and that most who don’t keep switching their focus. I don’t know whether that’s true. I do know a recent Drake graduate who crunched the numbers and decided that she would be financially better off going to Drake (despite higher tuition expenses), in part because she was almost certain to graduate in four years. She considered Iowa and Iowa State but was concerned about having to pay/borrow for a fifth year in college.