Monday, December 06, 2010

Sabbatical Economics

Some universities and colleges have canceled faculty sabbaticals in this time of economic crisis. Eliminating sabbaticals may save an institution money, especially if it is the policy of the institution to provide full salary to faculty on leave. That conclusion ignores aspects of sabbatical economics that are more difficult to quantify (e.g., more creativity, more grants, more publications, less burnout), but eliminating full-pay leave and avoiding the need to hire replacements makes economic sense in the short term.

Canceling sabbaticals, however, makes little to no sense for institutions that provide only partial salary support for faculty on leave, particularly if an institution is large enough that there isn't a need to hire a replacement to teach the courses of the faculty member on leave. In that case, canceling sabbaticals costs the institution money. Here's how that works:

Let's say a university pays its faculty 50% of their salary during a sabbatical; this is a typical amount at many US institutions for a full-year sabbatical. That is 50% of a 9 month salary, so the faculty member on sabbatical gets 4.5 months of salary for the year.

This ~50% makes sense because, in theory, about half of a professor's job (at an R1 university) is research and the other half is teaching (let's ignore 'service' for now). We therefore get paid for the research component of our job while on sabbatical, but we don't get paid for teaching.

This ~50% salary issue, though, is one reason why many professors don't go on sabbatical. I think many faculty have taken a one-term (full-pay) leave when available, but the number who take the full-year half-pay option is considerably less.

In any case, for full-year, half-pay sabbaticals, the institution gets the other 4.5 months of salary. If no replacement is hired, a department (or central administration) can use that money for other things. Even if a replacement is hired to teach some or all of the sabbatical professor's courses, the replacement's salary will likely not be more than the equivalent of the 4.5 months for the sabbatical professor, and may be less. The department either makes money or breaks even.

When I am planning a sabbatical, I request academic year salary in grants to cover at least part of the salary I do not get from my institution while I am on leave. As usual with many grants, the university gets indirect costs (a.k.a. 'overhead' or 'facilities & administration') from the grant, and this is typically 50-60% of the total grant award.

Therefore, the university saves money in salary during my sabbatical -- for my last sabbatical, no replacement was hired, so my department got to keep half of my salary -- and makes additional money from any grants associated with the sabbatical. I try to get grants anyway, of course, even when not on sabbatical, but I do more proposal-writing before and during a sabbatical.

So far, I have just been talking about the basic costs of a sabbatical, but sabbaticals also benefit institutions in other ways that matter: e.g. to university rankings (publications, other scholarly activities, faculty recruitment and retention). It is short-sighted to ignore those factors, even in an economic crisis.

At my institution, we have to apply for a sabbatical and present a research plan for the sabbatical year; just taking a year off, even at half pay, is not considered an acceptable use of a sabbatical. Many of us get a lot of work done while on sabbatical; it's just that the work is research (and of course advising, even if from afar), and not classroom teaching or institutional service.

So, why eliminate sabbaticals if they benefit a university, economically and otherwise? Why would a university implement a policy that results in loss of money, prestige, and perhaps faculty? I think there are two general reasons: (1) misunderstanding of what sabbaticals are (and their economics), and (2) an inability or unwillingness to explain the benefits of sabbaticals to politicians and others. A university or state legislature may get political points for canceling sabbaticals if sabbaticals are seen as paid "time off" for professors. Professors are hired to teach, so why should we get a year off from teaching?

Sabbaticals are definitely a special aspect of this job. Although I work hard to raise money for research and salary for my sabbaticals and I work very hard when on sabbatical, I still appreciate how fortunate I am to have a job with the option of sabbaticals.

This is (obviously) not a profound analysis of sabbatical economics, and I will write more about the general topic of sabbaticals in the near future, but for today, my main points are:

- We professors are lucky to have sabbaticals,
- even though many of us don't get paid a full salary for that year,
- but that's OK because we use the time well,
- providing economic and other benefits to our institutions, departments, research groups, and
- getting intellectually and psychically recharged so that we continue to do all aspects of our jobs as well as possible.


Anonymous said...

By your logic, then why shouldn't the institutions just pay research profs 4.5 months/yr every year and hire adjuncts to do all of the teaching?

Comrade PhysioProf said...

The institutional finances of sabbaticals are totally the opposite in medical schools. During a sabbatical medical school faculty take their own salary charges *off* their grants and replace them with institutional funds.

Anonymous said...

I think all this anti-sabbatical rant is just the usual American puritan extremism. Why should those liberals need time of from work when the middle class is poor and jobless (say some fat cat with his pockets bulging). Heaven forbid anyone promote a more leisurely work pace (which as you say, most profs use to actually work) Is this the little town from footloose?

GMP said...

The vast majority of nonacademics think all we professors do is teach and are quite negative when they hear we may teach 1 course per semester and still get good salaries. (And summers off! And holidays! Ahahahaha! I wish...) Of course they think we are overprivileged elitist fatcats. It is unfortunately not hard at all to sell to the public that we academics are overpaid and lazy. Support for discontinuing sabbaticals is just one aspect of how the public views us.

I don't know what it would take for the general public to understand what it is that we as academics do (especially in sciences and engineering at research-intensive universtities), but I don't think we are even trying to communicate it widely enough even though it's very very important.

Female Science Professor said...

Anon 2:05: That is not my "logic", economic or otherwise, except every 7 years, when it's nice to focus on one thing and have a break from institutional service (committees). I wouldn't want to be at a university that totally split the research and teaching functions.

Anonymous said...

This was beautifully articulated! It also raises the issue of the 2-month max for NSF faculty support. I have been told by NSF staff that it is policy in the MPS Division that faculty cannot take more than 2 months of "summer" salary per year, period. So no sabbatical support. This seems backward for the same reasons -- a heck of a lot more would be accomplished if the PI could really focus on a project for several months, and it would lead to better follow-up science since he/she would be more fully engaged. And the upshot is that faculty on sabbatical therefore are NOT working on NSF-supported science.

Anonymous said...

Wait, isn't the two-month limit specific to when you have a nine-month salary? I.e., just for summer salary? I'm going to have to go read up on the GPG.

Female Science Professor said...

You just have to justify the academic year salary in a very specific and thorough way, but it is allowed if you are not otherwise being paid.

Anonymous said...

At our institution, and others in this country, professors get full pay on a sabbatical. However, nobody is now allowed to take a full year sabbatical so six months is the maximum. As well, you must either complete your teaching commitments prior to going on sabbatical (eg by moving a semester 2 course to semester 1) or alternatively arrange for a colleague to cover all of your teaching (note that they will expect you to reciprocate in the future), with the result that many colleagues go on to their long dreamed of sabbatical absolutely exhausted.

AnonProf said...

I understand and sympathize with the NSF position. The way it was explained to me is: NSF wants to support promising graduate students. They feel that's the best use of taxpayer dollars, the best bang for the buck. I have to say that, while I might like to get more funding for myself, I can see the merits in the NSF position, and I think the NSF has got a good point, on public policy grounds.

Anonymous said...

Having been out of academia and at a government lab for more than a decade now, I think one of the odder aspects of sabbaticals is that an entire research group is left essentially unsupervised for 6 months to a year. In most universities, this means a group of people who are not even proper "employees" of the university (i.e. grad students and postdocs) are fending for themselves in a regulatory sense (OSHA, RCRA, etc). Moreover, the PI of several grants is not directly overseeing the work for this period of time. (Yes, I know there are phone calls and emails to keep tabs on students' progress... sometimes).

This arrangement would seem to have staggering legal implications should something go wrong, e.g. a major fraud case or a fatal accident in the Lab.