Sabbatical limit set by Iowa regents has been 'a bit of a hardship'

Cap hurts research, course development

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For the past 16 years, University of Iowa physics and astronomy professor Craig Kletzing has split his time at work between the classroom and the lab. Come fall, however, the NASA researcher will get a brief respite from the balancing act.

He’s one of 124 UI, Iowa State University or University of Northern Iowa faculty members who have been approved for a sabbatical – or professional development assignment – in the 2015 budget year. But Kletzing said he expects the time away from teaching to be the opposite of a “break.”

“It’s important to understand that, if anything, we work harder because we have solid blocks of time to get stuff done,” Kletzing said. “Time is the most precious commodity I have these days.”

The number of professional development assignments approved by the Iowa Board of Regents for the state’s three public universities dropped 25 percent in 2011, when the Iowa Legislature capped the number allowed to take a sabbatical at no more than 3 percent of each school’s faculty total.

At the UI, that resulted in a drop from 82 assignments – or 5.2 percent of the faculty – in the 2010 budget year to 52 – or 2.4 percent – in 2011.

The cap was instituted to cut the costs of replacing those professors, which typically hovers in the half-million-dollar range.

It originally was set to expire on June 30, 2012, but instead became permanent, increasing competition for the assignments among faculty members and concerning some academic professionals.

“I kind of worry sometimes that the cap is based on a misperception that the faculty go off and do nothing, and that is just not the case,” Kletzing said. “Most people don’t see all the things faculty are doing.”

Professors typically use their time off teaching to progress research, publish books, develop new course materials or even launch a rocket – as Kletzing is planning to do during his assignment. And even though it costs money to fill the classroom gaps, university officials said the sabbaticals generate millions in grants and revenue that benefit the universities and the state.

“The payoff is immediate and it’s substantial,” said Tom Rice, UI associate provost for faculty. “It’s money that I think will benefit society based on the product of the research.”

‘A bit of a hardship’

Of the three universities, the UI requests approval for the most professional development assignments every year, meaning it’s been affected the most by the cap. From a high of 100 assignments in 2009 to a low of 52 in 2011, it has seen an almost 50 percent swing, according to Iowa Board of Regent documents.

ISU’s numbers fell from a high of 49 in 2008 to a low of 22 in 2012, and UNI’s saw its biggest decline between 2007 and 2012, when its 22 assignments dropped to 15.

Rice said the cap has been “a bit of a hardship,” in that it has meant some worthy projects are denied or delayed.

“We have been forced to turn down some that are probably worthy,” he said.

Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, said he thinks the cap has been useful in making sure checks are in place to approve only the most worthy projects. But he doesn’t think it’s still necessary.

“When they did the cap, they didn’t think it would impact them as much as it has,” Dvorsky said. “It might be worth looking at the cap and removing it.”

Dvorsky said, however, that he doesn’t expect lawmakers to take immediate action to reverse the cap. But, he said, he doesn’t want it to stymie research and morale at Iowa’s public universities.

“I don’t think the cap is necessary anymore,” he said.

Rice said the application and approval processes for professional development assignments are extensive and thorough. At the UI, applicants start with an online application describing the core component of their project and how it will benefit scholarship, Iowa and society.

Applications, which also ask when the applicants last took a sabbatical and what they produced, then go to the department chair. If approved, they advance to the dean’s office, where a group of peers reviews them to make recommendations.

The dean sends worthy projects to the Office of the Provost, where Rice does a review and makes recommendations to the Board of Regents.

Faculty members become eligible for a sabbatical after serving 10 consecutive full-time semesters. Most sabbaticals last one semester, during which time the faculty members are paid their salary.

University officials view sabbaticals as a productive use of faculty time in that they advance scholarship, enhance teaching and benefit Iowans and society as a whole.

“The payoff long-term is worth it for the projects that we find worthy,” Rice said. “And the fact that we can’t give as many to professors who we feel have worthy projects – that has had an impact on the products that the professional development assignments provide.”

Although he doesn’t believe the cap has halted any worthwhile projects, Rice said, it has slowed progress. And, according to Rice, the steep competition created by the cap has kept some faculty members from applying.

“Part of our responsibility is to continually regenerate and grow classroom material and knowledge, and these are unique opportunities for faculty to focus all their time and energy on that activity,” Rice said.

Some critics have questioned whether faculty members are productive with their time while on sabbatical. But, Rice said, they rarely if ever use the time to “enjoy a semester at a leisurely pace.”

‘Crucial to my research’

At the start of his UI career, Kletzing participated in a “faculty scholar program” that allowed him to take one semester off teaching for three years.

“That was crucial to my research,” Kletzing said.

Scholarly incentives – such as professional development assignments – are paramount in faculty morale and recruitment, according to Kletzing.

When Kletzing takes his semester away in the fall, he will expand his role as lead investigator on three NASA-funded space missions, including a rocket launch and a satellite launch. Kletzing has to travel to Florida and Norway for those missions.

Teaching at the same time would be nearly impossible, he said, something many faculty members feel as they reach the culmination of years of research.

“Often people have researched a topic and need time to write their book,” he said. “Having that option is important for sustaining the scholarly side of what we do.”

Other approved professional development assignments for next fall include UI projects to research diabetes management, study the role of pesticides in Parkinson’s disease, and explore distracted driving with the goal of developing innovations that could reduce its consequences.

At ISU, approved projects include research on how plants recover from freeze-thaw stress, a study of immune and stress functions associated with aging, and work on the topic of prenatal exercise and diet with the hope of promoting optimal maternal and fetal health.

Approved projects at UNI include an examination of self-stigma among active or recent substance users and a study on the benefits and barriers of mentoring student teachers.

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