Higher education

Regents weighing 111 sabbaticals for Iowa university faculty, costing $582,000

Return on investment is 'strong'

A Board of Regents meeting at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City on Wednesday, Sep. 6, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
A Board of Regents meeting at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City on Wednesday, Sep. 6, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Many faculty across Iowa’s public universities view the opportunity to take a break from teaching to focus on research, writing or creating as a prime perk of — if not paramount to — their job.

In the 2019 budget year, 111 faculty members have been recommended for a sabbatical.

That’s fewer than the 122 faculty approved to take “professional development assignments” in the 2018 budget year, which began in July. But the assignments still are expected to cost the institutions a combined $582,301, in part, to replace the professors in the classroom or to nix their courses for the semester.

And the expenses come at a time of fiscal stress across the Board of Regents campuses, which recently saw state support for their general education budgets cut more than $30 million for the 2017 and 2018 budget years combined.

University administrators maintain professional development assignments produce a strong return on investment in the form of grants and other external funding. For the 2017 budget year, for example, participating faculty have received external grant funding topping $6.3 million — with more than $15 million pending award status.

Still, the universities have and are continuing to take measures to curb excessive costs associated with letting faculty step away from teaching for a semester — sometimes longer.

The University of Iowa, in its sabbatical request, reported reducing costs, “where possible, by having colleagues cover courses or deferring non-required courses to a later time.”

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Iowa State University also curtails the fiscal impact of letting faculty leave on assignment by temporarily canceling a class or designating more teaching to another person.

Administrators who review assignment applications also consider the type of faculty requesting a sabbatical and the impact on a department and the university.

“It is less expensive to replace the teaching duties of a research-intensive faculty member who teaches only one class a semester, compared to a colleague who teaches three courses each term,” according to Rob Schweers, a spokesman for the ISU Office of the Senior Vice President and Provost. “A faculty member with a 100 percent extension or research appointment would incur no replacement costs.”

Thus, not all eligible faculty who apply for a development assignment are recommended for approval. The UI saw 73 apply and 56 recommended; Iowa State whittled down 52 applications to 43; and University of Northern Iowa narrowed its pool of 14 applicants to 12.

“This regular management is especially important during periods of budget reduction, including the current fiscal year, and we expect fewer teaching replacement hires will occur,” Schweers said by email.

The UI’s request for 56 faculty assignments in 2019 is down from 65 in the 2018 budget year. UNI’s request total also dropped from 15 to 12, while Iowa State bumped it’s up by one.

Professors can apply to take sabbaticals after accumulating enough tenure and experience — depending on rules at the respective institutions. Following an extensive application and review process, university administrators choose projects they want regents to approve — and the board typically does so with the understanding the assignments enhance faculty endeavors and generate money, attention, prestige and scholarship.

For the 2019 budget year, UI and UNI account for the majority of the projected replacement costs, even though they both are proposing fewer professional assignments.

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Replacement costs for UI’s proposed sabbaticals are expected at $211,000 — the highest in at least five years and up from $136,668 for 2017.

UNI’s replacement costs are expected to be even higher, reaching $255,000 for 2019 — up from 187,000 in 2017.

Meanwhile, Iowa State’s replacement costs are projected to drop to $116,045 — the lowest in at least five years.

Sabbatical-related expenses fluctuate depending on the type of faculty members taking leave. For example, UI spokeswoman Jeneane Beck said, more faculty from the Tippie College of Business are in the mix for 2019 than in past years, and two faculty members from science departments within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences also have higher replacement costs.

At UNI, according to regent documents, professional development costs are the responsibility of the colleges and departments — meaning no central funds are used.

“In some cases, departments may increase class size or curtail course offerings to cover the faculty members’ reduced course load while on PDA” — professional development award — according to board documents. “Some departments may hire adjuncts so that courses necessary for students’ academic progress can be offered.”

A majority of faculty members recommended for sabbaticals in 2019 are men — 75 of the 111. That matches the application pool — 91 of the 139 total applicants were male.

Stephen Biggs, ISU associate professor in philosophy and religion, was among those granted an assignment for 2019 — his will focus on expanding the common notion of the five senses.

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“Biggs’s proposed PDA will allow him to complete a book and companion website that help the public think more broadly about how many senses they have, and experience firsthand a wider range of perceptual phenomena,” according to regent documents.

In an email, Biggs told The Gazette the assignment will allow him to write a book he otherwise wouldn’t be able to write — primarily due to lack of time, which he currently splits between ongoing research, academic papers, teaching and administrative duties.

“Because the PDA provides a break from teaching, it will provide the time necessary to pursue one of those additional projects,” he said. “Specifically, it will provide time for writing and for meeting with my co-author, who will be primarily responsible for creating an online compendium of stimuli to accompany the book.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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