Education

University of Northern Iowa suspends professional development assignments

Sabbatical requests plummet across Iowa's public universities

University of Northern Iowa. (Still from UNI Facebook video)
University of Northern Iowa. (Still from UNI Facebook video)

By allowing professors to take paid annual leaves of absence for research, scholarship or other professional activities, Iowa’s public universities net massive returns — like the $16.3 million in grants they amassed in the 2020 budget year, with tens of millions more pending.

That return amounts to about 35 times the estimated $461,999 it cost the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa to let a combined 120 faculty members take time away from their typical campus duties for academic sabbaticals or special projects

But — with COVID-19 raging — the institutions are seeking Board of Regents approval for far fewer development assignments for fiscal 2022, which begins in July.

UNI, in fact, is proposing none for the year — marking the first time that’s happened on any of Iowa’s public university campuses going back at least three decades.

Although UNI’s stated faculty priorities include professional development assignments, the faculty handbook also notes, “In certain circumstances, such as adverse or unexpected budget conditions, it may be necessary for the university to make a temporary exception to certain provisions.”

“The decision to suspend PDA awards for FY 2022 was supported by faculty leadership and the Faculty Handbook Committee and officially implemented by the provost on July 1, 2020,” according to a Board of Regents report.

While UI and ISU still are seeking approval for some academic sabbaticals and research projects next year, including one for high-profile UI journalism professor and author Stephen Bloom, numbers are way down.

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The UI is requesting 43 — 40 percent fewer than the 72 this year. IUS’s requests also are down 40 percent, to 29 from 48.

That brings the fiscal 2022 total to 72 — the fewest the regent universities have requested since at least 1993, according to The Gazette’s review of documents.

This year’s requested 43 for the UI is its lowest since 1993, according to documents. ISU last sought approval for 29 in fiscal 2013.

But all three of Iowa’s regent universities are facing deep budget woes from new pandemic expenses and losses, and enrollment drops propelled both by the pandemic and by shifting demographics.

UNI’s revenue for 2020, for example, was $1.63 million below budget, according to a new regent report. That gap came, in large part, from $1.55 million less tuition revenue than expected.

Fewer assignments in the upcoming year mean no faculty-replacement costs for UNI and fewer for the UI and ISU — combining for a projected total $373,819, the lowest in decades.

Campuses already mitigate those costs annually by, for example, asking colleagues to cover courses or deferring non-essential courses to a later term or semester.

And each of the three campuses have stringent rules around who can apply for a professional development assignment, how often faculty can apply, and for how long they can step away.

While there are upfront costs for the leaves, they often yield dividends for years to come.

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In addition to the $16.3 million in grants awarded during fiscal 2020, the regents project another $38.3 million in grant applications are pending, and $11 million more are near submission — meaning the potential return could be 140-fold.

Some of the faculty seeking assignments for 2022 include:

Stephen Bloom, a UI journalism and communications professor with 27 years of service, in fall 2021 aims to write a non-fiction book recounting the story of The Brazil Herald — an English-language newspaper that attracted the likes of Hunter S. Thompson.

Gerta Bardhoshi, a UI associate professor of rehabilitation and counselor education with five years of service, who will research “distinct burnout profiles of K-12 school counselors and the educational experiences that impacted their professional development.”

Ingrid Margaret Lilligren, an ISU art and visual culture professor with 27 years of service, who has been invited by internationally recognized multidisciplinary artist Theaster Gates to “create a series of ceramic sculptures in his Chicago studio during fall 2021.”

Megan Jeanette Myers, an ISU associate professor of world languages and cultures with four years of service, aims to teach a weekly community -engagement literature class for high school students in the Dominican Republic. She also plans workshops on Haitian-Dominican relations for the students and community.

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

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