GOP plan targets sabbaticals for Iowa professors

By Ryan J. Foley
Associated Press / December 1, 2010

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IOWA CITY, Iowa—Newly empowered Republican lawmakers in Iowa want to cancel paid research leaves for university professors in a budget-cutting move, even as the Board of Regents considers approving them for dozens of employees for next year.

Incoming House Speaker Kraig Paulsen said taxpayers cannot afford faculty sabbaticals, a sentiment backed by the president of Iowa's largest public employees' union, in an unusual alliance. But professors said the savings Republicans are promising won't materialize, and the move would cost universities in grant money and productivity.

Sabbaticals -- a paid semester or year off from teaching to write books, conduct research, create classes and write grant proposals -- are standard practice at major research universities across the nation. But at a time when other employees are facing pay cuts and furloughs, they have become an easy target for critics and an area where universities can cut to show they are making sacrifices, too.

Several schools across the country have already reduced or canceled sabbaticals, according to the American Association of University Professors. The University of Iowa has cut its sabbaticals in half over two years.

John Curtis, director of research and public policy for AAUP, said he was unaware of any case where lawmakers rather than schools themselves have cut sabbaticals, and he doubted that it would become a trend because of the tiny amount of potential savings.

"I'm sure they feel it has great symbolic value," he said. "But the loss, of course, is what the whole purpose of sabbatical is: to allow faculty members to do research, to engage in understanding new developments in their discipline and then to bring all of that back to their teaching."

A potential fight is already brewing in Iowa, where its three public universities have asked the Board of Regents to approve sabbaticals for professors in the budget year that begins July 1. Details are expected to be made public Thursday.

The regents could approve the requests next week, but Paulsen said they should allow for public debate on the plan to cancel them first.

"It seems to be tough budgetary times. Why should the taxpayers of Iowa be paying to basically give these folks a year off from teaching?" asked Paulsen, a Hiawatha Republican who will lead a chamber that flipped to Republican control in November. "It's as simple as that."

Board of Regents President David Miles said through a spokeswoman that he will withhold comment until next week's meeting. Last year, he urged presidents of the three public universities to ensure any sabbaticals "serve to enhance the core missions of the universities."

The University of Iowa has asked the regents to approve 58 sabbaticals for next year, a slight increase after two years of sharp cuts, said Faculty Senate President Edwin Dove, who defended the practice. UI professors wrote 26 books in 2009 while on sabbatical, published 147 research articles, created and updated nearly 100 classes, and submitted 50 grant applications, Dove said.

"To eliminate funding for career development awards means you eliminate all these benefits. You eliminate research published, the new books, all the coursework that is updated, the new graduate and undergraduate classes," he said. "Plus you eliminate the possibility of the university getting external funds. It seems to me to be an unwise thing to do."

House Republicans have said their plan would save $6 million and be part of a budget-cutting package introduced next year. But their projected savings apparently includes salaries that professors will earn whether they are on sabbatical or not. The actual savings would be the roughly $250,000 universities spend to hire replacement teachers, university officials said.

Still, their plan is getting support from Danny Homan, president of the largest state employee union, which typically supports Democratic candidates. Most members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees have been furloughed to balance the state budget. Homan called sabbaticals "paid vacation."

"They are being paid to not do what they were hired to do, and that's teach in the classroom," he said. "It's time that practice ends. We don't have the money."

Republican Gov.-elect Terry Branstad said through a spokesman he will review "all options" to balance the state budget. Democrats, who rejected a plan last year to cancel sabbaticals, still control the Iowa Senate, and professors are hoping the plan will be killed.

That includes UI professor of communication sciences and disorders Karla McGregor, an expert on language learning who was approved for sabbatical this spring. She plans to travel to Australia to work on a research project with colleagues, finish research papers on autism, and start a book about how children learn language. She said her leave won't cost taxpayers anything since the graduate-level classes she teaches won't be offered.

"I do think it's essential for the productivity of the faculty and the good of the university to keep the sabbatical program going and strong," she said. "If you don't have a chance to study and stretch yourself in new ways, you are not bringing those new ideas back to the students, back to the university, back to the state of Iowa."