Feature

This fall, Stephen Schmidt, PhD, plans to take a semester off from teaching to work on a book. A psychology professor at Middle Tennessee State University since 1988, Schmidt recently applied for a sabbatical—four paid months without teaching and administrative responsibilities. That break, he says, will be crucial for crystallizing his thoughts on emotion's effects on memory.

"I find time in between teaching to do research and publish in journals, but putting a book together takes intense concentration and not being interrupted constantly," says Schmidt.

University administrators approved Schmidt's sabbatical application, but he's worried that they may rescind the offer. His fear is justified: States, facing tax revenue shortfalls, are tightening public university funding, while private universities' endowments are in fast decline. In response, some schools are cutting costs by scaling back on—or even canceling—sabbaticals, says University of Toledo spokesperson Jon Strunk.

"This is an economic situation that has not been visited upon higher education in quite some time," he says.

Middle Tennessee State University, for example, is considering scaling back on sabbaticals in addition to other cost-saving measures, says Schmidt. The University of Toledo has asked department heads to reconsider the number of sabbaticals they approve this year, says Strunk. And Kent State University recently announced that it's canceling all sabbaticals for the 2009–10 year, saving the school between $500,000 and $750,000, and scuttling the sabbatical plans of 60 professors.

Such savings look good on paper, but they may be short-sighted or even misleading, says Kent State psychology professor David Riccio, PhD. In some cases, sabbaticals don't affect the university's bottom line, and canceling sabbaticals can even cost universities money by robbing professors of the time to apply for grants, he says.

Public relations, rather than cost cutting, may be the real impetus behind scaling back sabbaticals, says Riccio.

"It's is a way for the university to say, 'We know we're in economic hard times, so we're not going to let faculty go off and have four months of paid leave,'" he says. "I wish there were more efforts by the university to share how faculty makes use of this time."

Hidden costs

Downsized sabbaticals have hidden costs, says Riccio. When professors are chained to campus, they miss the opportunity to work in colleagues' labs at other institutions and learn cutting-edge research techniques, he says. Collaboration takes on a different flavor when you can do it in person, Riccio adds.

"Sometimes the best ideas come out when you are having a cup of coffee with someone, or a beer, late at night," he says.

It's not just ideas that get short shrift when professors can't go on sabbatical. Many professors, including Riccio, use time away from class to work on grant applications. Cutting sabbaticals could actually reduce the amount of grant money coming into a university, he says.

And while universities may claim major savings by stalling sabbaticals, Riccio says that their numbers don't always appear to add up. For instance, Kent State announced it had saved up to $750,000 by canceling sabbaticals this year, but that number doesn't take into account that when a full professor leaves for a year, and only takes a semester's pay (a typical sabbatical scenario), he or she can be replaced by a graduate student or temporary faculty at a fraction of the cost. In addition, portions of many psychology professors' salaries are paid for by grants, so it may cost the university very little when they go on sabbatical, he says.

It's the appearance of belt-tightening, more than actual savings, that seems to have spurred recent sabbatical slashing, says Riccio.

"It might appear to the public that professors are getting a free ride at a time when a lot of people are suffering," he says.

On balance, the loss of sabbaticals is only a small part of the way the recession is hurting higher education, adds Schmidt. Facing a $10 million to $20 million budget cut, Middle Tennessee State is shedding non-tenure-track faculty and looking at dropping majors in basic fields, such as philosophy and physics. "The economic downturn may reshape universities into something new and unrecognizable," he says.

The value of time away

While a semester of paid leave may look like a free ride, most professors dive into research projects the moment they are cleared of teaching duties, says George Taylor, PhD, psychology department chair at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. Taylor, for instance, spent his last sabbatical working at a research lab in France, where he studied the effects of chronic social stress. The experience, he says, gave him a new perspective on his research on the biochemical underpinnings of stress.

"The Europeans, I think, look at behavioral questions differently than we Americans do," he says. "They ask broader questions, while we specialize in the minutiae."

Taylor's work at a government-funded lab in Bordeaux focused broadly on the ways that stress can cause animals to lose weight—and aimed to stop cows from the rapid weight-loss they often experience en route to slaughterhouses. In addition to learning new lab techniques, Taylor gathered anecdotes and examples that he regularly deploys in his undergraduate psychology classes.

"I like to tell the story about how, even though the study was double blind, I could tell immediately which animals were in the stress group," he says. "They had sunken cheeks and they weighed half as much as the control animals."

In addition to the tangible benefits of his sabbatical, Taylor recalls feeling a renewed sense of excitement over his research when he returned. However, Taylor hasn't taken the opportunity to take another sabbatical in more than 10 years—which is typical of other professors in his department.

"Most professors who are eligible have not applied for sabbatical," he says. "We are tight on people to teach our classes, and I'd feel bad going away."

Even before the economic crisis, professors had been downscaling their sabbaticals, says Debra Cowart Steckler, PhD, psychology department chair at the University of Mary Washington, in Virginia. Semester-long sabbaticals are more common than yearlong ones, she says, and professors rarely travel for the entire semester.

"It's not easy to uproot your whole family, especially if your spouse is employed," she says.

Many professors choose to stay on campus and immerse themselves in research projects and grant applications, Steckler says. The recession may make local sabbaticals an increasingly attractive choice, as professors' stock-market savings are depleted, if they can't find people willing to rent their homes, or just even due to a general sense that it's time to hunker down and save money, she notes.

The current recession may even spell the end of the sabbatical as an academic tradition, says Kathleen Salyers, PhD, a counseling education and school psychology professor at the University of Toledo. Salyers applied—and was approved—for a sabbatical to conduct qualitative research on Appalachian communities next semester. But that was before her university announced it would be cutting back on sabbaticals.

"I am being optimistic and hopeful that mine is still going to happen, but I also know this may be the last year we even can have sabbaticals, and I think that would be really sad," she says.