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Budget woes may endanger sabbaticals

BY JORDAN FRIES | DECEMBER 17, 2009 7:30 AM

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UI linguistics Professor William Davies has visited Indonesia numerous times on the university’s dime.

But these aren’t pleasure vacations; he was on sabbatical — known in academia as professional-development assignments — and spent his trips studying the complex Madurese language, which is spoken by more than 7 million people in Indonesia’s roughly 18,000 islands.

Davies is one of 56 UI professors who took sabbaticals this year, but these university-sponsored research breaks may soon wind up on the cutting-room floor.

The sabbaticals will cost state Board of Regents’ universities $337,000 for the research grants themselves and another $6 million to pay the professors’ salaries this year, said UI Provost Wallace Loh. From the three state universities, 107 professors took a sabbatical this year.

“It comes down to protecting the sabbaticals versus faculty and teaching-assistant positions,” Loh said. “However, we hire replacement faculty, reschedule courses, and find colleagues who agree to teach absent professors’ courses on an unpaid basis to make up some of the cost.”

Regents’ President David Miles will make a decision regarding the reduction of sabbaticals by February. The regents postponed a decision during a meeting last week and authorized Miles to make the decision himself.

“The research done through these programs is important for the institutions,” Miles said. “But we are working on reducing the number of sabbaticals requested given the financial circumstances.”

The UI is accepting 40 percent fewer applications for sabbaticals than it did three years ago, Loh said.

Miles said a temporary ban is unlikely because it would stall research. But he is concerned about balancing the costs of the grants with impending layoffs and furloughs, he said.

Most professors take a sabbatical to research the most relevant new developments in their fields.

Davies is receiving a partial grant from the university’s Arts and Humanities Initiative, as well as grant money from the Toyota Foundation, to continue his work on translating Madurese, which is virtually unknown in the United States.

He has published a Madurese grammar book, and he is working on translating at least 35 Madurese folk tales to archive on the UI’s Iowa Digital Library this spring. Besides the UI-sponsored sabbatical, Davies also travels to Indonesia each summer, without pay, to continue his research. He has traveled to Indonesia once a year for the past 15 years.

“My students probably know more about this language than most professional linguists do,” Davies said. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to work on this project. It’s very important for us to understand this culture and spread their language to other parts of the world.”

Officials from the University of Texas-Austin, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the University of Illinois-Champaign/Urbana all noted similar financial turmoil, but officials at the institutions said keeping the “mission of the university in mind” takes greater importance.

“It’s really critical that we keep our research funds constant,” said Howard Guenther, the associate vice chancellor for research at the University of Illinois-Champaign/Urbana. “That’s what makes us a university.”

Davies said he agrees.

“I understand the financial concerns, but you don’t want to lose sight of what’s important in what we’re teaching here,” he said. “Students still need to know these things. The world is ever changing, and this research keeps us on the cutting edge.”


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