State lawmakers should reject cutting funding for professor sabbaticals


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How do some Iowa lawmakers measure the worth of 147 research articles, 26 scholarly books, 50 grant applications, and 100 updated or new courses?

Apparently as a frivolous financial burden on Iowa taxpayers: While "career development awards" helped University of Iowa faculty members complete the aforementioned tasks in 2009, House Republicans have proposed cutting funding for professors' sabbaticals.

By removing teaching duties from a professor's inordinately long to-do list for a semester or year, yet still receiving pay, he or she can finish previously lingering research, articles, or tackle other professional needs. While it may be easy to scapegoat supposedly lazy professors, Republicans would be wrong to pursue such cuts. Public research is essential, and a vital component of such work is sabbaticals.

House Republicans floated canceling sabbaticals in a newsletter earlier this year, questioning the wisdom of paying professors with no course load.

"Why should the taxpayers of Iowa be paying to basically give these folks a year off from teaching?" Rep. Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, the incoming House speaker, recently told the Associated Press. (Paulsen didn't respond to attempts for further comment.)

Edwin Dove, the UI Faculty Senate president and an associate professor of biomedical engineering, stridently objected to that sentiment.

"Quite frankly, if you're teaching full-time with large classes, you don't have time to do research," he said in an interview. "We don't want the UI to become just another 'teaching college.' "

Dove added, "There is a really extraordinary level of productivity achieved by these professors [on sabbatical]."

While the GOP newsletter asserted that cutting sabbaticals at Iowa's three public universities would save $6 million, university officials disagree with the GOP math. Instead, officials contend that a mere $250,000 would be skimmed from state coffers, just enough to pay for replacement professors.

Cost discrepancy aside, it's not as if the sabbatical system is being abused. Out of some 2,000 faculty members at the university, 52 have requested sabbaticals for fiscal 2011, and only 58 have applied for time off in fiscal 2012. Should all 58 requests be granted for 2012, the UI will have an estimated $130,000 in teacher-substitution costs. Dove also noted that professors are only able to request sabbaticals every seven years.

Public universities play an integral role in fostering, funding, and publishing research. No matter the scale of the discovery, this nonpartisan work furthers our understanding of the world and avoids the pitfalls of private funding streams. While private research is also necessary, public financing ensures research will be conducted, regardless of whether a giant corporations will profit from it. And, as Dove rightly pointed out, the small amount it does cost enables the UI to continue to garner the largest number of professional-development awards in the state.

Republicans now control the state House and haven't been reticent about their goal to slash state spending. Hubristic myopia can have long-term ramifications, however: Some professors fear that once sabbaticals are removed in the name of budgetary austerity, they will not be reinstated in the future. As they attempt to pare back a state government they perceive to be bloated, we urge House Republicans to skip sabbatical funding.

There are more effective and less educationally taxing ways to cut spending.

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