Regents approve universities' sabbaticals

BY SAM LANE | DECEMBER 10, 2010 7:10 AM

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University of Iowa English Professor Florence Boos spent three weeks in England last spring.

But she wasn't just a tourist marveling at the Big Ben. She was completing research as part of her professional development assignment.

She finished a 400-page draft of a book manuscript, Art, Ethics and History: The Early Writings of William Morris, which studies the early development of a major Victorian poet.

Boos stressed the importance of the time she had off in completing the book.

"It takes a long time to produce a good manuscript," she said. "When I had my leave, I sat in my room from morning until I was too tired to write anymore."

If these assignments, also known as sabbaticals, were removed, colleges would take a hit, she said.

"You get what you pay for," she said. "If they cut at the wrong places, they'll hurt the university, they'll hurt Iowa."

During a telephonic meeting of the state Board of Regents Thursday, presidents from the universities and regents held a lengthy discussion on sabbaticals before approving all 95 requested by the UI, Iowa State University, and the University of Northern Iowa — down from 107 among the three schools this year.

And the UI received approval for its 58 assignments, up from 52.

"This is part of the fabric of what a research university is all about," UI President Sally Mason said from Des Moines. "The success of an organization depends on the people who carry out its mission."

With the vote, the regents continued to sidestep the efforts of Republican lawmakers to reduce the number of sabbaticals in order to cut costs. But officials attempted to prove the necessity of the assignments.

For every dollar the state spends on these assignments, faculty members return more than $13 to the universities through obtained grants, said Diana Gonzalez, the regents' chief academic officer.

The regents also stressed the importance of the assignments.

"We tend to think of faculty as serving in the classroom. And I believe that's where most of their time goes," said Regent President David Miles. "But in order to create new knowledge and to convey that knowledge effectively to our students, they need to be able to have time to sharpen the saw and to engage their mind in additional activities."

Other board members agreed. Regent Rose Vazquez noted sabbaticals help with a university's ability to recruit sought-after candidates.

"It just seems to me that if that is something that is off the plate in terms of their ability to have the leaves, we'd really end up finding ourselves not getting those candidates," she said.

The regents must make sure to take every opportunity to explain the importance of the assignments to the public, Regent Robert Downer said. Regent Michael Gartner asked that the regents discuss the entire issue of the assignments at one of their summer meetings.

But some Republican legislators are still not swayed.

"When [professors on sabbaticals] come back to the University of Iowa, Iowa State University, and the University of Northern Iowa, do they bring back a knowledge base that's so much greater that it's worth our tax dollars?" asked Rep. Linda Miller, R-Bettendorf. "If they can prove that, I'm certainly willing to look."

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