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Legislators, regents still grapple over sabbaticals

BY ALISON SULLIVAN | JANUARY 17, 2011 7:10 AM

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Though the state Board of Regents and university officials say they’re staying optimistic about faculty sabbaticals, many Republican legislators adamantly support freezing them for 18 months.

Regents approved all 95 requests from the state’s three major universities at their December meeting — 58 of those from the University of Iowa. But the new Republican-controlled House has proposed major budget cuts to education, including temporarily canceling sabbaticals until June 30, 2012.

University and state education leaders fervently support “career-development awards,” which allow faculty members to take paid leave from teaching for research and projects.

Regent Robert Downer said he has sought better communication by meeting with legislators over winter break, and numerous regents will continue to do so.

“I think there are possibilities here,” he said. “I’m not sure that there was a full understanding of how exactly [professional-development assignments] work.”

Though Downer did not wish to disclose exactly who among the legislators he had met with or specifics discussed, he’s met with individuals from both parties and houses — but mostly House legislators.

“While it may seem like something that’s the right thing for cutting, the exact opposite is going to happen,” said Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, who met with university officials in the last few weeks. “It’s a rather short-sighted proposal.”

Downer attributed the proposed cut to misperceptions about the benefits of sabbaticals and said meeting with legislators to explain their importance has been beneficial.

Rep. Jeff Kaufmann, R-Wilton, disagreed, noting a past proposal to cap sabbaticals at 3.7 percent of the faculty, which failed to pass. He said he is willing to compromise but has not seen any alternative proposals made by the Board of Regents or UI President Sally Mason.

“If they are making the case that this will affect instruction, then give us an alternative,” he said. “Help us.”

Paul Abbas, a communication sciences and disorders professor, has one of the approved requests. While on the assignment, he will continue his research on cochlear implants — a prosthetic device to help improve the hearing in deaf persons.

The 36-year professor, who has been on several sabbaticals, said the extended periods allow more time to focus on research, and they affect more than just one person.

“I have many graduate students who are involved directly in the research we’re doing,” he said.

One of the concerns about cutting sabbaticals has been that it will decrease Iowa universities’ competitiveness with other schools.

Rep. Dawn Pettengill, R-Benton, was apathetic about the possibility of faculty members resigning if sabbaticals are cut.

“See ya,” she said. “They should be happy to have a high-paying job.”

Pettengill pointed out education is not the only entity to witness cuts, which have affected nearly every part of government, including K-12 and higher education.

But Bolkcom said legislators should leave the higher-education matters up to the regents.

“I think the Board of Regents has been empowered to oversee the public institutions,” he said. “I don’t think the state legislators or government need to get involved in micromanaging these world-class institutions.”


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