‘Sabbatical’ cuts could deny important professional experiences

Kaleb Warnock

Recent calls for budget cuts proposed by the Iowa Legislature have put pressure on universities to eliminate important programs.

Faculty professional development assignments are one of these programs at risk due to criticism from the Iowa House of Representatives. They have been improperly labeled “sabbaticals,” which are more like rewards for service than professional development opportunities.

At some universities, a sabbatical is awarded after a faculty member has been tenured for a specified number of years — usually five to seven — that is intended for travel or study. Although FPDAs at Iowa State have some similar characteristics, they also have distinct differences.

“Sabbaticals are historically entitlements that allow a faculty member a semester to do something different than they have done,” said Douglas Johnston, interim associate dean for research and graduate programs, in an e-mail. “[Iowa State] has instituted Faculty Professional Development Assignments, which faculty must apply for, are reviewed at multiple levels, and which represent temporary changes in their responsibilities.”

However, the Iowa House hopes to follow in the footsteps of other state universities in an effort to compensate for the budget crunch.

Michael Crum, associate dean of graduate studies in the College of Business and professor of supply chain management, took part in an FPDA in 1988 in Warsaw, Poland to study the developing transportation system. At the time, Poland was still under communist rule.

“One thing I want to dispel is the perception that it’s just a big vacation, because it’s not,” Crum said. “For many of them, it’s tough. It’s not always easy places to live. It’s not always easy on their families. Granted, when you’re there you’re going take advantages of the opportunities … but that’s not the reason we go.”

Crum also stressed the importance of establishing connections abroad, which lead to collaboration and even study abroad opportunities. He also credited his own FPDA experience in Warsaw to helping him grow both personally and professionally. Those matters aside, FPDAs have led to numerous grants and research that has brought prestige and increased the cash flow to programs and research at Iowa State.

Although the House members claim that it will help the budget, many professors are skeptical as to whether the money saved will outweigh the potential setbacks in professional developments.

“Eliminating these opportunities wouldn’t save large sums of money,” said Balaji Narasimhan, associate dean and professor of research and economic development in the Department of Chemistry and Biological Engineering, in an e-mail. “The 22 current FPDAs at Iowa State represent just 1.4 percent of faculty eligible to apply for one, and the estimated replacement cost while these faculty are gone is $125,000.”

This $125,000 from Iowa State alone will account for about 1.25 percent of the potential $10 million in budget cuts to the Regent universities, as proposed by the House.

“I do respect the concerns of the Legislature because they’re having to look everywhere,” Crum said. “These are not a high cost item. The returns, in my opinion, exceed the resources we put into them.”

Although Narasimhan has not participated in an FPDA, he wanted to stress their importance for both faculty and students.

“We encourage students to broaden their horizons through internships and travel abroad because that’s really the nature of higher education,” he said. “Applying that same spirit of continual personal growth to faculty just makes sense.”