RPC considers shortening faculty sabbatical cycle

By Tressa Versteeg

Professors may have the opportunity to take a sabbatical more often, if a proposal by the college Resource and Planning Committee goes through. The plan will allow tenured and tenure-track professors to take sabbatical leave after their third year of teaching, a cutback from the current requirement of six years.The faculty endorsed the proposal in November 2007. The change was also discussed by the Board of Trustees at their March meeting and will be up for approval at their upcoming meeting in October. If passed, the transition will begin in 2010.

The idea began in Fall 2006, when the provost asked the RPC to find ways to strengthen Macalester’s support for the faculty. According to Provost Dianne Michelfelder, no study had been conducted to gauge ways to increase faculty support in 10 years.

“As a top liberal arts college,” Michelfelder said, “it is important to create the conditions under which a top-notch faculty can excel in their professional development, in order to enhance the academic quality of Macalester as a while.”

According to a report filed by the RPC, there was a need to give professors the chance to work on projects and research that they can’t do while teaching. They came up with several solutions, including lowering the teaching load, increasing funding and shortening the sabbatical cycle.

This change is an effort to better support the faculty, Michelfelder said, by giving them more time to increase their scholarship and proficiency, which they will bring back to the classroom to ultimately benefit students.

“During normal years, teaching takes top priority,” said physics professor James Heyman, who was chair of the RPC when the proposal was written.

“Sabbatical leaves allow me to refocus on my research, try to catch up with my field, and also to develop new courses – all things I don’t have time to do during normal semesters. I’m learning new techniques which I hope to implement back at Macalester.”

Heyman also said that this change would help Macalester maintain the “excellent” faculty as well as compete for new faculty.

“The best people always have choices,” he said, “and we want Macalester to be their best choice.”

One concern with the proposal is that if passed, the number of tenured faculty on campus each year will be reduced. Heyman said this negative impact will be offset by the chance for students to do research and take higher-level courses that will be developed.

There are also concerns about strains on the student-advisor relationships, a limited amount of professors to contribute to committees and projects on campus, as well as a decreased diversity and number of courses taught by tenured faculty. According to the RPC report, each term the number of tenured professors on campus would decrease by seven percent.

The RPC report noted that the main goal of the change in sabbatical cycle “is to improve the student experience at Macalester.”

The report argued that more frequent sabbaticals would allow professors to improve their courses, develop new ones, collaborating with students on research projects, as well as brining field experience back to campus.

Michelfelder further emphasized priority of the quality education students receive. “Our highly talented students deserve that we hold ourselves to these high standards,” she said. “This change will enhance students’ learning experiences, will allow faculty to more easily keep their own knowledge of their fields up to date and will open up more opportunities for faculty to engage students in their collaborative research projects.”

Heyman emphasized that as a professor, the sabbatical provides the “freedom to devote an entire term” to research that is not possible during the summer or term. Heyman, who is currently on sabbatical, said he has already been able to create a new course in Nanotechnology with the research he has been doing. He also added many of his projects include student collaboration, and he is able to do these projects from federal grants he receives from his research.

The RPC report took surveyed professors and discovered that 69 percent of faculty sees the shortened sabbatical cycle as having a positive impact, while 11 percent see it having a negative impact.

In response to the survey, most professors said that they wouldn’t advise students or oversee student research projects while they were away from campus. Michelfelder said that they will try to ensure first year courses are taught by faculty who will be on campus for the next three years of those students’ lives at Macalester.

The RPC also examined the sabbatical cycles of other liberal arts colleges, noting that the top three schools by to teaching load and semesters between sabbaticals are Williams, Amherst and Swarthmore, which have four-year cycles. Macalester ranked 24th, with five courses required per year and a sabbatical cycle of seven years.