Sabbatical proposal put on hold due to financial crisis

By David Hertz

In the wake of the college’s losses in the economic crisis, four tenure-track hiring searches and a proposal to increase the frequency of faculty sabbaticals have been postponed. President Brian Rosenberg and Provost Kathleen Murray notified the faculty on Monday that they were halting two of the 17 searches for new tenure-track professors this year. The postponed searches were for a joint Economics-Political Science professor to analyze U.S. economic policy and for a Russian professor. The Music and History departments were allowed to continue their searches this year in exchange for agreeing to postpone two more searches originally planned for next year.

Murray said the postponements were necessary to ensure that Macalester would have funds to make future hires.

“If we hit two or three years out and this is a prolonged or deep downturn, our challenges will increase,” Murray said. “And if we’ve made 17 hires in tenured track positions . we’d lose flexibility.”

The sabbatical proposal would have allowed faculty to take a semester-long sabbatical every three years instead of every six years, or a yearlong sabbatical every six years. The Resources and Planning Committee delivered its recommendation to postpone the proposal last week.

“We have an extraordinarily productive faculty,” said Murray. “I do think that the enhanced sabbatical would lead to even greater productivity. Right now it’s a balancing act. Is it at the top of the priority list during a challenging economic time? No.”

Initial estimates of the cost of the proposal were about $60,000 per year. When Murray came on as provost this summer, she asked for a new cost estimate, which showed the costs would be as much as $300,000 more per year than originally estimated.

The change was based on incorrect assumptions about how faculty would use sabbaticals, Murray said.

“The reality is that faculty take advantage of full year sabbaticals at a higher rate than was originally imagined,” she said.

Full year sabbaticals are much more expensive than semester long sabbaticals because they require the hiring of a full time replacement, Murray said.

The Resources and Planning Committee recommended that the Provost change the proposal to reduce its cost and bring it back for reconsideration in 2011.

The most likely changes to be made include limiting the number of professors who can take full year sabbaticals or capping the percentage of the faculty that can be on leave at any given time, Murray said.

These postponements come as the economic downturn has led the endowment to drop by about 20 percent as of this October, down from more than $700 million in October 2007 to about $550 million this year.

“We are certainly affected by all this,” Vice President for Administration and Finance David Wheaton said. “It seems to me almost all endowments are trending the same way right now.

“I think a lot of institutions right now-as the economic climate is changing-are stepping back and looking at what things in our plans do we have that we haven’t done yet.”

Pete Ferderer, Economics professor and chair of the Educational Policy and Governance Committee, which made recommendations to the Provost on the freezing of hiring searches, said the move made sense financially.

“[But] if I take my EPAG hat off and I put my Econ hat on,” Ferderer said, “I think it’s a setback for our department because this was a great opportunity to do something that we don’t do, something that I think the students would gravitate toward, something that certainly is important in the current environment of policy change with the new administration and so forth-it’s unfortunate.