Staff editorial: Sabbatical increase could deteriorate student-professor relationships

By Staff

The faculty’s recent endorsement of a proposal to increase the frequency of professors’ sabbaticals from every seven to every four years should be seen in the context of progressing decreases in academic commitments from the faculty.Before 1996, faculty taught classes for students over what’s now better known as J Term. For better or worse, since the 1996 decision to eliminate “Intersession” faculty were no longer obliged to stick around for January’s bitter blizzards, eliminating a significant teaching burden.

Since then, the faculty have also beaten back proposals to cut the length of J Term, protecting a break ostensibly reserved for activities like research, also the rationale behind sabbaticals.

Over the past decade, as Macalester’s class sizes have shrunken and a lengthy four-month summer break has proven its staying power, faculty have seemingly faced fewer and fewer teaching responsibilities.

While we don’t imagine that the faculty would spend their “off time” reclining before Caribbean beachfront vistas, the move for more sabbaticals is symptomatic of a more troubling trend.

If history is any indication, the increase in gaps created by professors on sabbatical will inevitably be filled by adjunct professors. One of the problems involved with increased sabbaticals is that student-teacher mentorship can suffer, and the long-term guidance that students seek here also suffers. Both students and faculty commit less to relationships that they know will only be temporary.

The rise of adjuncts also accrues more institutional power to the executive, the administration, the president. A faculty composed of more adjuncts loses confidence and initiative to an administration that can be less directly in touch with students.

On a four-year sabbatical cycle, most students would come to expect to lose their advisor for a semester, or year. An increase in the frequency of professor’s sabbaticals would therefore see an inherent decline in professor-student relationships, unless this increased time for professor research offered increasing opportunity for intense and empowering research collaboration between professors and students.

But with professors off campus more often, this would prove to be an uphill battle.