Pandemic Sabbaticals and Faculty Inequality

As colleges promise to diversify faculty, they must ensure that those of color have the same career opportunities that their white colleagues have always enjoyed, writes W. Carson Byrd.

July 28, 2020
 
 
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The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly shaken higher education. This past spring, in a matter of weeks, colleges and universities made sweeping changes -- moving to remote teaching, changing grading policies and even distributing refunds for student fees. Looking ahead, the uncertainty about the pandemic’s ebb and flow in the coming months -- and possibly years -- creates anxiety and logistical challenges.

The pandemic has also disrupted faculty life and reshaped the pillars of our jobs: teaching, research and service. Academic administrators have reacted by implementing new policies. At last count, more than 130 institutions had added a one-year extension to the tenure clock. Such extensions provide time for faculty members to adjust to the immediate needs while avoiding penalties for how the pandemic might have affected their work. But while extensions are helpful for those who receive that support, another aspect of faculty life still needs further conversation: sabbaticals.

Sabbaticals are invaluable opportunities for faculty members. They allow them to complete projects that can substantially aid in seeking tenure and promotion, for example, by eliminating teaching responsibilities during a specified time to support research and writing. Data on the availability of faculty sabbaticals are hard to come by, but one survey of 450 four-year institutions found 85 percent offered a full-year sabbatical for faculty, with a median leave time of 20 weeks.

Echoing the sentiments of Allen Iverson, you may be thinking: “Sabbaticals. Sabbaticals? You want to talk about sabbaticals, not tenure and review policies or hiring freezes, but sabbaticals?” Why focus on faculty who are privileged enough to have sabbaticals?

Because how institutions treat sabbaticals now and in the future can impact the inequality we see among faculty for generations as well as the tensions between institutions with differing amounts of resources. And especially now, as colleges promise to diversify faculty in the current moment of resurgent racial justice movements, they must also ensure that faculty of color have the same opportunities and resources to support their careers -- such as sabbaticals -- that their white colleagues have always enjoyed.

What Sabbatical Opportunities Look Like

One layer of existing inequality surrounding sabbaticals concerns who qualifies for them. In most cases, sabbaticals are limited to tenured or tenure-track faculty. Contingent and limited-contract faculty are usually shut out of these professional development opportunities, and faculty of color are slightly overrepresented among these contingent faculty ranks. At many research universities, sabbaticals are offered for both tenure-track faculty and tenured faculty, while other institutions may restrict their sabbaticals to tenured faculty alone, again, limiting opportunities for faculty of color mostly found among junior faculty ranks.

A second layer of inequality is that the length and pay of sabbaticals can vary. In the case of a full-year leave, a faculty member may only be paid half their salary, whereas they may receive their full salary for a semester leave. Yet most faculty, outside of those at the most well-resourced universities, do not have the financial reserves and comfort of only receiving half their salary. External fellowship opportunities can also provide complete or partial funding to support sabbaticals, but only if your course load allows time to apply for them. Faculty are often required to apply for sabbaticals or at least negotiate when they are allotted a sabbatical in their contracts, and they must provide a productivity plan for their leave.

On top of all this, the pandemic changed life drastically for faculty members on sabbaticals. It halted, severely hindered and perhaps in some cases completely ruined sabbatical research projects. Colleagues working to complete manuscripts reconfigured their entire weekdays to look after their children or family members because schools closed and home health services were reduced. If and when they can finish their writing before their sabbatical leave ends is up in the air.

As part of their sabbatical, some faculty members may have also moved to take up residency at another institution to work with colleagues or use highly restricted data sets or equipment. These residential sabbaticals offer many opportunities to learn new skills, complete research and expand collaborations and networks for faculty that can buttress their careers for years to come. But as those campuses closed, some faculty had to pack up their things and move back across the country without completing their goals while in residence. Other scholars, contemplating the risks of moving during a pandemic, were forced to hunker down in their apartments.

Toward Greater Racial Equity

If we are going to better support faculty during and after this pandemic, then being mindful of how to address faculty sabbaticals is needed to accompany tenure and review policy changes. Do extensions for tenure-track faculty adjust for sabbaticals cut short, particularly for faculty members who may have only had the spring semester for their sabbatical?

What happens to people who relied on savings for sabbaticals that only paid a portion of their regular salaries? Not only were their sabbaticals unexpectedly halted, but now they may be facing many pandemic-related expenses. Do they get recouped for such work-related losses?

What of faculty members who were able to secure a sabbatical because they were awarded funding through a competitive fellowship program? Are they able to carry that funding and leave time forward to complete their work?

What if someone was aiming to take their sabbatical next year or the year after? The vast budgetary crises befalling colleges and universities in the midst of the pandemic may result in administrators delaying or rescinding these opportunities until their institutions calm the budgetary waters. A scarier prospect may be that faculty sabbaticals will be all but eliminated for the foreseeable future, particularly at institutions that are dependent on student tuition -- including striving institutions without the capital to support once widely encouraged research opportunities. Such changes to the faculty opportunity structure will likely result in a widening divide among colleagues even on the same campuses.

Regardless of whether they were on sabbatical or not, faculty are receiving daily news of furloughs, pay cuts, hiring freezes and layoffs. While it may seem frivolous to discuss a privileged opportunity such as sabbaticals, who will have opportunities as a faculty member in a post-pandemic higher education world? How will this changing opportunity structure in higher education reinforce inequalities among faculty members, amplifying job market anxieties and pushing people to seeing value only in the most high-status, well-resourced institutions that confer such privileges?

Improving faculty opportunities -- sabbaticals being but one of many -- will signal the extent that colleges and universities are willing to support an integral part of its campus community. But will they instead fall back on simply giving lip service to support for faculty members, especially those of color, while distancing themselves from actually providing it in dire times? Given the stress on college and university budgets at this time, the result could be that a predominately white senior faculty will continue to hold positions of privilege and receive opportunities that newly hired faculty of color will not be privy to in the future.

So, yes, sabbaticals matter, and how colleges award them and who gets to have them do, too. The times clearly call for not simply more racial and ethnic representation among faculty ranks but also more opportunities, resources and policies for faculty members of all races and ethnicities to pursue their careers in the future -- not just those faculty privileged enough to have had such opportunities in the past.

Bio

W. Carson Byrd is a scholar in residence in the National Center for Institutional Diversity and the department of sociology at the University of Michigan. He is also associate professor of sociology at the University of Louisville.

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