College of Education > News and Publications > News: October - December 2013 > Some Thoughts about Sabbatical Leaves

Some Thoughts about Sabbatical Leaves

Dean Monk takes a look at sabbaticals.

Dean's Message (Fall 2013)

Some Thoughts about Sabbatical Leaves

By David H. Monk, Dean

There appears to be some continuing misunderstanding about the primary purpose of a sabbatical leave and the criteria we employ for judging the merits of sabbatical proposals. This is not a new issue, and I prepared a Connections Column in 2006 where I offered advice and tried to clarify the criteria. We had an unusually large number of sabbatical proposals this year, and I asked the Faculty Review Committee to assign the proposals into one of three categories: a) recommended; b) promising but somewhat problematic; and c) not recommended. We declined to recommend a number of proposals in this year’s round of reviews, and it seems timely to revisit the topic.

Let me begin with the first sentence of HR 17, the relevant piece of Penn State policy, where the purpose of a sabbatical leave is spelled out quite clearly:

“To provide a leave of absence with pay for purposes of intensive study or research which has as its outcome increasing the quality of the individual's future contribution to the University.”

The piece of this statement that is sometimes overlooked is the language about “increasing the quality of the individual’s future contribution to the University.”

As I reflect upon the numerous sabbatical proposals I have reviewed over the years, I recall a number of cases (actually a great majority of the cases) where the question about future value was addressed directly and splendidly. In these cases, the proposer talks about a desire to develop a new skill or area of expertise and explains why this would be useful to his or her program. Strong proposals also include an explanation about why the release time is needed to be successful. Often it is necessary to make connections with people or institutions outside of Penn State to acquire the new knowledge and connections with other scholars, something that would be difficult to establish while continuing to be tied to teaching courses and service responsibilities.

In these cases, the Faculty Review Committee recommends the proposal, and it sails through the remaining steps of the review process. In other cases, the proposer seems to lose sight of the fact that the normal day-to-day duties of a tenure line faculty member include things like conducting research, refining courses, and staying abreast of developments in the field. Thus, it rings hollow in the review process when a proposer talks about using a sabbatical to pursue a research project, improve a course, or catch up on his or her field. I realize there is a fine line to draw between keeping up with one’s field and developing a new interest or area of expertise. The key for me is seeing a clear explanation about why the knowledge being sought is important for the University and why a sabbatical is necessary for accomplishing the goal.

It is also perhaps worth noting that other mechanisms exist within the College and the University for supporting faculty members who are seeking to launch a new research effort. The Research Initiation Grant (RIG) program that is operated out of the Office of the Associate Dean for Research, Outreach, and Technology is an important source of funding for new projects, and these funds can be used to free-up time to work on the project. The Social Science Research Institute and the Children, Youth, and Families Consortium also offers Level 1 and Level 2 grants to support promising ideas. It truly is remarkable to see how many mechanisms exist within the University to support the work of the faculty.

Penn State’s guidelines for preparing sabbatical leave applications ( stipulate that the applicant include a curriculum vitae or biographical data sheet as a supporting document for the application. Given the increased number of sabbatical applications we are receiving, I will be asking the Faculty Review Committee to pay particular attention to the evidence of past productivity as a relevant criterion for assessing the likelihood of success with the activities being proposed in the application.

The College has also published criteria for reviewing sabbatical proposals. It is important for those proposing sabbatical leaves to anticipate and answer the questions the Department Head, the Faculty Review Committee, the Dean, and the Provost will be asking.

Well-designed sabbatical leaves are mutually beneficial. They enhance the future value of a faculty member to the University, and they open doors and provide valuable rejuvenation. Sabbatical leaves are a precious resource, and I encourage those contemplating future sabbatical leaves to follow the guidelines closely and to begin planning early.

I look forward to reviewing strong proposals in the future, and I would be pleased to respond to any questions or concerns. I know our Department Heads are also very willing to sit down and discuss ideas for sabbatical activities. Thank you for being attentive to these matters.