The necessity of sabbaticals

Back in the fall, we published an editorial requesting Grand Valley State University’s professors to engage in activities that would keep them updated in their ever-changing fields. An article indicated that university faculty members, unlike many in other professions, are not required to complete a certain amount of “continuing education credits” during their careers to ensure that their knowledge is expanding with their disciplines.

We expressed a concern that some professors do not remain up-to-date in their fields, which have likely changed since professors left them 30, 20 and even 10 years ago. When they devote all their time to teaching — as they should — it’s no wonder that some lack the time and energy to engage in continuing education and adjusting to the advancements in their fields.

One of the only opportunities that GVSU had in place to encourage professors to update their skills and gain contemporary field experience was that of sabbaticals. Eligible professors could earn paid leave to conduct research and field work if they met certain criteria, and the number of available sabbaticals had no limit.

To our disappointment, the university imposed a new policy last semester that limited sabbaticals to 65 per year due to funding and staffing issues. We believe GVSU will only hurt itself and its students with this policy change.

As Provost Gayle Davis is reported to have said in Stephanie Brzezinski’s article “Provost walks tightrope, balancing funds, faculty research,” sabbaticals are “not a given,” which may be disheartening to hear for some professors.

But it should be even more concerning for students.

Hands-on research and immersion in their fields is the best way to keep faculty knowledge current and relevant, especially as new discoveries and technological advancements continue to change the disciplines from year to year. Sure, professors can learn about the new skills required through textbooks alongside their students, but there’s something to be said about the value of field experience. Or at least the credibility that comes with it.

When we sit down in class to learn that our professor hasn’t focused exclusively on fresh research or practiced in the field since 1950, there’s an immediate concern about what the professor could possibly offer us outside textbook theory and knowledge of outdated practices. A potential lack of contemporary know-how could prevent us from being up-to-speed when we’re preparing to search for jobs, and as fresh college graduates, our learned skills could already be obsolete.

Thus, professors would be more valuable to students after they’ve gone on sabbatical and taken the time to update their skills or knowledge base. Limiting the number of sabbaticals each year would not only hurt professors, but students, too.

As is such, we want to encourage GVSU administrators to examine the university budget to determine if cuts could be made elsewhere. We have to make sure that, as a university, quality teaching — not just “teaching” alone — is our No. 1 priority. It is a value that cannot be compromised or sacrificed.