Letter to the editor

To the Editors of the Grand Valley Lanthorn,

Shortly before the close of the semester, Provost Gayle Davis announced her office would for the first time in the history of the university cap the number of sabbaticals. In newspaper interviews (including one published by the Lanthorn on December 2) and at faculty governance meetings, the provost explained the university could not afford to fund the 81 sabbatical requests for academic year 2014-2015; instead the university will fund only 65, leaving 16 faculty members to put their research agendas on hold for at least one more year. As faculty members and Michigan residents, we appreciate Provost Davis’s scrutiny of university finances, yet we believe she understates the important role sabbaticals have played in making GVSU the regional leader it has become. The Provost’s decision may have significant long-term consequences for the professional development of faculty members, the intellectual life of the university, and Grand Valley’s role as a center of learning in West Michigan. Thus, we think it proper to explore the important role sabbaticals play in the intellectual life of the university.

What are sabbaticals? The Provost’s webpage defines sabbatical leaves as “a focused time for scholarship or creative exploration in the faculty member’s field” that “are to be of mutual benefit to the applicant and the university.” Further, “sabbatical leaves are intended primarily to encourage and promote the professional growth of faculty and enhance their teaching and scholarly effectiveness.” Faculty may apply for a sabbatical leave every seven years of academic service. To receive a sabbatical, eligible faculty must write a formal proposal describing in detail their scholarly objectives and rationale. The proposal is then assessed by department, college, and university governance before gaining final approval (or not) by the Provost.

Sabbaticals enable faculty members to fulfill their responsibilities as scholars and teachers. Since its inception, Grand Valley has adhered to the teacher-scholar academic model. This model emphasizes the dynamic relationship between research and teaching. That is, the creative work we do in the archives, laboratories, and studios informs and enhances the work we do in the classroom. By following this model, we remain informed, engaged, and engaging. Even more than our impressive new buildings, the model enables the university to flourish as an intellectual center in West Michigan. Indeed, GVSU’s emergence as a top tier state university has come, in part, because of the professional growth of its faculty and their eagerness to embrace the teacher-scholar model. One obvious example: the many top-notch research and creative opportunities we offer students in all areas of study. These initiatives enable students to receive hands-on experience, close mentoring and collaboration with faculty, and detailed training. The university has made such initiatives a centerpiece of its marketing strategy. For good reason: collaborative research opportunities with faculty members give students a vital sense of community that is characteristic of more expensive liberal arts colleges. In addition, these experiences make our students more attractive to employers and graduate and professional programs.

Grand Valley faculty take the responsibility of being productive scholars and creative artists seriously; proposing, evaluating, and making effective use of sabbaticals is a part of that responsibility. The growing number of sabbatical requests and the eagerness with which faculty are taking up this opportunity reflect a particularly strong and dynamic GVSU faculty who are raising the quality and increasing the quantity of scholarship carried out at our university. Sabbaticals are essential for faculty at teaching-oriented regional comprehensive universities such as Grand Valley. To remain productive scholars and dynamic teachers, we need periodic leaves to initiate and sustain ambitious and significant research and creative projects, to take full advantage of external grants and fellowships, and to complete extensive writing projects. Far from being “time off,” sabbaticals are periods of intensive, concentrated, and – frankly – exhausting work as we strive to make the best use of our time; we value these periods because we are committed to teaching and scholarly excellence.

Fifty years ago, Clark Kerr, Chancellor of the University of California, offered an elegant vision of the modern public university in a series of lectures at Harvard University – a vision that helped guide American university life for the next several decades. Kerr called the university a “City of Intellect” – a place where faculty and students disseminated and examined “eternal truths” even as they relentlessly pursued new knowledge. A realist, Kerr recognized the modern public university functioned for the society that funded it – generating the ideas, concepts, technologies, and enlightened workforce that would ensure the United States’ continued prosperity. Those who work in higher education understand that Kerr’s grand vision has been sullied in recent years – compromised by a decline in public funding and the encroachment of a consumerist ethic. For this very reason, we believe it important to reaffirm the ideal of the public university. We hold that sabbaticals play a central role in the university’s charge to serve and to enlighten. For this reason, we encourage Provost Davis to reconsider her decision to cap sabbaticals and we ask Faculty Governance to fight for our continued access to sabbaticals as an essential attribute of the public mission of the university.

Steve Tripp, Department of History

Paul Murphy, Department of History

William Morison, Department of History

Dan Golembeski, Department of Modern Languages and Literatures

Scott Stabler, Department of History

Peter Anderson, Department of Classics