Magic Money and the Partially Funded Sabbatical

It was mentioned repeatedly during my on-campus interview: there was a pre-tenure sabbatical after year three. Having already taught at an R1, I knew pre-tenure sabbaticals were a rare and wonderful gift. Even in my first year, I was already imagining all that I could accomplish during this year away from teaching.

The amount of research you can accomplish without a pre-tenure sabbatical varies depending on the orientation, culture, and organizational structure of the institution. My SLAC operates using shared governance and a teacher-scholar model. (Terms that were all new to me 2.5 years ago) Our model of shared-governance features a compressed administrative bureaucratic structure – no provosts, no chancellors, and few deans (a much-needed option in this era of the corporatization of institutions of higher ed). But here is the hitch: this shared governance model requires that almost every faculty member (T-T, tenured, adjunct, etc.) engage in quite a bit of service work. Thus, this sabbatical would be a welcome break from not only teaching, but also an unusually heavy service load.

Both the casual conversation and the language in the faculty handbook regarding reappointment at years 1,2, and 3 focused almost entirely on assessment of teaching (thus the teacher-scholar model). I was actively advised to focus on teaching (with an implicit suggestion that research should or could (??) take the back burner in these early years).

Thankfully, this is not my first time at the rodeo. I knew that even at a SLAC with an overt teacher-scholar model, research must always be brewing in the background. You simply cannot pull research out of nowhere after a 3 year hiatus. My first year on campus culminated with 4 out of 6 candidates being denied tenure – many due to low research productivity. This supported my gut feeling that I should perform teaching while continuing to parcel away time for active research. (As I suspected, most folks were doing this anyway – even if the campus conversation focused heavily on teaching.)

But alas – it was finally getting closer – an entire year dedicated to my research. No more squirreling away time. During sabbatical, I was going to be able to dive in – hours at a clip. Then I read the small print.

As I started planning, I realized that our college provided one semester leave at full pay, or one year at half pay, and that this was pretty typical for SLACs. However, colleagues repeatedly advised me to “take the whole year”.

One year at half pay? Well. That won’t fly. I am a mother of a child in daycare, and I have student loans and bills (mortgage, electricity – you know – life). The college has a competitive grant for an extra 10% of pay (so a full year at 60% pay). How to solve this problem?? Outside funding! Yes. Outside funding will give me a shot at a yearlong sabbatical.

So I hit the interwebs searching for sabbatical money. This is when I first became familiar with institutional structures surrounding sabbatical, and how they only support certain bodies in academe. The vast majority of sabbatical funding requires that you become a scholar-in-residence at some fabulous institution (that may or may not be close to your home). I scrolled through dozens of funding opportunities that I would have to forego. I have a partner who is also an academic. As a long-term VAP, he did not have a sabbatical coming. We need his paycheck to make ends meet, so him taking an unpaid leave so that I could apply to scholar-in-residence programs was not feasible. Additionally, we have a child in daycare. It is not impossible to relocate him, but it would present some logistical challenges. (Daycares have notoriously long wait lists.) I wondered for whom these fellowships were developed? Oh yeah – folks who can move and people who can move their partners. I have a feeling this was much more often the case 40 years ago – when there were fewer partnered women and people with care-taking responsibilities in the ranks of the Professoriate.

Fine. No Scholar-in-Residence programs would work. Surely, there is some institution-free money out there. And there is, but far fewer options. I applied to these funding programs that allow you stay in place. (I am still waiting to hear – so fingers crossed.)

As I continued planning, articles noting that women with children were 3x less likely to receive tenure track job offers than fathers and their childless female peers slid down my Facebook timeline. I couldn’t help but think about all the mechanisms by which women with children get edged out of career advancement opportunities. We can talk about meetings scheduled for 5:30 (when daycare and most after-care ends), or the challenges of working mostly during childcare hours. But this was a different kind of hidden challenge. This prize, this gift of time dedicated to research was predicated upon having other kinds of freedoms.

In addition to the above-mentioned ability to move to take advantage of scholar-in-residence programs, there is a *magic money* aspect to sabbatical. One senior colleague and friend repeatedly suggested that I “take a year” – when I voiced concern about a year at 60% pay (even assuming I would receive the internal sabbatical grant), he simply said, “we really encourage a year”. There seems no language to acknowledge disparities in wealth and how they impact opportunity. What magic money was going to cover that final 40% of my paycheck?

If we are concerned about diversity in higher education, we can start right here with opportunities like this. Many first generation college-attending PhDs, working class PhD’s, scholars of color, single parents, etc. do not have disposable income to cover that 40% of unpaid sabbatical salary. There are assumptions in this model about inherited wealth. It smacks of the “small loan of a million dollars” or the “borrow money from your parents” talk we have heard from folks who are clearly unaware of their own financial privilege. To be frank, when you expect people to take a full year sabbatical without providing full pay, you are subtly supporting a status quo in academia that is explicitly exclusionary. And when tenure is predicated upon productivity – productivity that should be accelerated during sabbatical – we have a problem.

I have spoken with folks in the past about this, and many have offered their stories of how they made it work. They usually feature a partner with flexible work. Sometimes they  include suspiciously vague references to “making it work” or “just doing it”. I am assuming that “making it work” or “just doing it” meant they actually did have the resources to survive a major reduction in pay. What is rarely acknowledged is that some people simply cannot do this, and this puts them at a disadvantage. It doesn’t make them lesser scholars or less dedicated to their research. It does speak to differences in the privilege we all embody as we maneuver through our careers. As a community, we cannot in one breath ponder why the Ivory Tower remains so Ivory (and so male), while ignoring the structural barriers that enable some scholars to thrive and allow others to simply slip through the cracks.

So I will wait to make sense of my sabbatical opportunities. If it is one semester, I will make the most of whatever limited time I have. Despite these concerns, I am actually incredibly grateful for even one semester. From this sabbatical to tenure – I am hoping to be in position to push for better policy some day soon.


16 thoughts on “Magic Money and the Partially Funded Sabbatical

  1. Great post about a very real problem. I took a semester rather than a year sabbatical for exactly this reason during my first sabbatical.

  2. great post – fingers crossed you get all the supplemental external funding you applied to! But yes, horrible, and I hope you + colleagues work to change that unfair policy.

  3. Thank you for this. Eye opening for someone applying for jobs. Can you identify the supplemental funding sources you applied for? I know AAUW has fellowships for leave or publication.

    • I would rather not say which ones I applied to (as to not out myself) – but I will tell those that I found: The Ford Foundation has one, there are discipline specific post-doc grants that may work, Woodrow Wilson has another, and AAUW (as you noted). There are a few smaller ones floating about – but those are the ones with bigger bucks. It is notable that most of these grants are for women or scholars of color.

  4. Thanks for the post –– this is a real problem that we should be aware of! Similar considerations also affect the job market. Almost every place I interview wants me to book my own flights and be reimbursed after the fact (though, thankfully, most do at least book the hotel and pay for meals, etc.). At one point last year, I suddenly had to pay over $3500 for flights in one month. I was eventually reimbursed for everything, but it took up to 6 months in some cases. I am aware of how extremely privileged I am to be able to do this, but I also know that not everybody is. I know of some people who have put such expenses on credit cards or have taken out small loans, because not going isn’t really an option, if you want the job. It just highlights this one extra obstacle that can be invisible to some, but insurmountable to others.

  5. In addition to all the obstacles you raised I would add for people like myself who are Mothers who live with hidden disabilities and choose to attachment parent there are even bigger mountains. I wish I had the chance for a pre-tenure sabbatical but my institution only gives sabbaticals to three faculty a year per college. Most of my Associate professor colleagues have never had one, this makes carrying a 3/3 teaching load and large amounts of service combined with 1-2 article a year expectations a challenge to say the least! I hope with all my heart you get fully funded! We need more Mother Scholars who recognize the bias and barriers in the system! I have faced my most hostile responses from other female faculty who sacrificed having kids or how they raised them in order to become associate or full professors! We have to be the change we want to see in the word so thank you for your blog😊

  6. Excellent post about a problem I’m just starting to be aware of. My institution’s funding for PhD research is now lower than it has been in the past and I’m realising how difficult it will be to complete a good project with these limited funds. Through my Masters project there were a bunch of hidden expenses (e.g. road tolls) I would not have been able to afford if I didn’t have my own savings and my life (time available) and research would have been negatively impacted if I didn’t have the money to pay for these out of my own pocket.

    Now I’m planning for a PhD and I’m thinking about how to make research funds stretch as far as possible, external grants can I apply for to increase research funds & stipends and how to balance work and study so I don’t have to be a ‘poor grad student’ that I hear so much about. I’m in a privileged position where I’m able to live with family to reduce rent and have some savings, so I try to be mindful of that when talking with my contemporaries about eating out, shopping and working hours.

    Thanks for highlighting this really important topic that we don’t talk about enough, somehow we’re all just supposed to know how to ‘make it work’ without ever really discussing it.

  7. This is a fantastic exposition of differences in privilege. It reminds me of why smart, underprivileged kids still don’t get into Yale — they missed all those debates and piano lessons and lacrosse practice and volunteering at the hospital while, you know, working.

    One note — the article you linked says that men with children are 3x more likely than women with children to get tenure-track job offers, not tenure itself.

    Your SLAC is doing something drastically, wastefully wrong if it is failing to get 4/6 to tenure.

    • Thank you! I will edit the article. The next year everyone got tenure…but that first year definitely raised red flags about the process and mentoring leading to tenure.

  8. Excellent points. My institution (an R2-striving-for-R1) has a similar junior leave program, and I’ve noticed that not only has it become more and more competitive over the last few years, but also that more and more people seem able to take only a semester (I think that has something to do with salaries not keeping up with the local cost of living, so saving up isn’t really an option, combined with increased prevalence of student loans, combined with increased job insecurity among the non-academic spouses who might have otherwise served as a funding source).

    I’ve also noticed, in looking for outside grants for myself (since I, as a full-time contingent faculty member, have no access to internal leave funding), that both residential and non-residential fellowships assume that your university will be paying 50% of your salary. For a while, my salary was so low that the 50% figure would almost have replaced it, but now that it’s gone up a bit (though not enough, and still, despite 15 years on the job and an “Associate” title, not to the level of an entry-level Assistant professor) it looks like I’d almost have to get two fellowships in the same year, with rules that would allow them to somehow combine, to take a sabbatical-equivalent.

    And that’s on top of the fact that I’m teaching a 4/4/2 (in the summer) all-writing-intensive load (though admittedly with no service), which makes it hard to find much time for research and writing, and would be competing for funding with people who have at least a bit more time.

    The system definitely seems rigged to favor those with family resources, or at least those who begin their careers as quickly and smoothly as possible (which, yes, probably means white men more often than others).

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  12. I’m in a similar boat at my institution. Although we have to wait until after tenured to get our first sabbatical, we have the same funding scheme. I’m currently looking for funding to make truly “getting away” possible during my time to focus on research.

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  14. Hi – great post. I am a mother of 3 currently seeking a sabbatical. On the plus side, I recently got tenured, However, I work at a Brazilian university and I have been thinking of many of the issues you listed. Also, when trying for an international fellowship, people from developing countries have to face unreal CV expectations that make competition less than fair for us. For instance, having to have XXX articles published a year, when we often have almost no access to funding for research (and sometimes for basic things like lightbulbs for the department corridors!!), plus a big class workload and a huge list of students of all levels to advise (I presently have 15). Sigh…

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