The University of Montana will likely reduce the number of sabbaticals it grants by more than 80 percent for the 2018-19 school year to help address budget constraints.
In an email this week, Provost Beverly Edmond said UM approved 36 sabbaticals last year. But she said she anticipates the university will be able to fund just five to seven next school year.
Faculty take sabbaticals to engage in "scholarly and professional achievement" intended "for the mutual benefit of the university and the grantee," according to the faculty union contract. Applicants must submit a detailed plan to a committee about their professional pursuit.
"The university remains committed to providing our faculty leave for continued professional development through the annual granting of sabbaticals to those eligible," Edmond said in the email to academic leaders.
"We understand our contractual obligation to do so, but more importantly, fully endorse the fact that sabbaticals ultimately result in enhanced instructional performance and research/creative scholarship productivity."
But she also said UM must balance those objectives "as we weigh how to navigate our fiscal challenges."
This year, UM's budget lines up with its enrollment, but it's still struggling to adjust its finances from years of a decline in students. For example, UM spends some 90 percent of its budget on personnel, and one of its goals is to get closer to a national benchmark of a percent in the 70s.
Projected revenue shortfalls at the state may also mean less direct support for the university system, possibly to the tune of $12 million over two years for UM.
Provost Edmond said her office provides money each year to cover the costs "associated with the instructional commitments required for those faculty who go on a yearlong sabbatical." She said the money that doesn't go to sabbaticals will be reallocated and noted the costs as follows:
- 2016-17 — $86,885
- 2015-16 — $128,698
- 2014-15 — $181,539
- 2013-14 — $125,747
"The issue is not so much what we save, but what we spend," Edmond said in an email to the Missoulian.
The news about sabbaticals comes on the heels of word that the Mansfield Library may need to make a deep cut to subscriptions and other resources, prompting some faculty and students to call for protecting research and scholarship at UM. Last month, faculty librarians estimated the pending cut at $600,000, although the provost earlier said collections may not need to absorb that entire amount.
Faculty Senate Chair Mary-Ann Bowman said Tuesday she believes the situation at the library will be resolved favorably for research and the dramatic reduction in sabbaticals won't be permanent — and should not be.
She said she understands UM must tighten its belt in all ways, and sabbaticals are costly. So reducing them is one way to save in personnel costs.
"A sabbatical is expensive, and the university is trying to figure out how to make things work," Bowman said. "But, boy, what a loss — and not just for the people that want to go on sabbatical, but also for our research mission and our students and just being able to have the chance to go deep into your work."
UM still ranks among the top 500 universities in the world and top 120 to 135 in the country, according to the 2017 independent Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities. (Montana State University–Bozeman is not among the top 500 published names.)
ShanghaiRanking Consultancy's methodology includes research, research citations, alumni and staff with Nobel Prizes and other awards, papers published in Nature and Science, and more.
Lee Banville, spokesman for the faculty union, said UM does need to address budget challenges, but sabbaticals also offer the university opportunities to make an impact across the globe.
"Of course, it's a source of concern if you're impeding the research that faculty could be doing, but we also recognize that this is an area where you can address the budget shortfalls without directly affecting personnel that are currently here," Banville said.
Banville teaches in the School of Journalism, and he pointed to colleague and associate professor Jeremy Lurgio as an example of a faculty member making a mark for UM with a sabbatical. He said Lurgio is in New Zealand taking UM's "Native News" model to faculty and students there; at UM, students publish comprehensive reports on issues facing reservations in Montana, and in New Zealand, they could use the same model to shed light on the Maori.
"That’s an example of a really good use of sabbatical. And we hope that the university understands the value of those and will try to make sure that there’s enough funding available to make sure projects like that go forward," Banville said.
Edmond said the number of sabbaticals varies from year to year, and UM doesn't have a target set going forward.
"Sabbaticals are judged on the merits of the plans/proposals submitted by faculty and not on their potential individual costs," Edmond said in an email. "We are committed to providing sabbatical opportunities to faculty and will continue to do so."
She also said she does not believe UM's research enterprise will be hurt from the decrease.
"While sabbaticals do support a component of our commitment to research, the larger portion of this is comprised by a robust externally funded enterprise. We see nothing in this decision that will have a direct impact on this," Edmond said.