It’s hard to decide which is more upsetting – The Detroit News believing that universities in this state should end the practice of sabbaticals, or its misleading reporting. Last week, the News splashed its front page with the banner headline “Professors paid not to teach,” above an article attacking state universities’ practice of granting professors sabbaticals and claiming that professors being paid “to be absent from the classroom” are costing the state $23 million a year.

Sarah Royce

The article erroneously gives readers the impression that professors are being paid for not doing any work. When in reality, sabbaticals are intended to be periods over which professors can upgrade their skills and broaden their knowledge. To quote the University’s policy on sabbaticals: “Sabbatical leaves of absence may be granted to provide the staff member an opportunity for an intensive program of research and/or study, thus enhancing his effectiveness to the University as a teacher and scholar.” For example, Prof. A. Oveta Fuller from the Medical School spent her sabbatical year promoting HIV/AIDS awareness in Africa and the United States.

Framing sabbaticals as just another example of waste in state universities also ignores that teaching is only part of a professor’s job responsibility -research is just as necessary a focus. Universities granting sabbaticals is akin to companies sending their employees to training programs. It is by no means a waste of money.

The practice of granting sabbaticals is also widely accepted among higher education institutions because of its obvious benefits in the long run. At any given time, 5 percent of professors at public universities are on sabbatical nationwide. Michigan’s universities averaged only 2.7 percent, and none exceeded the national average.

As for accountability, there is a place for universities to loosely oversee professors’ activities while on sabbatical, so long as they are not overly intrusive. Cumbersome supervision or cutting back on sabbaticals would deal a huge blow to the prestige, reputation and even credibility of our universities, as well as significantly hurt the universities’ efforts in recruiting accomplished faculty.

This is not the first time that Michigan newspapers have been unreasonably harsh on state universities in a quest to get the supposed waste out of higher education. In January, the Detroit Free Press ran a banner story, “Big waste found in state universities.” The article included no substantial evidence of the headline’s claim. Whether a handful of reporters are allowing personal agendas to interfere or headline writers are getting overzealous in catching the public’s attention is unclear. Regardless, this sort of sensationalism may attract readers, but it undermines the ability of higher education to do its job – educating the public, not running a profit-maximizing corporation. Holding universities accountable and reducing waste in the state’s resources is commendable. However, the cost of these papers’ incomplete journalism could lead to higher education funding cut.

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