aving lived in academic families my whole life, I am one of
the lucky few to have experienced five full-year sabbaticals.
I’ve participated as a child, as an adult before I had children,
and with children – though never as the academic taking the
sabbatical. I’ve learned first-hand that sabbaticals away from
home require a huge amount of planning, emotional turmoil,
and often financial or career sacrifice. It has all been worth it,
in my opinion, but not everyone agrees.
Most faculty members still take sabbaticals, but what
seems to be changing – hard data is difficult to get – is that fewer
and fewer academics are actually leaving home for their full-year or even
half-year sabbaticals. Is this key benefit of academic life fading away?
The first academic sabbaticals were launched by Harvard University
in 1880. There’s debate about Harvard’s rationale for introducing the
plan but the research suggests that sabbaticals were intended for academics to take a year to recharge themselves mentally and physically, to be
exposed to new ideas that they could then incorporate into their own
work, and to pursue research and writing projects that would be difficult
to complete with the day-to-day interruptions and demands of a normal
academic year. The sabbatical was viewed as benefiting both the professor
and the institution: the professor would recharge and the university would
reap the new ideas and energy of the returning professor.
There’s no question that professors who have taken their sabbaticals
away from home feel that they’ve benefited professionally, academically
and – usually – personally. Their colleagues often agree with this perception.
But what little empirical research there is doesn’t show any noticeable
increase in productivity following a sabbatical leave or in teaching quality
as assessed by students. Yet, that research, from the United States, defined
productivity by the number of publications (“Testing an evaluative strategy
for faculty sabbatical leave programs,” by Michael T. Miller and Kang Bai,
Journal of Faculty Development, 2003). It said nothing about improvements
to the depth or quality of the academics’ work or about the sabbatical’s
impact on their teaching or service to the institution.
One who has no doubts that she reaped professional benefits is York
University anthropology professor Naomi Adelson. She says the benefits of
her two sabbaticals in Australia eclipsed the hassles of arranging child care
for her toddler during the first sabbatical and schooling during the second.
Spending the sabbaticals at a different university each time, Dr. Adelson
worked with colleagues who do research in an area similar to her own
14 / www.universityaffairs.ca /December 2012
The virtual sabbatical
Patricia Easteal, a law professor from
the University of Canberra, Australia,
and Nicole Westmarland, a criminal
justice professor from Durham University,
U.K., tried something new. Using
web-based technologies, Professor
Easteal spent six months as a “virtual
visiting fellow” at Durham, working
with Dr. Westmarland as her host.
They tried to transfer every aspect of
a traditional sabbatical into a virtual
model. Dr. Easteal participated
via video links in staff meetings and
seminars, and she tried to have
informal exchanges with professors
And how did it go? While the
technology exists to make it work,
the experiment required a considerable
time investment by information
technology staff in both countries and
significant software-learning curves
for the professor on sabbatical and
her host. The time zone differences
made informal hallway-type chats
impossible, and communications were
more challenging. Dr. Easteal’s
physical absence also made it hard
for her to engage with faculty at the
host institution. Few professors took
the time to visit her blog or LinkedIn
page or even to attend her virtual
presentations, although those who
did found them worthwhile.
but with the aboriginal populations of Australia; she normally studies
aboriginal populations in Canada.
“The sabbaticals were tremendous,” she says. “Seeing the work that
I do from a different perspective … being able to speak directly with col-
leagues – there’s no comparison with just having email conversations or
reading each other’s works.”
From an administrator’s point of view, sabbaticals can be challenging,
particularly if several faculty members want to go away at the same time,
says Harvey King, a professor of economics who directs the University of
Regina’s Centre for Continuing Education. Nonetheless, he encourages
faculty to take advantage of this benefit. “The biggest thing for the profes-
sors is they get the chance to refresh themselves and to escape. They come
back … invigorated.”
His own experiences reflect a dilemma faced by many professors today:
how to balance one’s sabbatical needs with those of the family. For his first
sabbatical, Dr. King was able to turn this challenge into an opportunity
when he, his wife and their young son went to Toronto. For Dr. King , the
location was ideal for attending workshops and meeting with colleagues
at many universities in the region. At the same time, it provided a career
opportunity for his wife, who developed a specialty in forensic accounting,
something she couldn’t do in Regina at the time.
But when both spouses are academics, they face another obstacle.
They have to coordinate the timing of their leaves and find a university or
city that makes sense for both. University of Alberta engineering professors Janet and Duncan Elliott faced that situation twice. Fortunately, their
fields are different enough – she is a chemical engineeer and he an electrical engineer – that they aren’t competing for the same opportunity, yet the
fields are similar enough that many universities are good for both of them.
The hardest part in narrowing their choices, says Janet Elliot, was
ensuring that daycare would be available for their two preschoolers. “We
ended up paying a daycare deposit at Stanford, Berkeley, MIT and Harvard
[because] you have to get on the daycare list about a year and a half in
advance.” In the end they chose MIT, which turned out to be “excellent for
both of us,” she says.
By the time the second sabbatical rolled around, the Elliotts were
reluctant to disrupt their children’s schooling, so they compromised. The
whole family went to Toronto when the kids were out of school; in the
fall they returned to Edmonton and took turns travelling for two-week
trips to other venues during the year. She found the short trips extremely