Monday, December 13, 2010

War On Sabbaticals Casualty of Iowa Public Radio

December 13, 2010, 9:00 a.m.

Universities Should Use Their Stations to Tell Story
(bought to you by*)

Explaining the reasoning behind faculty sabbaticals ought to be a slam dunk.

There are thousands of ways in which Iowans have benefited from their State Universities -- everyone from newborn babies to K-12 students, and high school dropouts to professionals with graduate degrees. There is no one living here who is not better off, in some way, as a result.

Thousands of stories. All waiting to be told.

That they are not being told, over the statewide radio network licensed to those universities, is sad, discouraging -- even outrageous.

As I write in this month's Prairie Progressive:
Law aside, the universities are spending big bucks on technology, personnel and press releases to improve their image, encouraging “faculty engagement” with Iowans, and lobbying for a level of financial support from the Legislature more befitting “State” universities. Their failure to enlist in these endeavors the statewide radio network they already own is a bewildering oversight of monumental consequence.
Nicholas Johnson, "The Commercialization of Non-Commercial Radio," The Prairie Progressive, December 2010, p. 2(and embedded here in
Nicholas Johnson, "Commercializing Non-Commercial Radio," November 19, 2010).
For an earlier, wide-ranging exploration of educational radio's early history and role in Iowa, and the cancellation of "Live From Prairie Lights," see Nicholas Johnson, "Public Radio's Self-Inflicted Wounds," November 11-21, 2008, and in the context of today's blog entry, "I never had that many conversations with Richard Nixon. He was not my favorite president. But I recall, in connection with [today's blog], an insight of his that stuck with me over the years. We were talking about media power in general, and public broadcasting in particular, when he said, 'Do you realize that I can reach more people from the smallest radio station in Mississippi than if I were to speak in the local [Washington, D.C., football] stadium?'

"It influenced my accepting invitations to appear as a guest on what were then the TV networks' late night talk shows. In order to reach as many people as would see one of those shows, I calculated, I'd need to speak to a room-full of people at 8:00 a.m., 9:00 a.m., and every hour throughout the day, five days a week, 52 weeks a year -- for three hundred years!")
You want an example of one of those "monumental consequences"?

Look no farther than the current war on faculty sabbaticals.

I don't blame the critics. And changing the name from "sabbaticals" to the universities' current effort at public relations, "professional development assignments," doesn't solve the problem.

It's up to the universities to explain to Iowans what we do, how it benefits them, and how little those who aren't attending the schools are paying for it (because of research grants and other outside support). Even those who are receiving an education in exchange for tuition are getting a bargain -- compared with the cost of an equivalent education at many American public and private schools.

Less than half adult Iowans between the ages of 25 and 34 hold a college degree. And not all of those individuals came away from the experience with enthusiasm for all of their professors.

Far more Iowans are unemployed, part time employed, under employed, paid minimum wage, non-union, or otherwise failing to enjoy the life of a university professor. It is understandable how, without more, it would be difficult for them to understand why the UI football coach should be paid in the millions for providing seven afternoons of entertainment a year for the benefit of those who can afford the "contribution" that enables them to buy season tickets -- let alone to drink while watching the games from luxurious corporate "skyboxes." It's difficult to understand why a university requires so many administrators paid well up in six figures -- with some faculty not far behind.

At a minimum, they would share former UI President David Skorton's acknowledgment that, “When the median family income in Iowa is around $45,000 and I make over $300,000, it’s hard to argue that is not a lot of money. It’s very generous.” Nicholas Johnson, "Pricey Presidents' Added Cost," Daily Iowan, March 7, 2006.

When Iowa legislators and their constituents are then told that "sabbatical" is nothing more than academic-speak for a well-paid faculty member's Hawaiian beach vacation, a negative reaction is understandable.

Indeed, as the Press-Citizen headlined this morning, B.A. Morelli, "Sabbatical Vote By Regents May Draw Backlash," Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 13, 2010, p. 1: "The regents vote [authorizing the sabbatical grants to continue] could wind up in the long run hurting the universities, which are trying to regain stability after a series of budget cuts that were among the most severe in the nation."

As Regent Bob Downer said before the Regents' meeting, "the regents need to do a better job explaining the purpose and value of sabbaticals to the public."

The United Negro College Fund's slogan, "A mind is a terrible thing to waste," comes to mind.

I enjoy the news and diversionary entertainment from the radio stations of Iowa's three State universities -- now transferred to IPR -- as much as anyone.

But when the people of Iowa, and their elected representatives, don't understand what those stations' licensees are contributing to each and every Iowan, when they haven't been told the thousands of stories about those benefits -- and the relationship of sabbaticals to those benefits -- we can also say that "a statewide radio network is also a terrible thing to waste."

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself.
-- Nicholas Johnson
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kirk Horsted said...

Great post. Intriguing site. Lovely state (I grew up there--and still do Boji as much as possible in the summer). We should all get a sabbatical or two in our lifetimes, not just professors. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Pursuant to higher education:

CNBC and other news sources are beating on the cost of college education. For instance why are college administrators sipping wine in CA while their students (and parents) ante up more and more money.

Why hasn't a local investigative reporter looked at the cost of college administration at Iowa? A quick check of administrative sources would reveal a bloated bureaucracy and high salaries in relation to other cost factors. The administrative bloat note over the past 2 decades continues unabated.

Although one might have to dig through smoke screens and PR, one might find that the great leader of the UIHC has taken pay raises during the period of recession.

And why does it take 3 administrators at over 500,000 each to lead the UIHC, when Skorton took far less to lead the entire U?

The press is sleeping on the job.

Unknown said...

It's not just sabbaticals. They're coming after tenure. By "they," I mean the pseudo-populist conservative politicians who see tenure as a political threat. And I have a hunch it offends their sense of who's the boss, too.

Anyway, I appreciate your comments.

Jim Claypool said...

I wish you had the time to address all the other things Mr. Gartner said in his op-ed. In my opinion, he never understood his role as a Regent and tried to micromanage. He seemed to like having power a little too much. Prime example was how he treated Sally Mason just after she arrived on campus and was confronted with the sexual abuse cases. Gartner criticized the "University's" sexual abuse policy. Had he bothered to look up the law, he would have found that the it wasn't the University's policy at all. It was the Board of Regent's policy. Sure administrators at the university had input, but ultimately the policy is "owned" by the Regents. That is the Regent's primary role: to set policy by which the administrators then run the Regents institutions. Gartner didn't understand that.