“Did I mention I was on sabbatical last year?”: A quick take on sabbaticals in the Portland State University School of Business

Students in my classes since Summer 2019 have heard me say more than once, “Did I mention I was on sabbatical last year?” Most of them nod respectfully, but I imagine some wonder why I can’t stop talking about it. The reason is that my recent sabbatical was a highlight of my life, and I’m forever grateful for a career that consistently promotes growth and capability. While students may be tired of hearing me mention it, I got to thinking they might also be curious about how sabbaticals work in general in the School of Business and how they benefit the school.

It all began for me with my sabbatical proposal, which included references to the latest research on mindfulness and neuroscience in leadership training, the possible value of ancient Indian philosophy in the study and training in business ethics, and a hope that I might learn some new ways to interpret the data I collected on ethical leadership from extensive interviews with 30 Oregon Business Ethics Awards winners. That project had stalled, and I hoped for a fresh take on it. In pursuit of these goals, my husband and I traveled for three weeks in India, two weeks in Bhutan and lived for three months at a Buddhist monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal. For a break from the monastery life, we trekked for 10 days on the Nepali border to Tibet.  We ended the sabbatical by visiting friends, family and German university colleagues and co-authors in Germany and France.

PSU Professor Tom Gillpatrick teaching in Germany.

To be eligible for sabbatical, you must be an instructor, professor or research associate, and have six years of uninterrupted, full-time employment in your role. The School of Business Dean must also approve the timing in consideration with other needs of the school, such as special programs, the timing of accreditation assessments, and how many faculty have already been approved for sabbatical in a given year. In addition, according to PSU Academic Affairs, applicants must write a two-page proposal showing that there are “academic and scholarly plans for research or scholarship that will enhance the careers and scholarly productivity of the faculty members.”

To learn more about how faculty use sabbaticals in The School of Business, I collected survey data from six of my colleagues who experienced their own sabbaticals since 2014. Interestingly, almost all academic disciplines, from accounting and finance to marketing, real estate, advertising, management and supply chain, were represented in this small sample.  About half of the respondents included international travel in their time away from PSU. Those who stayed in Portland completed intense certifications, focused on writing research papers or books or participated in local professional organizations with more vigor than otherwise possible. Everyone who traveled internationally had affiliations with partner universities for at least part of the sabbatical. The most common length of sabbatical was a full year, but one respondent took just one term. Two of the six respondents continued sabbatical work throughout the summer term.

How do we fund sabbaticals? Sabbatical support can come from many sources. We draw a salary during sabbatical, but it is reduced by a percentage according to the number of terms of the sabbatical. As a visiting professor, a faculty member can get housing, access to a vehicle, a stipend and other support, such as overhead (e.g. an office or clerical support) for their research and writing work while teaching at the partner institution. Many of the respondents used personal savings to enable their sabbatical. A few survey respondents received grants from other sources or stipends from their partner institution.

PSU Senior Instructor Maureen O’Connor in India.

If you’re a stakeholder in this community, it might interest you to know how these sabbaticals benefit The School of Business. I asked that question in my survey and learned the following: half of the respondents expect a publishable paper in a peer-reviewed journal (our gold standard) from the experience. A third anticipate a paper in a publication not under peer review, such as a book, book chapter or conference paper. Most respondents (83%) feel their sabbatical learning will translate directly to new lectures, course material or teaching and learning benefits. One respondent will offer a new international course to our students as a result of her sabbatical. I have started to use what I’ve learned in some of the courses I teach, and am working on a paper for publication on equanimity and business ethics. A paper I’ve written from this experience was just accepted to a conference panel proposal on “skills required for a volatile future” to a conference at MIT in June.

Most survey respondents also mentioned that the restorative nature of pursuing professional and personal knowledge enables them to build substantial capacity, which they can leverage upon their return. I have personally found this to be very true.  Some may have encountered the classic systems thinking article from Repenning and Sterman which I use in my Organizational Management course in The Portland MBA program. The authors’ position is that any organization must focus both on hard work and capability building. Sabbaticals offer a rare opportunity to build our capacity as scholars and teachers.

Enders and her husband with the Dalai Lama.

During the India leg of our travels, we had the honor of meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He shared with us his deep concern for the level of stress Americans experience. He knew I was a professor at Portland State University and he told me, “Please do what you can to reduce the stress of your students and colleagues.” I do not take that instruction lightly. We Westerners must learn that working harder at an ever-increasing pace is neither sustainable nor ultimately very productive in the long term.  You must build capacity first in order to execute at higher levels of performance.

This sabbatical offered capability building in such a way that I feel I can be more useful, more intentional and live much more authentically into my purpose and value here in the School of Business. I wish you that same opportunity for slowing down, growing and returning to your purpose.

Jeanne Enders

Jeanne Enders, PhD is a Social and Organizational Psychologist instructor in the School of Business at Portland State. She studied psychology and German literature as an undergraduate and completed her graduate degrees at the University of Chicago.  At Portland State, Enders has served as a faculty member, associate dean of undergraduate programs, and executive director of the School of Business online initiatives.

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