This was originally published on the Guardian Higher Education Network blog.
By Tamson Pietsch
In 1931 Arthur Currie, the principal of McGill University in Montreal, dismissed sabbatical leave as unnecessary and extravagant.
“Seeing that our summer vacations are so long,” he wrote. “The need of a sabbatical year does not arise to the same extent as in those institutions where the terms are spread more generally over the whole year. With us … a professor is given a four months’ vacation. I notice that many of them spend it teaching in summer schools – or fishing, or enjoying themselves in some other way.”
Currie – who before his distinguished career as a General in the first world war had been a businessman in British Columbia – thought such activity profligate: “It would be a farce to give such men one full year’s leave of absence in every seven years,” he concluded.
Yet, in 1931 Currie was increasingly alone in holding this opinion. Since the 1860s the University of Sydney had been granting leave of absence to its professors on the grounds that it “would be highly conducive to the interests of the university”. After Harvard’s institution of paid research leave in 1880, numerous American universities followed suit, and by the 1920s even Oxford and Cambridge had established the practice.
What Currie failed to recognise was that, a bit like fishing for trout, fishing for ideas takes time. Until the end of the 19th century time was something that only the independently wealthy could afford to devote to research. Scholarly endeavour depended as much on the possession of an independent income as it did on academic expertise or employment.
The institution of regular, paid sabbatical leave at the end of the century changed all this. It enabled those who were talented, as well as those who were rich, to pursue scholarly and scientific research. Part of the long process of the professionalisation of academia, it was crucial to the development of the nexus between teaching and research that characterises the modern university.
Yet today, Currie’s stance once again seems strangely familiar. As universities across the country managerialise, fewer and fewer maintain an entitlement to sabbatical leave. Though it continues to have traction outside the academy, the idea of a four-month paid summer “holiday” is hilarious to anyone inside the system. It is not uncommon to find junior lecturers and professors alike spending their annual leave in the library or the laboratory and their evenings writing articles. Research has once again become a leisure activity.
That this is occurring in a context when the tyranny of “research outputs”, publications and “impact” reigns stronger than ever, is little short of scandalous. If professionalisation gave people without independent wealth the chance of participating in the academic endeavour, today’s process of rationalisation is taking it away.
If academics‘ mouths are not to run away from their voices – if they are to do more than merely shout into the echo chamber of opinion – time must be invested in the slow and often lonely business of scholarship. For research to remain something that can be undertaken by the talented as well as the leisured an entitlement to regular, paid leave remains essential.
Dr Tamson Pietsch is lecturer in imperial history at Brunel University, London. She also blogs about academics, universities and the history of the knowledge economy at Cap and Gown.