Professors Like to Get Away Too

Students who are thinking about taking time off before their college days end might want to consider the experiences of their mentors--professors who have taken leaves of absence during the past academic year.

Last year, over 80 professors in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences chose to take one- or two-semester leaves. Although leave-taking creates some minor administrative headaches for department officials and a few course selection disappointments for students, it does allow faculty members to recharge their intellectual curiosity, and it inevitably leads to another year's publication of major works.

A professor can choose to go on leave if certain conditions can be satisfied. Eligibility for paid leaves of absence depends upon the type and term of appointment of the leave-taker. After six years with Harvard, tenured faculty members are eligible for a sabbatical. Thereafter, they are entitled to a sabbatical every seven years. Harvard will give them half pay for a full year sabbatical, or full pay for a half year. Associate and assistant professors may also receive paid research leaves, but only under certain circumstances, which vary from department to department. To supplement Harvard's payment, some professors obtain fellowships from institutions where they plan to work during their absence.


Professors take time off for various reasons, but the most common seems to be the great opportunity leaves present for a change of pace and a change of scene.

John L. Clive, professor of History and this year's chairman of the Committee on Degrees in History and Literature, spent last year at Oxford University, where he worked on a book about ten great historians of the 19th century. Although he was unable to complete the work, he said he found the experience worthwhile simply because he was able to get away from the familiar Harvard environment and work on a pet project. "Getting a change is one of the best things about academic life," Clive said.


Clive will teach two middle-level courses on British history this year, filling in a two-century gap in the History Department's presentation of English history. In addition, he will apply some of his leave research to the preparation of a General Education course, to be called Social Sciences 105, "Classics of Historical Writing: 18th Century to the Present," which is scheduled to begin next fall.

Zvi Griliches, professor of Economics, spent his sabbatical year at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he continued his research on the economics of education.

"Being in Israel by itself was exhilarating," Griliches said, "but it was also good to get away from all the pressures of the rat race. Leaves allow you to break from commitments you've accumulated, over time, like barnacles."

Griliches described the importance of getting away: "You then see that the world can go on without you, and you find that you too can survive in a new situation."

The fear of being isolated from the outside world is perhaps the second major factor which encourages professors to get away. Like many students who are concerned about being shut up in an ivy tower, they may fear that the Harvard environment shelters them from the realities of life, fosters parochial attitudes, and stifles creativity.

Joel S. Migdal, associate professor of Government, who will teach a course on Mideastern political development this year, used a spring semester leave to write a manuscript on the Mideast entitled, "The Palestinian Society of Politics," and to begin another book, "Strong Societies and Weak States." The latter work, he said, represents a major theoretical breakthrough for him.

Migdal emphasized the importance of leaves for the regeneration of ideas. "Harvard is a research university, and we very little appreciate how important long stretches of time are to major research. It's simply very hard to develop new ideas in a high-pressure environment," he said.

Fotis C. Kafatos, professor of Biology and this year's chairman of Cellular and Developmental Biology, was on sabbatical at the University of Athens, where he said he found his experience very enriching.

He said he thought instructing students with backgrounds unlike those of Harvard students provided an enlightening change. He also appreciated working in a situation where he could have more impact on the curriculum and individual courses than he could at Harvard. "Harvard is a bit like a nest--things are already set; there is already a framework to which you can only add," Kafatos said.

Kafatos said he is convinced that leaves are very worthwhile, and that his experience away from Harvard has made him much more aware of educational needs. He recommended all faculty members take a leave at some point, but emphasized that the right time depends upon the individual.

Christopher S. Jencks, professor of Sociology, spent last year at the University of California at Santa Barbara. While there, he finished a book entitled "Who Gets Ahead," which discusses income distribution and economic success. In addition, he taught two sociology courses, similar to Harvard courses he teaches on social stratification and social theory.

Like others, he said he views leaves as gifts of precious time. "They give people a chance to do work which they have no time to do here. Writing is something professors are expected to do, and writing depends on getting leaves" because it requires time to think, he said.

Not everyone regards leaves of absence as the blessing that leave-takers believe they are. Many a student has been frustrated while looking for courses in the catalogue, and leaves of absence can create administrative hassles for departments. Sidney Verba, professor of Government and chairman of the department, says that although administrators expect a certain number of leaves from the ordinary rotation of sabbaticals and research grants, the absences can sometimes cause a strain in the department's teaching program by reducing the variety of topics offered by the department Aside from those cases where a particular course is associated with a particular professor, Verba says the Government Department can usually cover all of the major courses either by hiring visiting professors or by juggling department teaching duties.

"When a new Washington administration takes over, we expect to lose a number of people. It's a problem, but we deal with it regularly," he said.

Verba still feels, however, that leaves are generally beneficial for busy professors. "It's a good way of renewing one's intellectual competences," he said, adding he believes "that any major department, like the Strategic Air Command, should keep one-third of its faculty in the air at any given time."

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