Administrators, How Would You Use a Professional Sabbatical?

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A recent Forbes article, “The Great Resignation Has Morphed Into the Great Sabbatical,” by Danica Lo caught my eye with great interest because the idea of a sabbatical for college administrators has been on my mind a lot lately. Chief communications officers—as well as other college leaders—are burned out from the stress of persistent crisis communications management over the past two years. And even before the pandemic, Americans had been known for working too much and taking too little vacation.

While it is critical to unplug from your daily work and responsibilities, it is important not to confuse the academy’s intention of a sabbatical with a personal holiday. I believe that it is possible for administrators to reset and recharge while changing course to engage with research and other activities that support their service to their college or university. Many faculty members have realized this scholarly leave benefit since Harvard introduced it in the late 19th century. However, few academic institutions offer it to professional staff.

A sabbatical for higher education administrators should incorporate studying a common campus issue that requires informal research, assessment and complete focus to propose viable, actionable solutions for the sponsoring institution. The issue should be broad enough such that it is applicable for two or more administrative divisions, if not the entire institution. The sabbatical should be reserved for professionals who have the authority to influence major institutional change such as heads (deans, vice presidents and executive directors) and assistant/associate heads of divisions and large institutional offices.

Unlike teaching faculty, whose calendar is typically structured in semesters, trimesters or quarters, administrators design their work schedules around fiscal years. Administrative work does not stop when the semester ends and the summer break begins; spring and winter breaks have little significance on deadlines or demand for meetings. Consequently, I propose that an administrative sabbatical should be three months and include a budget for research, travel and materials. This is long enough to recharge and reset but short enough to completely hand over job responsibilities without too much worry. It’s also a manageable opportunity for a rising star in your division to handle.

For administrators who have the privilege of such time and resources, I offer my thoughts about how I would design my own sabbatical:

  1. As a communications and marketing professional, I would choose a topic that is fundamental to our division’s work but also critical right now on campuses everywhere—campus culture.
  2. I would write specific research questions, such as: What types of subcultures make up a campus culture? What are their common values? How are those values communicated and nurtured? What artifacts (e.g., traditions, events, people, etc.) drive the organizational culture? What assumptions exist about organizational communication (top-down, peer-to-peer, grassroots)? How do you measure a culture’s tolerance for change?
  3. I would identify three colleges—two peer institutions and one aspirational—to visit and the key individuals to interview. While conducting campus visits, I would spend time developing my own sense of place and observing how individuals interact on each campus.
  4. Then I would spend a period of days away from home synthesizing my findings and creating a framework that I could apply to nurturing culture at my own institution.
  5. Finally, I would develop a proposal to my president and senior colleagues for potentially actionable items that could support our objectives for enriching our campus culture.

Other sabbatical ideas for communications professionals include:

  • Visiting an international institution that is accomplishing aspirational goals similar to yours.
  • Enrolling in professional development agreed upon by you and your president or vice president.
  • Shadowing a president or chief of staff at another college or university.
  • Writing a paper to submit for publication.
  • Developing higher ed communications and marketing case studies to pitch as conference presentations.
  • Launching a new blog for your college or university.
  • Hosting a salon for higher ed CCOs and producing a video, podcast or paper to share key insights that were discussed.

Aside from mitigating the Great Resignation, a sabbatical for administrators and senior leaders can be mutually beneficial for the professional and the sponsoring institution. A three-month time frame is long enough to refresh your mind and spirit as well as to accomplish a meaningful project.


Melissa Farmer Richards serves as vice president for communications and marketing at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y.

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