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Sabbaticals are no time to relax for UND faculty

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Sabbaticals are no time to relax for UND faculty
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Anthropology professor Marcia Mikulak took a sabbatical five years ago during which she studied human rights violations in Brazil and risked her life to help a tribe there get the land they were entitled to.


“Having a sabbatical is not just about kicking back,” Mikulak said. “It was actually the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

Kim Porter usually teaches American history courses at UND, but in 2011, she took a sabbatical to gather the information she needed to write a book about a little-known seed researcher from southern Iowa. Porter spent the school year interviewing and doing research for the book.

“The opportunity to focus pretty heavily on your research is rewarding, exciting, and I think pretty much anybody who has had the opportunity would say, ‘Hot dang, I would do that again,’” Porter said.

Mikulak and Porter are just two of the many UND professors who have taken paid “developmental leave” to further their research. Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs Steve Light said the time spent away from the everyday grind of classes and meetings is extremely important for professors to be able to complete research projects and become nationally recognized.

“It's a key connector in terms of a faculty member’s ability to be productive in research and scholarship at a research university,” he said. “We’re a research university with a focus on providing a quality education, but as part of the research enterprise, our full-time faculty is expected to conduct research.”

Applied research

Developmental leave is available for tenured professors every seven years and applicants must present a clear plan and conclusion they hope to reach while away from UND. Sabbaticals are often funded by grants or department-specific funds, but professors continue to receive 75 percent of their normal salary, which Light said is the national norm.

“It’s normal, it’s expected and it’s important,” he said.

Mikulak said most people, including state legislators, don’t appreciate professors taking leave because they think it’s a vacation, which she said is “simply not true.” It took a lot of planning, but she was able to live off her reduced salary fairly easily in Brazil because she spent most of the time living in the field with indigenous people.

Mikulak has used her experiences on sabbatical to publish several works, some of which she uses as teaching tools in her classes.

It depends on the situation, but professors who teach required classes and go on leave are sometimes temporarily replaced and most of the time, any elective or specialized class is simply temporarily suspended.

For example, Porter’s North Dakota History class is required for several majors and was taught by a former high school teacher with a master’s degree who specialized in that area of study in her absence.

Future plans

History professor Bill Caraher will be taking his sabbatical this coming school year. He plans to work on many projects, including publishing works on his archeological work in Greece, going through research on the Bakken oil fields, and editing a major research volume for Oxford University Press.

“The principle behind sabbatical is that teachers at UND are researchers as well,” Caraher said. “Giving us the time to be able to have sustained periods of researching and writing informs our teaching thoroughly.”

Caraher plans on developing a class on the history of Greece that will be grounded in his experiences excavating there and his future sabbatical.

While Porter’s book is still a ways away from being published, she accomplished enough to present her findings for several organizations in Iowa and has had snippets published in various educational resources.

“Everything takes longer than it should, but I can see the glimmer at the end of the tunnel,” she said.

Mikulak, on the other hand, can’t wait for another opportunity to travel and continue her work as a human rights activist and researcher. She said she will definitely apply for sabbatical again as soon as she can.

Anna Burleson
Anna Burleson is the higher education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald. She is a 2013 graduate of the University of South Dakota's Mass Communication program and is originally from Watertown, S.D. Contact Burleson with story ideas or tips by either phone, email or Twitter, all of which are listed below. More examples of her work can be found at
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