Sabbaticals and the Secret to Success

NWU Faculty Had Sabbaticals All Over the WorldNebraska Wesleyan University has evolved in recent years, and the changes are positive.

In the 1990s, an average of 14 students took semester or yearlong study trips abroad each year. This year, that number topped 76. In the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, NWU students won a combined total of 10 Fulbright scholarships. In the ’00s alone, they added 25 more.

Behind each of these student accomplishments—and hundreds of others that never make it into university magazines—is a caring and challenging professor. “You can call our excellent faculty the secret to our success,” said Provost Judy Muyskens, “but I really don’t think that’s a secret anymore.”

What makes Nebraska Wesleyan’s professors so effective at fostering student success? Are they paid hefty bonuses for each award- winning scholar they support? Are their class loads so light it’s easy for them to heap extra attention on their students? (That faint laughter you hear is coming from faculty offices.)

“Our faculty regularly teach four courses per semester,” said Muyskens. “Most work 60-hour weeks when classes are in session.” And she said that while the university works to keep compensation competitive, faculty salaries are far from jaw dropping. Instead, Muyskens credited an overarching culture on campus that values personal attention, excellence and the liberal arts for attracting and retaining faculty.

Talk about core values is one thing. How an institution puts its values to work is another. Muyskens pointed to the university’s unusual sabbatical program as an example of NWU applying its values in an innovative way.

Bob Fairchild on SabbaticalTo Muyskens, “vacation” and “sabbatical” are antonymous. “A sabbatical is a reward for excellent teaching and hard work, certainly,” she said. “But unless professors show how they will use that time to become even more effective teachers when they return, they aren’t likely to receive one. It’s becoming more competitive.”

That process is linked to a broader long-term strategy to advance the university’s global standing headed by then-president John White. In 1991, White changed the university’s sabbatical program in an unusual way that has resulted in a stronger, worldlier faculty.

White’s policy continued to pay faculty the existing rate of two-thirds their normal salary during domestic sabbaticals. But faculty who agreed to spend their sabbaticals conducting research abroad would receive 100 percent of their current salary. “I know of no other place that does that,” said President Fred Ohles. It’s a big incentive for established faculty members to continue to grow by going to new places and studying new elements in their fields.

Judges praised this sabbatical compensation program specifically in awarding Nebraska Wesleyan University the 2008 Sen. Paul Simon Award for Campus Internationalization. “When it comes to internationalization, NWU is an overachiever,” NAFSA, the Association of International Educators, wrote in their booklet, Internationalizing the Campus 2008: Profiles of Success at Colleges and Universities. It continued, “The full-pay policy for sabbaticals abroad… helped change the campus culture.”

The policy also changed the way sabbatical proposals are judged at NWU. Less weight is given to a professor’s seniority and time at NWU, and more is given to the ambition and value of the research proposed.

“When we evaluate (sabbatical) proposals,” Muyskens said, “we don’t just look at how long they’ve gone without one. We look at what they’re proposing to study and ask ourselves, ‘Does this fill a gap? How will our students benefit?’”

Muyskens believes that receiving a sabbatical should represent more than professors having “put in their time.” She said, “An NWU sabbatical means you’ll cross the planet for your students. It means you recognize where additional research could help you, your department and—above all—your students. I’m pleased by the thought and work that our faculty put into these projects. Our students see an immediate good from their professors’ international experiences. And our university is stronger for the hard work they do on sabbatical.”

Of the seven sabbaticals NWU approved for the 2009-2010 academic year, all involve some travel and five are international.


Loretta Fairchild
Professor of Economics
Fairchild is studying water scarcity issues in the Murray-Darling River Basin, Australia’s efforts to ameliorate the effects of casino gambling, and the economies of the Pacific Rim.

Robert Fairchild
Professor of Physics
Fairchild is studying health physics in his capacity as NWU’s radiation safety officer at the Environmental and Radiation Health Branch of the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency in Yallambie, Victoria.

Gerise Herndon With Woman From a Survivors Sewing CooperativeGerise Herndon
Professor of English and Director of Gender Studies
Rwanda, France, Mexico
Herndon is studying the genocide and changing gender roles in Rwanda, examining migration patterns in France, and improving her Spanish and researching women in Mexico.

Jana Holzmeier
Associate Professor of Music
Holzmeier researched American composer Vincent Persichetti and interned at the University of Texas-Austin Voice Technology lab to learn software enabling real-time acoustic singing analysis.

Berniece Jones
Professor of Health and Human Performance

Washington, D.C.

Jones is studying K-12 health methods instruction, developmental coordination disorder, gait analysis and outdoor classroom curricula. 

William McNeil
Associate Professor of Psychology
McNeil is studying Middle Eastern history, politics, literature, religion and psychology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Joyce Michaelis
Professor of Spanish: Cuba, Nicaragua, Brazil,
El Salvador
Michaelis is studying problem-based learning teaching methodology, Central American and Caribbean culture, and reading strategies in Spanish.