Students complain about inconvenience of professors’ leaves

Carrie Blazina

Students in Richard Stanislaw’s class on political thought were surprised last Monday when Steven Hook, chair for the department of political science, informed them that their professor is now on leave for the rest of the semester. 

“He said that [Stanislaw’s leave] was not health-related and that’s all he could say … He preemptively said ‘I can’t answer any of your questions,’” said Robbie Lierenz, sophomore political science major and member of the class.

Lierenz said other students have offered a plethora of explanations as to why Stanislaw might have left, but no one knows for sure.

“There’s been a lot of things … They’re all unfounded so I won’t give credibility to any of them,” he said.

Danielle Menegos, sophomore integrated language arts major, said she has been similarly inconvenienced for next semester because three prominent English professors, Susanna Fein, Don-John Dugas and Yoshinobu Hakutani, are going on leave.

Robert Trogdon, chair for the department of English, confirmed the impending leave of Dugas, who declined an interview for this story, Fein and Hakutani, neither of whom responded to an interview request.

Donald Hassler, former interim-chair of the English department, said Dugas is going on leave for Fall 2012 and Spring 2013 to write a book on the popularity of Shakespeare in the late-19th century Midwest. Hakutani is going on leave for Fall 2012 to write a book about haiku, and medieval scholar Fein received a grant to take Fall 2012 off to work on a book called “Blind Seeing: Late Medieval Piety in the Book of John Audelay.”

When a professor goes on leave, it can impact which classes students can take at what times, and some students said the professors who replace those on leave are less qualified. 

Robert Woods, senior English major, political science minor and member of Stanislaw’s class, said “a lot of students are upset because he’s a lot of kids’ favorite teacher.”

Woods noted that Stanislaw’s leave is problematic because the deadline for withdrawing from classes is approaching.

“We haven’t gotten our grades back from our first test, and we’re not going to get them back until after spring break, which is after the drop day,” he said. “I’m not worried about it, but if someone does bad on the test, I hope they would make an exception and allow them to drop.” 

Woods also said when Hook spoke to them he said Stanislaw’s leave was “a home issue, and that he hopes to return [in the fall].” 

Stanislaw declined a full interview because he is “not really up for interview presently and need[s] private space,” but did offer an email statement.

“It pains me to leave my students in the lurch; I deeply wish I did not need to take leave, but such is life,” he wrote. “There is nothing I care more about than my teaching, but I’m sure that my colleagues will do a great job filling in for me while I am not able to teach.”

Hook maintained in a phone interview that he is not able to comment on the matter.

“It’s a personnel issue and I’m duty-bound to respect the privacy of our personnel,” he said.

How and why professors go on leave:

Going on leave is synonymous with sabbatical or Faculty Professional Improvement Leave, said Robert Trogdon, chair of the English department. Other reasons for professors to miss a semester are if they get a research grant, like Fein did.

“Students know their professor mainly from the classroom, but there’s a whole other component to a professor’s work — his or her research,” Trogdon said. “These professors go on leave usually to work on large projects full-time. They go to write books or to perform experiments or to conduct research.”

Trogdon said going on leave is something professors are eligible for every eight years, and their sabbatical has to be approved by a long line of department, college and university officials. He said President Lefton himself has to approve a professor’s application for leave.

Trogdon said professors nearly always come back from leave as better teachers.

“In the long run, it helps the university, it helps the students,” he said. “ … It reinvigorates faculty a great deal.”

Donald Hassler, former interim chair of the English department, said when professors go on leave they come back with an increased reputation and respect in the academic community.

“The value of a student education is proportionate to the reputation of the institution and the reputation of individual faculty,” he said. “ … [Professors want] to establish their reputation as scholars and as writers because that then enhances what the students can claim from their education.”

Students in the class affirmed that Gene Pendleton, associate professor of philosophy, will be covering the class for the remainder of the semester.

As an integrated language arts major, Menegos said she has block classes she can only take in certain semesters at certain times, and the lack of some classes being available in the English department has made scheduling hard.

“[The department is] only offering two sections of a class that a million people will need. We’re having a problem trying to schedule our classes right now because we don’t have either the availability or the sections available we need,” she said. “It’s very unfortunate.”

Hassler noted that when these leaves were approved the department had many professors available to cover classes.

“The English department is a lot richer than just individuals,” Hassler said. “We’re not going to damage the possibility for students when one or two or three of us go on leave because there’s a lot of depth in the English department.”

Menegos said she thinks some professors used to replace those going on leave are not as qualified or skilled.

“There are so many English professors I think they figure someone will be able to cover it,” she said, “but unfortunately … there are certain professors that have been here a lot longer and know what they’re doing a lot more and are able to teach classes better.” 

Hassler acknowledged the possibility, but said students will not suffer from these professors leaving.

“There are potentially problems because there’s a lot of difference in skill,” he said. “Some people are more skilled than others. [But] our official position is we’re not damaging students.”

Trogdon added he does not see three prominent professors going on leave as unusual.

“It varies from year to year,” he said. “It just depends on hiring patterns and things of that nature. Three is, I wouldn’t say average, but it’s not atypical.”

Hassler agreed it is not an unusual number of professors leaving, but that there had previously been a freeze on sabbaticals due to university budget issues, which has since been lifted and now there is “a kind of rush this year with people wanting to do things.”

Timothy Moerland, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, which includes both the English and the political science departments, remarked in an email that he was too busy for a full interview, but did state that there are always plans to replace professors when they leave.

“Every [sabbatical] application that is submitted in the College of Arts and Sciences has to be accompanied by a staffing plan from the applicant’s department that describes how the courses normally taught by the person will be covered,” Moerland wrote.

Moerland said some professors’ leaves are planned in advance and some arise unexpectedly, but officials try to make sure students are not inconvenienced.

“We are fortunate to have a strong base of teaching expertise at KSU, and this means that leaves don’t have to be disruptive to the student experience,” he said. “The quality of instruction always is foremost in our minds as we make adjustments.”

Contact Carrie Blazina at [email protected].