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State audit finds inappropriate use of sabbatical funds

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By Lauren Mineau




Professor sabbaticals at the University at Albany are sometimes not within official guidelines, according to an audit by State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli at the end of July.

The audit showed paid leave being used inappropriately as an incentive for newly hired teaching staff and to cushion the retirements of seasoned staff members. The audit found more than $1 million in questionable paid time off.

UAlbany’s policy statement on sabbaticals a professor must apply for a sabbatical leave through the campus president and their applicable department chair, dean and Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs. Professors are required to submit a “one-to-two page statement” of activities to be conducted during the leave and how they benefit the University’s educational system.

A sabbatical is designed to be a time of professional development which will benefit students upon their return. Employees may be paid up to half of their salaries while on leave. However, auditors found some professors combining sabbaticals with other paid leave or lead directly into retirement.

The audit found one UAlbany employee, however, was paid $90,494 while on leave even though he said it would lead immediately to retirement, the audit said. Four others were paid almost $300,000 with no clear intention of returning to teach at UAlbany. One was paid $38,082 while on sabbatical. He returned only to teach an online course and found other work in a foreign country while on leave.

As a hiring incentive, one professor was granted an entire year of paid leave after working for just 12 months, the audit found. A dean was encouraged to resign and return to regular teaching by being offered a year of paid leave, which costing the school $210,000.

DiNapoli’s office also found that the State University of New York (SUNY) system never implemented findings recommended 22 years ago to ensure paid leaves for faculty were actually used to enhance education and the university.

The 1991 audit found similar results. Before this audit, sabbaticals did not require professors to return to work after their paid time off. It appears the 22 year-year-old audit created the changed which is still not fully implemented today.

The 27-page audit reveals detailed back-and -forth communications between the comptroller’s office and UAlbany Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Susan Phillips in which they disagree on whether UAlbany is appropriately spending taxpayer money.

When the audit was made public, Phillips made the following statement.

“We strongly disagree with the Comptroller’s findings and with the manner in which they have been portrayed in the media—particularly the characterization of UAlbany as abusing the Policies and providing a “gravy train” for our faculty.  This is clearly not the case.”

She goes on to say that sabbaticals are in compliance and follow the long-standing policies. She also published a 16-page response to the Comptroller’s audit and individually outlines each sabbatical in question.

Despite the tug-of-war communications between Phillips and the Comptroller’s office, multiple times Phillips stated UAlbany will need to look into the findings and potentially make changes to sabbaticals in the future.



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