Christopher Dahl is the longest-serving president in the SUNY system. For 18 years he has been the top administrator at Geneseo State.
Next week he steps aside.
Technically, he doesn’t retire until next June. What begins next week is his sabbatical.
And that’s a problem.
Because this exact scheme – taking a fully paid sabbatical just before retirement – has only recently been attacked by the state comptroller as a violation of rules and ethics.
He called it a “gravy train.”
And yet, Christopher Dahl is going on sabbatical – a paid vacation that may bring to him, according to a source in his administration, as much as $300,000 in essentially unearned pay and benefits.
At issue is: What is a “sabbatical?”
To answer that question, you don’t need a dictionary, you need the State University of New York Policies of the Board of Trustees. Specifically, Article III, Title E (5) of said policies.
Here’s the answer: A sabbatical is a paid leave for an instructor or administrator.
“The objective of such leave,” according to state regulation, “is to increase an employee’s value to the State University of New York and thereby improve and enrich its program. Such leave shall be regarded neither as a reward for service nor as a vacation or rest period.
“Sabbatical leaves shall be granted for planned travel, study, formal education, research, writing or other experience of professional value.”
A sabbatical is when you are given a paid leave of absence during which you will travel or research or write or otherwise prepare yourself to come back to your SUNY job and be better at it.
The purpose of a sabbatical is to make you a better professor or administrator. The state pays you not to work so that when you do come back to work you will be better at it.
“It is expected that all employees will return for one full year at the conclusion of their sabbatical,” according to state sabbatical guidelines.
That’s where Christopher Dahl’s deal starts to smell.
At the end of his nine-month paid vacation, he’s retiring. He’s not coming back with new knowledge or with increased capacity to lead the college. He won’t be fresh off several months researching a topic or doing a scientific study. He won’t be anything but gone.
And that is not how a sabbatical is supposed to work.
Christopher Dahl’s “sabbatical” ends up being a pile of free money, a nine-month vacation in which he gets all of the pay with none of the responsibility.
It’s a $300,000 parting gift.
And when it’s been tried in the past, it’s been denounced.
In 2005, the then chancellor – Bob King – was granted sabbatical immediately prior to his expected retirement. Democrats in the state Assembly shot the deal down.
Similarly, just this past July, the state comptroller’s office ripped SUNY Albany for granting sabbaticals just like the one SUNY Geneseo is granting Christopher Dahl.
The comptroller said they were wrong, violated the intent of state regulations and wasted the tuition and taxes of students and taxpayers.
But Christopher Dahl and SUNY Geneseo are going ahead anyway.
Which is a pretty good illustration of the entitlement and gall that can result from unquestioned power exercised by people of limited integrity.
The SUNY system is dangling by a string, trying to squeeze enough out of students and taxpayers to keep the lights on. We are in an era when the affordability of college – and the life-long damage of student debt – is under close scrutiny. People are beginning to wonder what went wrong when they are saddled with massive student debt but holding a diploma that won’t get them hired part time at the mall.
In the midst of that, Christopher Dahl is getting a free check.
It doesn’t matter how long he’s worked there. It doesn’t matter how great a guy he was. It doesn’t matter how many buildings he built at Geneseo. All that matters is he’s gaming the system for his own personal enrichment.
He is not going on a sabbatical, he is retiring. Calling it a sabbatical does not change the nature of what it is – an early separation leave.
Which Christopher Dahl wants to get paid for.
The answer should be, “No.”
Next week we’ll find out a lot about Christopher Dahl and SUNY Geneseo. Next week, as he gets closer to the brass ring of nine months of free money, we’ll find out if that institution and its outgoing president will stand for principal and propriety.
Or if he will laugh all the way to the bank.
It’s not right. It’s against the rules. The comptroller has criticized it.
But you know it’s going to happen.