Reflections on a Sabbatical

By: TANJA SREBOTNJAK, Director of the Hixon Center

This past spring I took a semester-long sabbatical. One of the perks of an academic career, sabbaticals enable faculty to focus on their research, develop new projects or courses, and enrich their scholarship and pedagogy with stays at other universities and research institutions. Mine took me to Stanford University and Berlin, Germany.

While in Germany I worked on a joint project with the Ecologic Institute on the monetary valuation of the environmental burden of disease. Ecologic Institute is an applied environmental research and policy think tank with a staff of approximately 120, and I mention it because the Hixon Center has an internship program with the institute that funds one to three rising seniors from Mudd to spend a summer on policy-oriented environmental projects in Berlin.

The bigger part of my sabbatical I spent at Stanford. I attended workshops and seminars organized by the Woods Institute for the Environment and the Statistics Department and my host, Professor Nicole Ardoin from the Stanford Graduate School of Education and the Woods Institute, welcomed me into her social ecology lab. With so many stimulating opportunities for conversation, it was sometimes challenging to stay focused on my main goal for the semester: writing. My four-year tenure review was coming in the fall and I wanted to finish some research projects and submit the findings to peer-reviewed journals.  In addition, there were two book chapters waiting to be written, a couple of research grants to be submitted, and two new courses to be developed. Without the freedom of a sabbatical, I would not have been able to devote the necessary time and care to these projects.

I also saw my sabbatical as an excellent opportunity to clear my head, regain a sense of the bigger picture, and take stock of my first 3.5 years at Harvey Mudd College. Using early morning walks and campus strolls at Stanford, I simply let my mind go where it wanted to go and over time a few themes started to percolate to the top of the heap. Chief among them was the question of whether I was fulfilling the vision that the College has for the Hixon Center. While I could rattle off a fair number of projects that the Center’s staff, collaborators and I had launched and initiatives that we had implemented, I felt that two things were underdeveloped.

First, as with any new initiative, an evaluation should be conducted regarding its effectiveness and impact. Although I can document in approximate terms a number of indicators for each project and initiative such as resources expended, number of people reached, types and number of outputs generated, I could not easily report on the impact the Center has had in its first three years of existence. So this is the first of my post-sabbatical resolutions: continue the Hixon Center’s work but with a greater emphasis on assessing its impact.

The second gap I noticed in my reflections was that the full purpose of the Hixon Center won’t be achievable without the serious engagement of the whole College. More candidly, I believe that the goal to make Harvey Mudd College a more sustainable college will not succeed without the broad-based buy-in of our community. For the past three years the Hixon Center has developed a number of partnerships and arguably raised the visibility of environmental and sustainability issues, but sustainability leadership requires systemic change in how the College takes sustainability into account in its day-to-day operations, budgeting, and planning and decision-making processes. Thus my second sabbatical resolution is to reaffirm and refocus the Hixon Center’s commitment to work with our college community to make sustainability an integral part of who we are as a college. Of course, this is a goal that I cannot achieve on my own, but I can try to be a catalyst for the conversations and actions that need to happen. I know that there are many like-minded people on our campus and that we all care about the vitality and success of our institution and community. Together we can do it.

My sabbatical included many more wonderful moments and events, but these two resolutions energized me a lot and made the approaching fall semester not feel like the end of my sabbatical but like the start of something new.