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By Paul Bradley  /  
2009 June 1 - 12:00 am

Off theTrack

The tenured and tenure-track professor are gradually disappearing from the campuses of the nation’s community colleges.

A recent study by the American Federation of Teachers shows that even as the overall number of instructors at colleges of all types grew over the decade that ended in 2007, the percentage of full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty contracted. 

The trend is especially apparent at community colleges, which now more than ever rely on contingent faculty to teach the students flooding two-year college campuses in search of more education and upgraded job skills in the economic downturn.

In a report entitled “American Academic: The State of the Higher Education Workforce,” the AFT reported that between 1997 and 2007, the instructional staff at community colleges grew by about 22 percent. Over the same time period, the number of fulltime tenured and tenure-track faculty declined from 21 to 18 percent.

While the number of tenured professors was declining, the number of non-teaching professional staff was on the rise. Between 1997 and 2007, the number of professional staff such as registrars, counselors and financial aid officers grew by 50 percent, the AFT found.

To the AFT, the trends represent a wrong-headed approach to improving the quality of higher education.

“This is a critical moment for our country, when we should focus on investing, not disinesting, in our public higher education institutions,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten in a statement. “Both President Obama and the Congress have recognized that higher education is essential to our country’s economic recovery, and a fully supported higher education workforce is critical to strengthening our institutions.”

She added: “The faculty trends revealed in this report represent a staffing crisis that threatens the quality of our nation’s colleges and universities. The truth is, disinvesting in faculty is unfair to contingent faculty, many of whom are miserably compensated. It also shortchanges students, who may have less access to a part-time professor, who has to teach at several institutions to patch together a living.”

Nowhere is the trend toward eschewing tenure and employing part-time faculty more apparent than in Kentucky. Under a decision which has roiled the Kentucky Community & Technical  College System, the KCTCS Board of Regents voted in March to end tenure for faculty hired after July 1. Currently tenured staff will not be affected.

Howls of Protest

The Board of Regents said ending tenure will give the system the flexibility it needs to respond to the changing needs of the workforce. But the decision has produced howls of protest across the state.

Kentucky’s community college system has been moving in the direction of adding more part-time staff for several years. The system employs more than 4,000 faculty and staff, and an analysis of the system shows that, in the early part of this decade, 20 to 30 tenure-track faculty and only a handful of term-contract employees were hired. By 2006-07, the number of term contracts had grown to 90.

In a sharply-worded editorial, the state’s largest newspaper, the Lexington Herald-Leader, said the regents, by eliminating tenure, were needlessly tinkering with the success of a system that has seen enrollment double to 90,000 students over past 12 years.

“Regents were told that doing away with tenure would provide more flexibility to respond to market demands but the only example offered was a hypothetical Latin teacher who couldn’t be fired even though there was a much greater demand for Spanish,” the editorial said. “KCTCS hasn’t taught Latin for several years, and higher education routinely lay off tenured faculty when academic programs are discontinued.”

The Kentucky House of Representatives, meanwhile, adopted a non-binding resolution urging the Board of Regents to revisit the issue. But Richard A. Bean, the Board of Regents chairman, said that is unlikely.

“It’s not a matter of messing with success,” he said. “It’s a matter of having more success. The board is trying to ensure that the success we have enjoyed will continue.”

The loudest protests have come from the college campuses themselves. Faculty at 15 of the state’s 16 community and technical colleges have taken the extraordinary step of voting overwhelmingly in favor of resolutions of no confidence in the KCTCS board.

Roy Silver has taught sociology at Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College since 1989 and is a tenured professor. He is one of the leaders of the faculty protests.

“The regents are saying that they need more flexibility,” he said. “But our system has been growing exponentially. It is difficult to understand how the faculty has been an obstacle to serving the residents of the commonwealth.”

Silver noted that KCTCS professors must teach seven years before being granted for tenure, giving administrators ample time to weed out incompetent or ineffective teachers.

“It impinges on academic freedom, and it impinges on the role faculty can play in governance,” he said. “We bring a certain amount of research expertise to decisions that are made.”

Roger Noe, a psychology professor at Southeast Kentucky, brings a unique perspective to the debate. He served for 15 years in the state Legislature, including seven years as chairman of the House Education Committee. He recalled the difficulties encountered when the KCTCS was created by merging a branch of the University of Kentucky with the state’s technical colleges.

Power Grab?

“There were a lot of problems back then with the merger,” he said. “We were bringing together two different cultures. Professors at the University of Kentucky were suddenly put on the same plane as welding instructors. But we adjusted. I think that community colleges are  teetering on the brink of professionalism.”

Noe characterized the move to end tenure as a political power grab.

“I think it’s an attempt to totally take control of the community college system by the president and the Board of Regents,” he said. “They want to control faculty and hiring. They don’t believe in shared governance. It’s always been a top-down system, and they want it to stay that way.”

Under the plan approved by regents, new hires would be offered renewable contracts of up to four years. The board argues that would allow the system to add new programs and discontinue less effective ones.

But opponents contend that without tenure, teachers would erode teacher quality by making recruiting more difficult — especially at rural schools — and making educators fearful of speaking out on controversial subjects for fear of losing their jobs.

“In some areas, Eastern Kentucky, for example, it’s already hard to get good, qualified faculty to come teach,” said Connie Sanders, president of the state’s Technical and Staff Alliance. “If they’re not guaranteed a tenure-track position, they’re not even going to bother to try to apply.”

Bean, the Board of Regents chairman, dismissed those complaints.

“I have not heard so many red herrings in all my life,” he said. “To say there is no academic freedom is simply untrue. The professors have due process. We have been looking at this issue for three years, and we’ve been able to hire qualified staff. We really think we are ahead of the curve on this.”

Bean also said he was unimpressed by the no confidence votes.

“They are free to vote whatever way they want,” he said. “We are doing what we think is best for the commonwealth. We’re sorry they don’t see our need for added flexibility.”

Still, asked to cite a specific example of colleges hamstrung by tenure requirements, Bean could not name one.

The AFT and the American Association of University Professors has called on KCTCS to reverse course, saying that “students need an educational system that invests in its intellectual capital — the faculty — by expanding the number of tenure-track positions and by providing opportunities for contingent faculty to assume tenure-track positions.”

The AAUP believes that the Kentucky situation is similar to one that unfolded in Virginia in 1971, when Virginia’s Community College System did away with tenure for all new hires.

The system was censured by the AAUP, which argued that faculty had not been consulted before the policy was put into place. VCCS remained on AAUP’s censure list until 2003. That was when the system —  while officially retaining its
no-tenure policy — pledged that  after six years of full-time employment, indefinite retention of professors is presumed.

AAUP officials have said it is too early to say whether KCTCS will be similarly censured.

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