Giving Faculty a Place at the Negotiation Table
How Faculty and Administrators Can Boost Job Satisfaction
Newspapers and other publications have reported widely and often on faculty dissatisfaction with administrative leadership or, conversely, administrators’ frustration with faculty dissension, both of which have publicly surfaced at community colleges in Tennessee. As a retired community college employee with extensive experience as both a faculty member and administrator, I understand that these kinds of disputes can be traumatic for both sides.
While I have had some experience working at Tennessee colleges since moving to this state after my retirement, most of my career was spent in Virginia, at Wytheville Community College, which at the outset of my employment in the 1970s had a number of the same types of problems that exist currently in Tennessee, including a series of problems that led, as it has in Tennessee, to a faculty vote of noconfidence in the president. But things got better, and more recently, in 2016, Wytheville Community College was placed on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s list of “Great Colleges to Work For.” Like most community college retirees, I have seen and experienced both the good and the bad.
Why are some community colleges “great colleges to work for” and others not so great? The beginning of an answer to this question lies in three important criteria used in the Chronicle’s ratings: Job Satisfaction, Teaching Environment, and Work/Life Balance. The “great college to work for” has leadership that actively promotes improvement in all three of these categories while building and maintaining an atmosphere that involves governance that is truly collaborative, with active participation by faculty in all major decisions affecting faculty, open discussion of ideas for change, and a culture built on collegiality rather than top-down authority. In addition, caring administrators with a deep knowledge of the kind of supportive environment that must exist for good teaching to thrive and be sustained should be in place.
In a “great college to work for,” flexibility and adaptability for the sake of fairness and student or teacher welfare must take precedence over rigid enforcement of rules that may be, themselves, quite arbitrary and unrelated to the quality of teaching and learning. For example, according to news reports, one of the issues in dispute on one of the Tennessee campuses involved office hours. It was reported that the president had increased the number of required faculty office hours over the objection of the faculty. The president is frustrated because he feels the action was needed for students to receive more individual help, and faculty members are frustrated because they were not partners in the decision and feel that more required hours can diminish the effectiveness of the instructor by taking away other choices regarding the use of their time that would result in a better job of providing individual help to students.
In colleges everywhere, they contend, this is an age of distance learning, online chat opportunities for peer and faculty assistance to students, electronic sharing of student papers in progress with the instructor, and use of other alternative methods of individualized instruction. The location where the instructor is sitting is not an issue. I personally agree with them, and I also know that in my own field of English, composition instructors need at least 20 hours each week of private time (away from the distractions of the office environment) to provide advice to students through written comments on their rough drafts as well as their finished papers. Because of their success in serving students in alternative ways, more and more faculty now believe that the traditional practice of requiring faculty to keep a specific number of office hours each week is becoming obsolete. Most certainly, there is no precise number of faculty office hours to be required that would meaningfully reflect the amount of individual attention that the student actually receives.
In the life of a faculty member, many such issues arise on a daily basis, and office hour disputes ultimately are only a very minor part of the total picture. The larger issue is that faculty members, as professional educators, believe that they need and deserve a degree of autonomy and need control of the methods which they are convinced can best promote student learning. Much more important than any disagreement over an individual rule or a practice is the following general point: It is absolutely essential that college faculty be treated by administrators as coequal professionals, as full partners with administrators in setting the direction and the priorities of their work lives within an atmosphere of trust on both sides.
It is also important for the Tennessee Board of Regents to oversee individual campuses in a way that ensures good campus teaching and learning environments and also to work hard to find ways to improve the work/life balance of employees. There are important things yet be done in the work/life balance area (considering the implementation of paid family leave policies, for example). But one important new policy that should be implemented exclusively for nine-month community college faculty in Tennessee, in my view, is the granting of personal leave days to teaching faculty, whose contract does not permit annual leave (vacation days). This benefit would provide faculty members with flexibility to handle emergencies or take care of any other disruption in their lives without loss of pay (a loss which I experienced on one occasion in my Tennessee employment) and without misuse of sick days. Virginia’s community college faculty have had a personal leave option for more than 30 years, and Tennessee’s public school teachers also have this benefit which helps them balance work with the rest of their lives. Tennessee’s community colleges are lagging behind in this area.
In the process of helping to resolve the current workplace problems, the Board of Regents has an opportunity to rethink statewide policies and practices and then make changes that can result in more consistently good and productive workplace cultures and environments. Such efforts might start with efforts to improve communication and collegiality statewide.
Employee newsletters and employee professional development organizations (with annual meetings run by and for everyone, including faculty, administrators, and classified staff) do exist as a vital part of other state systems (including Virginia’s, with the Virginia Community Colleges Association founded in 1983) and could thrive in Tennessee as well.
With its reorganization in place and four-year universities removed from its supervision, the Tennessee Board of Regents has a unique opportunity to start fresh and focus exclusively and in greater depth on meeting the needs of community and technical colleges. One of the most important parts of the new and developing mission should be to help the individual colleges in their setting of goals and strategies to both improve job satisfaction and place increased emphasis on development of a collegial environment.
Dan Jones, professor emeritus of Wytheville Community College in Virginia, is a resident of Jefferson City, Tennessee, and is a former faculty member, both fulltime and part-time, at Walters State Community College in Tennessee.