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New Battle of the Alamo

November 4, 2011

When it comes to attacking tenure, community colleges make for an easy target.  Some argue that tenure isn’t needed in two-year colleges where there is little or no research (to which, of course, faculty leaders respond that tenure also protects what happens in the classroom). National statistics show that only about 17 percent of faculty members in public two-year colleges are tenure or tenure-track. And in recent years, some boards and legislators have tried to kill tenure for community college faculty. The Kentucky Community and Technical College System did so in 2009, only to reverse itself, and some legislators made an attempt in Florida this year to stop tenure at community colleges.

Now, faculty members at the Alamo Colleges in Texas – a system that serves about 63,000 students in the San Antonio area and has more than 850 tenured or tenure-track professors – fear that their institution might be the next one attempting to end tenure. The district Board of Trustees is evaluating the tenure policy at Alamo, which some board members have criticized. One reason, said Chancellor Bruce H. Leslie, is that college finances are under pressure.

“We are going through a process where we are trying to determine what the appropriate policy is,” Leslie said. “We prepared a report on how it works here and the faculty too made a presentation.”

The chancellor also has suggested that tenure is essentially automatic for full-time faculty members once they complete six years at Alamo -- a statement that faculty leaders say shows he doesn't understand the way tenure works there.

Leslie, who assumed charge in 2006, has had a rocky relationship with faculty members. In 2009, faculty members at four of the colleges passed a vote of no confidence against him after tensions boiled over, in part, because of a plan to unify the different colleges. Leslie's contract has since been renewed.

Relations between administrators and faculty members haven't been helped by a newly instituted discipline policy for tenured faculty members under which someone could be punished for “disrespectful attitude towards a supervisor such as back-talk or grumbling.”

“There were some deep cultural permanencies that the board felt had to be shaken up. It was a fiscal imperative and needed for student success,” said Leslie about the tensions.

Faculty members indulging in back-talk or grumbling, among other offenses, could receive counseling followed by a written reprimand.

Not surprisingly, some faculty members view the ongoing process with suspicion, skepticism and -- yes -- some grumbling. “The feeling out there is that this is an attack on faculty. There are some broad generalities that are being drawn about the tenure system,” said Sean Nighbert,  an associate professor of English at St. Philip’s College, one of the Alamo institutions.

“The argument being made is that at a two-year school there is no research and therefore there should be no tenure. But tenure protects the institution from political and ideological changes,” he said. The problem, he said, was a disconnect between “what they think we do and what we actually do.”

He added that it is simply not true that tenure at Alamo is automatic after six years. Those who are uncertain about winning tenure choose to leave around the fifth year, Nighbert said, because if they are denied tenure, they can never work for the Alamo Colleges again.  “I sincerely hope that the trustees listen to what is being said by faculty and uphold tenure,” he said,

George Johnson, another professor, said the issue of tenure had come up in budget discussions in the last year. “I think it is perceived that things can be run a little more efficiently without tenure,” Johnson said. “It is a very unsettling issue but we hope that the Board of Trustees will do the right thing.”

Gareth Beitzel, the chair of the board, said the board had not made any decision on tenure. “We are simply gathering information and will make a decision at some time in the future,” Beitzel said in an e-mail. But another trustee, Jim Rindfuss, told the San Antonio Express-News that faculty members feel they are untouchable and they can do whatever they want because they are tenured. “We are trying to cut our expenses by getting the higher-paid people off of the payroll that have been there for years and years,” Rindfuss told the newspaper.

According to an analysis by the American Association of University Professors of data from the U.S. Department of Education, there were 64 public associate’s degree colleges in Texas in 2009, and 26 of them had tenured or tenure-track faculty members.

Nationwide, about 17 percent of faculty members in public two-year colleges had tenure or were tenure-track in 2009. Another 14 percent were full-time but did not have tenure while approximately 70 percent were part-time.

Colleges, including two-year institutions, need to have tenure to attract high-quality faculty members, said Greg Scholtz, director of the department of academic freedom, tenure and governance at the AAUP. Scholtz said that some people outside higher education have certain fixed ideas of tenure and do not understand, for instance, that a tenured professor could be dismissed for incompetence or misconduct.

He said tenure was important at two-year colleges because the states have money invested at these colleges and students have the right to a quality education. Ultimately, an anti-tenure mindset might lead to the lack of rigor and a diminished academic expectations, he said. The issue of academic freedom might be more important to defend in areas of teaching rather than research, he said, as instructors enforce standards and maintain rigor.

“College administrators have to think beyond just keeping students enrolled so that they pay their tuition,” he said.

 

 

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