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Community college in Michigan ramps up tenure-track faculty

Tenure Conversion
December 20, 2011

Delta College, a two-year institution located in Michigan, has moved to make all of its full-time faculty positions either tenured or tenure-track. That means about 55 instructors at Delta have the option of replacing their one-year renewable contracts with tenure-track status.

The decision bucks a trend toward the hiring of adjunct professors and keeping them off the tenure track, at community colleges and across most of higher education. And the conversion of existing positions to tenured, as opposed to just hiring new professors, is considered the Holy Grail for adjunct advocates.

Officials at the college said their goals are better teaching and showing respect for professors. They also said the move won't cost much, and will help in recruiting new faculty members.

“We truly believe that having tenure or tenure-track faculty is a commitment to our students,” said Thomas Lane, vice president of instruction and learning services at the college. Part of the reason, he said, is that tenured faculty can focus on students and teaching instead of worrying about “are they still going to be here” after their contract expires.

Delta is a mid-sized community college, with 11,495 students who are taught by 225 full-time faculty members (including the 55 who have been off the tenure track) and 324 part-time adjuncts. The full-timers will have the option of converting to tenure-track, a choice Lane suspects most, if not all, will make.

Community colleges often must change their course offerings fairly quickly, at least in comparison to four-year institutions. When that happens at Delta, the still large group of part-time adjunct faculty members can be moved or replaced according to new needs.

“Programs will come and go and we will staff accordingly,” said Lane.

Among full-time faculty, the few exceptions to the new policy will be temporary positions that are created to replace professors who are promoted to department chair roles. Chairs serve three-year terms at Delta before returning to faculty ranks. They keep their tenured positions, so their replacements will continue to be faculty members on annual contracts.

The college hired 35 full-time faculty members last year, all of whom hold one-year contracts. Those new hires will get the tenure-track offer, as will all future hires, Lane said.

Delta’s leaders said costs will be minimal for the tenure conversion, in part because most faculty members at the college tend to stick around for years, whether or not they have tenure. Veteran contractual professors are also eligible for raises. And replacing adjuncts comes with recruiting costs, too.

Lane said projected new expenses from the move will be incremental, which is particularly important in Michigan, where state budgets have been walloped in recent years.

“It’s small enough that we’ve not bothered to put a number on it,” Lane said.

Recruiting Advantage

Relatively few faculty members at community colleges have tenure, and that percentage is shrinking.

Research from the American Federation of Teachers found that in 2007, only 17.5 percent of faculty members at public two-year institutions held either tenure or tenure-track status. About 43 percent of new hires among full-time faculty members at community colleges are tenure-track, said Craig Smith, AFT’s deputy director of higher education, and those numbers are “going down.”

Four-year institutions tend to have higher percentages of tenured professors. Paradoxically, however, community colleges have at least one advantage in converting their adjuncts to tenure-track status: those jobs lack most of the publishing and research requirements that come with tenure at four-year colleges. So community colleges might be able to hire tenure-track faculty members who have focused their careers on teaching, not research.

That would make AFT happy. “We would definitely like to see that at more community colleges," Smith said.

Faculty are not unionized at Delta, so the push for tenure came from college administrators. Lane said Delta’s president, Jean Goodnow, advocated for the move. Discussions began about eight months ago, and the college signed off on the decision before Thanksgiving.

Smith said Delta’s effort sounds promising and that having more tenure-track professors on staff will be good for students in several ways.

For example, a tenured professor is far more likely than an adjunct to serve on a curriculum committee. That’s good for the curriculum, because classroom insights are obviously valuable. And Smith said that professor is likely to feel more engaged with the curriculum than would a faculty member who was merely on the receiving end of curriculum shifts.

“Giving faculty job security and the academic freedom that goes with it” is a good thing, Smith said, for both the college and professors.

Smith and officials at Delta stressed that adjuncts can be great teachers. But their tenure-track peers enjoy advantages that adjuncts don’t. “It’s not the people, it’s the conditions that they work in,” said Smith.

Tenure can be a lure for attracting quality job applicants, and Lane said he hopes it will help Delta bring more recruits to central Michigan.

“We’re in the middle of a cornfield," Lane said. And any advantage helps.

 

 

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