• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


It's the Little Things …

Knowing the facts about community colleges.

May 28, 2014

Having worked in the community college world for the past eleven years, I’m used to a certain tone-deafness about community college from “opinion leaders” in and around higher education.  I’ve heard it referred to in lists of “alternatives to college.”  I’ve read the pieces on “undermatching” that equate community college attendance with failure. And normally I content myself with simple rebuttals, because I see the admirable truth on the ground every single day.  Most of the time, I’m content to put the information out there, and let it make its way on its own merits. 

But once in a while, I just can’t.  This one really grinds my gears.

Yesterday, the Chronicle of Higher Education published a piece detailing the new MLA report recommending that Ph.D. programs in the humanities make it easier for students to complete more quickly. (Hat-tip to Anne Kress, from Monroe CC, for pointing it out.  I would have skipped the article completely.) In an attempt to parry criticism for rushing students more quickly into an already oversaturated market, the MLA is trying to raise awareness and acceptance of alt-ac positions.  In that context, the article said:

"The discourse of Ph.D. overproduction is wrong," said Russell A. Berman, who led the task force that wrote the report and is a professor of comparative literature and German studies at Stanford University. "What we need instead is a broadened understanding of career paths."

Departments should be more clear with students from the start that tenure-track jobs are becoming harder to find, Mr. Berman said, and should also explain to students what else they could do with a language or literature Ph.D. Career options off the tenure track, he said, include teaching at community colleges and high schools, working at cultural institutions such as heritage museums and libraries, and putting skills to use in the private sector.

It’s worth a close read.  “Career options off the tenure track, he said, include teaching at community colleges…”


Many states (including both Massachusetts and New Jersey) have tenure systems for community college faculty.  For that matter, many states have tenure systems for high school teachers, too.  Let’s get the basics right.

I don’t necessarily blame a professor of comparative literature at Stanford for not knowing that, but I would expect a chief author of an MLA report on the academic job market to know that.  If the folks proposing radical changes to graduate education in the name of the job market don’t know that, well, good luck with those changes.

To be fair, it’s not clear from the article whether that exact construction came from Professor Berman or from Vimal Patel, the author of the piece.  But either way, I would have expected someone at the Chronicle to catch it.  Covering higher education is what they do.  The fact that many community college systems have tenure should not be news to them.  It should be just as commonplace and obvious as the knowledge that IPEDS graduation data only covers a small minority of community college students in the first place, so basing any sort of policy decisions on it would be preposterous.

I would expect anyone grounded in the realities of higher ed to know that. 

Or, at the very least, to say what they actually mean. 

Your move, Chronicle.

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Matt Reed

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