The Chronicle has a piece this week by Beckie Supiano exploring the possibilities of universities offering permanent and/or tenured “teaching track” faculty positions. The idea has been around for a while, but it may be gaining momentum as concerns about graduation rates and faculty diversity become more salient.
I was struck, though, that the piece never mentioned that many community colleges have been doing that for decades. Brookdale’s tenure system, for example, lists teaching excellence as its first criterion. Publication is welcome, but nobody has ever been fired for not publishing. And Brookdale is not alone; community colleges in many states have tenure systems, and they’re almost always based primarily on teaching.
That’s not the same thing as a two-track system of permanent employment, of course. The Chronicle piece concerns itself with places that would have research faculty and teaching faculty. Community colleges don’t have the former, so the question of a possibly invidious distinction doesn’t arise. But to the extent that the piece suggests that universities can’t quite figure out how to evaluate teaching quality for tenure, I respectfully suggest that they consult with community college leaders in states in which they have tenure systems. We have plenty of relevant experience to share. For that matter, the same may be true of many regional four-year state colleges, depending on the state. There’s no shortage of institutions that have been doing this for years.
The really frustrating part of the article was that the option of reaching out to folks at community colleges and other teaching-intensive institutions to ask about lessons learned simply didn’t come up. The idea of a teaching track was presented as a daring and risky foray into uncharted territory, rather than a long-standing practice at hundreds of colleges around the country. The wheel has been invented, refined, tested and driven; reinventing it now is just silly.
About 10 years ago, I was privileged to work with Paula Krebs (then with Bridgewater State University, now with the MLA) and Vanessa Ryan (with Brown University) on the cross-sector partnership, in which graduate students from research-intensive places learned from folks at community colleges about what it’s like to work in one. I remember seeing a panel in which some community college people addressed a crowd of grad students from places like Harvard and MIT, and commenting to Krebs that it was the first time I had seen community college people on the stage with Harvard folks in the audience. It can be done. Knowledge can flow up the prestige hierarchy as well as down.
That model can easily apply here. If research-heavy institutions want to figure out how to create tenure-track or permanent positions for teaching faculty, they could easily send some folks to an AACC conference. They could even sponsor bespoke convenings to hear from those of us who’ve been doing this for a while. Bring in some provosts and/or deans and some faculty who work in these systems, hear what we have to say, and ask whatever questions come up. In a convening, the more delicate questions might happen in hallways one-on-one, but that’s fine. The point is that this knowledge exists. Many of us would be happy to share. Our phones work.
So thank you, Krebs and Ryan, for showing that something like this can be done. Or, universities can just ignore all of this experience and fumble their way through. But I’m guessing that if research is their claim to fame, then some basic fieldwork is probably in order.