Essay on the thoughts of community college curmudgeons and how to engage them

Curmudgeons prosper in every sector of higher education. And every seasoned faculty member and administrator can identify at least one curmudgeon at their institution.

I recently conducted a study on this group, based on survey responses from 77 community college presidents. The study’s starting point was to define the campus curmudgeon in negative terms, because ultimately we were interested in their negative impact on colleagues and colleges. When I started reporting on the results of the study and began listening to the feedback from self-identified curmudgeons, though, I learned some valuable lessons about curmudgeons and their potential in helping our colleges improve.

In the original survey, the following definition was created with assistance from 14 national community college leaders:

Every community college has a curmudgeon; most colleges have more than one. They are highly visible on campus and can be identified easily by faculty, staff and administrators. Curmudgeons are contrarians who take enormous pleasure and pride in thinking otherwise. They can be cantankerous naysayers acting as self-appointed gadflies to the president or other leaders, including leaders of their own constituencies. Collaboration and civility do not seem to be values they hold in high esteem. They are quite vocal and opinionated and appear to prefer heated debate and prolonged circular discussion to solving problems and reaching consensus. Curmudgeons can be memorable characters with a certain flair or style, often using humor and sarcasm to play to their audiences.

Using this definition, the study found that:

  • Ninety-seven percent of the respondents indicated they had known a curmudgeon who fits the definition in the study. Fifty-eight percent indicated that the curmudgeons they had known were male, while 2.5 percent said they knew female curmudgeons. However, 38 percent of respondents indicated men and women were equally represented.
  • Full-time faculty members were identified by 82 percent of the respondents as the primary group representing curmudgeons.
  • Twenty-seven percent of the respondents who selected faculty indicated humanities/arts as the most representative disciplines of curmudgeons, and 27 percent selected social science. These two areas represent 54 percent of all curmudgeons in the study.
  • Eighty-six percent of the respondents indicated that the impact of curmudgeons on the college was either negative (49.3 percent) or highly negative (36.3 percent).

In addition to surveying the characteristics of curmudgeons, the study also asked presidents to describe the behaviors, motivations, damage caused and strategies used to mitigate the damage created by curmudgeons. Details on this part of the study are reported in a monograph, Community College Curmudgeons: Barriers to Change, which is available here.

The views of curmudgeons on leaders and their behaviors take on increased meaning when they speak for themselves, as they do in the italicized quotes below.

Curmudgeons Have a Point

Some curmudgeons distrust leaders who are constantly introducing the next big thing. It is not uncommon for some leaders -- especially presidents -- to always be chasing the flavor of the month or the innovation du jour. Whether this behavior is motivated by self-aggrandizement or by the desire to improve the college to better serve students, the behavior is viewed by some curmudgeons as negative, time-consuming and costly.

What if “curmudgeon” is simply another word for “not ready to get breathlessly enthusiastic for the current flavor of the month”!

I am proud to be one of those curmudgeons mentioned in this article. During the past 10-plus years, I have lived through layer upon layer of the Next Big Thing foisted upon faculty by an administration consisting of layer upon layer of folk who have never set foot in any classroom in a faculty role….

When my institution is among the first to adopt whatever latest snake oil is being peddled by Gates, Lumina, et al., over the objections of experienced faculty and in the face of any and all plain common sense that should tell us to run the other way, it is my duty to my students and to the taxpayers who fund this school to be that curmudgeon. If that hurts the feelings of Mr. O’Banion et al., too damned bad -- somebody has to say it when the emperor has no clothes, and I’m happy to be the one to do so.

The comments also reveal frustration with or disdain for administrators who have not been in the classroom or who do not understand the challenges classroom faculty face. Leaders who do not understand the very difficult challenges of teaching in a community college and who launch new initiatives without taking those challenges into consideration contribute to initiative fatigue and failure.

I take real pride in my role as a curmudgeon and sometimes introduce myself as our campus curmudgeon. I believe in the importance of separation of powers and checks and balances. When administrators know they’re going to be asked to explain themselves and the reasons behind their initiatives, they are at least a little more prone to stopping and seeing things through the eyes of those upon whom they’re foisting them. I realize that from an administrator’s point of view, we gadflies seem like pains in the butt, but as we know, power does tend to corrupt, and any sort of friction to slow this process down is worth hanging onto.

Some curmudgeons have been given a raw deal. Curmudgeons are not shy folk and speak out on many issues. Some do so because they have something important to contribute to the college conversation; some do so because they want to be visible to leaders who might support their aspirations to become a leader. If they take positions outside the comfort zone of the president or other leaders, or if they are not members of the internal network of leaders, they are often treated as outcasts. Their only choice to be heard or visible may be to become a curmudgeon. The following quotes from presidents in this study support these observations:

Curmudgeons should never be confused with whiners. It is easy to mistake their independence for hostility or simple negativism. Yet they can be reliable friends and forceful allies.

Our biggest curmudgeon on campus (nearly everyone can name him), has often ended up in leadership roles (such as chair of the faculty council). A few years back I had the opportunity to speak with him one-on-one about a topic, and during that conversation he shared with me that he had been at the college for nearly seven years and during that time he had reported to seven different supervisors with a different person conducting his performance evaluation each year. I believe that lack of effective leadership for these individuals is a key contributing factor to their behavior or should at least be considered.

Some curmudgeons identify problems that some leaders do not want to address. There are many challenging issues in the contemporary community college and many points of view on how these issues should be addressed. Leaders have their plates full in addressing the most pressing problems, but curmudgeons often identify problems that lurk under the surface and that influence campus culture. While leaders may sometimes dismiss these problems as gripes from a disaffected group, the issues, nevertheless, exist for those who are willing to register their concerns. For example, leaders in general accept the reality that many community college students are underprepared and very challenging. When some faculty complain about having to deal with the “toughest tasks of higher education” (as Frank Newman identified the challenge many years ago), they are met with some disdain and accusations they do not support the open-door philosophy. Instead of covering over these differences, leaders should make them more visible by listening to faculty concerns.

Here are some quotes from concerned faculty members who responded to the presentation on curmudgeons at the League for Innovation in the Community College’s recent conference in Boston:

Maybe if they’d listen to us curmudgeons once in a while, rather than trying to shut us up, community colleges wouldn’t be in the shape many of us are today: taking unconscionable amounts of students’ loan eligibility and seeing them leave when it runs out, as illiterate/innumerate as they were when they got here. No one wants us to talk about that, though.

I get so tired of administrators, who seldom step foot in a classroom, dissing faculty for resisting change. As soon as I question the notion that more technology in the classroom is the solution to every problem in higher education, their eyes glaze over and they stop listening.

Hey, I have initiative fatigue! I’m an adjunct who’s worn to a snot by administrators who keep coming up with crappy time-wasting boondoggles that add to my workload but not my paycheck.

Curmudgeons of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but bloated levels of directors, deans and deanlets whose understanding of education is limited to the marketing techniques of an M.B.A. and who lie supine and servile at the feet of the corporate interests, which are committed only to churning out indebted graduates with “employability skill sets.”

These comments come from only a few who responded to the reports, but they are spirited and are probably only the tip of the iceberg of how many faculty, including those who are curmudgeons, really feel about some of the issues facing community colleges. These comments touch only briefly on such key issues as student loans, student failure, technology as a silver bullet, adjunct faculty, overemphasis on career and technical education, colleges as bureaucracies, not listening to faculty, and tension between faculty and management. What would this list include if disgruntled and concerned faculty were honestly asked to identify the issues and challenges they would like to see addressed in the open? And what might be the outcomes of improved communication and problem solving if leaders and faculty were to engage in an open conversation about some of the challenges that are seldom addressed in a rational way?

What I Have Learned About Curmudgeons

In the sections above, I have tried to reflect points of view of a few curmudgeons regarding issues they care about. In summary, I have learned that some curmudgeons:

  1. Have legitimate and rational responses to perceived injustices and incompetent leadership.
  2. Have become cynical because of broken promises and constant changes in leadership.
  3. Have been passed over for promotions and recognition they deserved.
  4. Are very knowledgeable of college issues, policies and programs and are very articulate about sharing that knowledge.
  5. Would like to see improvement and change in the college and because of resistance from leaders and others have become more aggressive and belligerent as the only strategies open to them.

In education we do not like to give up on our students -- and maybe on our curmudgeons. If we could find a constructive way to engage curmudgeons directly, we might open up new ways to involve them, with more positive results for everyone. Not every curmudgeon, of course, wants to engage in such conversations; some really are destructive and want to do everything they can to slow and block change.

Fortunately, this group is a small minority. The great majority of faculty, joined by concerned curmudgeons who care, can have a very positive impact on a college and its students. Leaders need to learn to listen to the concerned curmudgeons and to hear what they are really saying over the static of the spirited language they sometimes use to vent their frustrations and their passions.

Terry O'Banion is president emeritus and senior league fellow at the League for Innovation in the Community College. He is a distinguished professor and chair of graduate faculty at National American University and a senior adviser for higher education programs at Walden University.

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Essay calling for a new teaching-oriented model of tenure

Thanks largely to adjunct activists throughout North America, there is a growing awareness outside academe that colleges and universities are treating faculty members off the tenure track in deplorable ways. The past few years have seen a number of searing exposés of adjunct working conditions, and significant progress in organizing adjuncts into collective bargaining units.

But even among those of us who want to improve the lot of contingent faculty members, there are disagreements. The most important of these, I think, concerns the question of whether the tenure system has any relevance in this discussion. Many contingent faculty are convinced that it does not; as contingent faculty member Josh Boldt memorably put it, he has “99 problems but tenure ain’t one.”

I first realized that this was a problem about five years ago, when I had a ringside seat for a disagreement between the Modern Language Association and the American Association of University Professors (in 2010 and 2011 I served on the governing boards of both organizations).

Marc Bousquet, a key player in that debate, has recently created a Web site, MLA Democracy, devoted to making the MLA more activist on academic labor issues, and his account of that disagreement charges that the MLA sought to shrink the tenure system dramatically:

"[U]nder [Executive Director Rosemary] Feal’s leadership, the Coalition on the Academic Workforce has actually begun to move backward on employment issues, recommending that tenure be reserved for faculty teaching graduate education and some upper-division courses."

Elsewhere on the MLA Democracy Web site, Bousquet cites the sentence from the 2010 CAW report, “One Faculty Serving All Students,” that gives rise to his claim that the MLA seeks to restrict tenure to certain classes of faculty:

"The number of tenure lines should be sufficient to cover courses in the upper-division undergraduate and graduate curricula and to ensure an appropriate presence of tenured and tenure-track faculty members in the lower division."

When the CAW report was released, Bousquet criticized this provision. Since he had very recently coauthored an American Association of University Professors report, “Tenure and Teaching-Intensive Positions,” that conflicted with the CAW report by recommending across-the-board conversions to the tenure track, he successfully argued that the AAUP should not endorse the CAW report. As Bousquet told Inside Higher Ed at the time, he agreed with “90 percent” of the CAW recommendations. But the remaining 10 percent was serious business.

The sticking point was this: What does “appropriate presence” mean in the CAW report? It is a standard wide enough to drive many truckloads of adjuncts through. In rhetoric and composition programs, most importantly, an “appropriate presence” might be understood as “just enough tenured or tenure-track faculty to administer legions of adjuncts, say, maybe two.” These would be the writing program administrators James Sledd famously dubbed “boss compositionists,” and it is at least arguable that the CAW report, in vaguely calling for an “appropriate presence” of tenured and tenure-track faculty in lower-division courses, was inattentive to the fact that the phrase could be read so generously as to license widespread English department practices whereby composition is relegated to the most contingent faculty -- and foreign-language department practices whereby basic language instruction is relegated to the most contingent faculty -- all of whom are overseen by one or two tenured managers.

So Bousquet was right to object to the language of the CAW report five years ago. Today, he is quite needlessly wrong to claim that the CAW report argues against granting tenure to faculty teaching lower-division courses. Still, the point of conflict between the AAUP and CAW reports is a critical one, and it has only become more important in the intervening years: What is to be done about the vast legions of faculty off the tenure track? What is to be done about the deprofessionalization of the profession?

In our forthcoming book, The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments, Jennifer Ruth and I try to offer an answer. We propose a teaching-intensive tenure track for contingent faculty. It would constitute an extension (and, we think, a revitalization) of the tenure system, with tenure awarded on the basis of successful teaching, as determined by tenured colleagues within the institution. It would thereby give contingent faculty members access to meaningful peer review -- and substantial job security.

We draw in part on the AAUP “Tenure and Teaching-Intensive Positions” statement, because we agree that for many contingent faculty, employment security in the form of multiyear contracts does not offer the kind of academic freedom necessary for meaningful participation in shared governance. We think the AAUP report describes such contracts accurately: “a potentially crippling development in these arrangements is that many -- while improving on the entirely insecure positions they replace -- offer limited conceptions of academic citizenship and service, few protections for academic freedom, and little opportunity for professional growth.”

But we differ with the AAUP report in one important respect, because we see a tension in that report that leaves a critical question unanswered. The AAUP report recommends:

"The best practice for institutions of all types is to convert the status of contingent appointments to appointments eligible for tenure with only minor changes in job description. This means that faculty hired contingently with teaching as the major component of their workload will become tenured or tenure eligible primarily on the basis of successful teaching."

But the AAUP report had earlier noted, correctly, that “the ways in which contingent teachers and researchers are hired, evaluated and promoted often bypass the faculty entirely and are generally less rigorous than the intense review applied to faculty in tenurable positions.” So, in other words, you’ve got a lot of people who may very well be excellent teachers and dedicated professionals, but who were not vetted by any system of professional review. In order to be converted to a tenure track, they need some system of peer review; as the AAUP report has it, “faculty hired contingently with teaching as the major component of their workload will become tenured or tenure eligible primarily on the basis of successful teaching.”

Unfortunately, the AAUP report is silent about the fact that many full-time contingent faculty members do not have terminal degrees in their field. This is especially striking because the person who has done the definitive work on this subject, the person who has argued most strenuously that the Ph.D. is the appropriate credential for college teaching (at least at four-year institutions), is Marc Bousquet.

Bousquet put it well in How the University Works: when “degree holding no longer represents control over who may practice,” the result is “a failed monopoly of professional labor.”

This is one of the reasons that graduate education is in crisis. We have effectively created a system in which we insist that the doctorate is necessary for employment in college classrooms, except when it isn’t. Bousquet initially made his name as an analyst of academic labor by pointing out, in opposition to knee-jerk invocations of “supply and demand,” that there is no “overproduction” of Ph.D.s in the United States; on the contrary, if the Ph.D. were taken seriously as a necessary credential for college teaching, there would be an undersupply of Ph.D.s. Ph.D.s are not being overproduced, they are being underhired -- by a system that employs M.A.s and A.B.D.s at low, low wages and creates an artificially restricted market for new Ph.D.s.

As early as 1998, Bousquet argued that disciplinary associations like the MLA should bar non-Ph.D.s from academic employment: “Graduate students don't need the MLA's help in finding nonteaching work,” he told The Chronicle of Higher Education, explaining his opposition to “alt-ac” career paths. “Graduate students need the MLA to make sure that people holding Ph.D. degrees are doing the teaching in today’s college classrooms.”

The problem with this is that the MLA, unlike the American Bar Association or the American Medical Association, is not a credentializing or credential-checking body. It has no means of enforcing any edict about faculty members who do not hold terminal degrees, no way to screen the qualifications of 1.5 million faculty members nationwide.

But the problem is real. So how best to address it?

Jennifer Ruth and I argue that the profession devolved into academic serfdom and patronage systems department by department, bypassing systems of peer review and hiring people ad hoc over the course of many years -- and we argue that this is how we will have to turn it around, department by department. Our teaching-intensive tenure track would give priority to the holders of terminal degrees (including M.F.A.s in creative writing and the performing and visual arts), because we believe Bousquet was right about this from the start. The deprofessionalization of the profession is underwritten by the undermining of the Ph.D. It is telling that more rigorous professions such as law and medicine have no similar arrangement by which people who completed most, but not all, of the credentializing process are licensed to practice.

Jennifer and I are well aware that our proposal will not meet with universal acclaim. We hope it will be greeted by new and recent Ph.D.s, but we know it will probably be dismissed outright by many at two-year colleges, who see the Ph.D. as a research degree that is irrelevant to their missions. But we believe it offers a way to create the teaching-intensive tenure track envisioned by the AAUP while addressing the problem unmentioned in the AAUP report -- the problem identified by Bousquet over 15 years ago, and unacknowledged by anyone since. And we believe it offers a solution to the crisis confronting new and recent Ph.D.s, who find themselves with a degree that is too often ignored or devalued in the ad hoc hiring system that deprofessionalizes college teaching.

We are also aware that many adjunct activists are following a different path, seeking better salaries and multiyear contracts without tenure. The Service Employees International Union's Faculty Forward campaign is exemplary in this regard, setting an aspirational goal of $15,000 per course (in salary and benefits) for contingent faculty, as is the program popularly known as the Vancouver Plan, devised by Jack Longmate and Frank Cosco, based largely on Cosco’s experience at Vancouver Community College. And there is no question that better salaries and multiyear contracts would constitute significant improvements in the working lives of thousands of contingent faculty. So why do we insist on a teaching-intensive tenure track instead?

Because, as I noted above, academic freedom is absolutely necessary for shared governance, and many contingent faculty want to be involved in shared governance. It is intolerable to exclude contingent faculty from shared governance, because that leaves them vulnerable, subject to administrative whim and caprice.

And yet it is also intolerable to incorporate contingent faculty into shared governance without the protections of tenure, because that leaves them even more vulnerable, subject to administrative whim and caprice -- and retribution for something they said or did on this or that committee. Sooner or later, and very likely sooner, a faculty member on contract who works in an ostensibly democratic department is going to find him- or herself faced with supporting or opposing the person who writes contracts, or the person who is close friends with the person who writes contracts, or the person who might succeed the person who writes contracts.

That’s the point at which the ostensibly democratic department begins to devolve into a patronage system. As Don Eron, a long-term contingent faculty member at the University of Colorado at Boulder and member of AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure says, “Multiyear contracts are guaranteed to keep a faculty docile. Having to constantly reapply for one's job actively discourages the academic freedom that tenure is designed to protect.”

Jennifer Ruth and I agree. And we would add that students have an important stake in this as well, insofar as their professors should be able to make decisions about curriculum and pedagogy without worrying whether those decisions will put them out of a job, and insofar as the people teaching those lower-division courses should have the same protections as everybody else.

We can’t lay out all the details of our proposal here (the full plan is in the appendix to our book), but we can say that under that plan, contingent faculty members with more than seven years of service would keep their jobs if they want them. But contingent faculty members who want the job security and academic freedom that tenure provides, and who have terminal degrees in their fields, would be offered a path to what Eron calls “instructor tenure,” and we call a teaching-intensive tenure track.

To critics who would claim that our plan creates a two-tiered system in academe, we can only say yes, yes, it does: there would be two tiers of tenured faculty. And it would be vastly superior to the unstable and vicious three-tiered system we have now, in which only one dwindling tier has any hope of tenure and academic freedom.

Michael Bérubé is the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature and director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University.

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