Tenure on the Chopping Block

Kentucky community college system leaders have plan to eliminate traditional job security for all new faculty hires.
December 3, 2008

Amid state budget concerns, the Kentucky Community and Technical College System may eliminate tenure for all new faculty members and instead offer short-term renewable contracts. System leaders say the plan will give them a flexibility they need, but many professors fear a potential loss of academic freedom and job security.

The system’s Board of Regents will discuss a proposed revision of its employment policy during its next meeting this Friday. The proposed policy revision would grandfather in those individuals who either have already been granted tenure or are on a tenure track prior to July 1, 2009. Currently, the system has 168 faculty members on the tenure track, and they would either have tenure granted or denied by 2014.

The board will also hear another agenda item which would eliminate health insurance benefits for retirees hired on or after July 1, 2009. The proposal would also mandate that those same employees have at least five years of continuous service to receive retirement pay from the system. It notes that the system could save more than $3 million over the next 10 years if this measure is approved.

Michael B. McCall, system president, and other officials would not offer comment about the proposal until after the Friday meeting. Nonetheless, Terri Giltner, system spokeswoman, said the soonest any action could be taken on the policy revisions would be at the board’s March meeting. At this week’s meeting, she said, the board could only direct McCall to provide a recommendation on how to carry out this idea, if it is well received.

The rationale of the board’s Finance, Technology and Human Resources Committee in proposing this revision was outlined in the public agenda to be considered at the full board meeting. It notes that the “adoption of one employment status (term contract) for faculty and staff provides greater consistency in hiring practices and application of human resources policies.” The system currently allows faculty to choose between a term contract and tenure-track employment. The committee cites the lower cost of hiring non-tenure-track faculty members and the flexibility of term contracts to offset the large numbers of tenure-track faculty members.

Data from the system indicate that, in the past few years, tenure-track contracts have been declining while term contracts have grown steadily. From 1999-2000 through 2006-7, between 20 and 40 tenure-track faculty were hired annually, but this number began to decline in 2006-7. That year, 30 new hires were tenure-track, down from 44 in 2005-6. When the system began allowing faculty members to sign short-term contracts in 2004-5, only 6 new faculty members chose this option. In 2006-7, however, 90 new faculty members were signed to term contracts. This shift, the committee notes in the agenda, allows for more institutional flexibility and places more “emphasis on the classroom.”

While the practice of granting tenure is more prevalent at four-year institutions and beyond, recent data show that most full-time faculty members at two-year institutions have tenure. According to data provided by the American Association of University Professors, 58.4 percent of all full-time faculty members at the nation’s 1,052 associate degree-granting colleges were either tenured or on a tenure-track in the fall of 2005. The same year, at doctoral and research universities, 73.6 percent of all full-time faculty members were either tenured or on a tenure track.

Still, there are some state systems and individual two-year institutions around the country that do not offer community college professors tenure. The Virginia Community College System, for example, offers faculty annual or multi-year contracts. Individual institutions in Indiana, Michigan and Missouri also only offer similar term contracts.

Though the Kentucky system points to these institutions as evidence that those who do not grant tenure can survive and flourish, some professor reject these comparisons.

“They’re comparing apples and oranges when they look at Virginia and Kentucky,” said Franklin T. Carothers, a member of the Kentucky Community College Faculty and Staff Alliance -- a local association sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers -- and professor at Somerset Community College. “Kentucky is a small, poor and rural state. Jobs are hard to come by, even when not in tough financial times. In Virginia, there are more opportunities. No one comes to Kentucky to teach for the money.”

Many faculty members are worried about the possible elimination of tenure, Carothers said, because they believe a more “corporate model” of hiring could take its place. He noted that the quality of new instructors could suffer greatly if this revision were approved, adding that he believes this measure is motivated more by cost-cutting than accountability. Since most community college professors start out with a low salaries, he said the benefit of tenure is that it allows them to lobby for salary increases throughout their career. Under a term contract, he said, faculty members fear their salaries will not increase between signings. The promise of less personal flexibility and fewer chances of advancement, he said, will dissuade many from teaching in the system.

Dexter Alexander, former treasurer of advocacy organization, the Kentucky Community and Technical Education Association, and retired dean of institutional effectiveness and research at Somerset Community College, expressed a similar sentiment.

“I cannot imagine a teacher taking the risk of working in a rural neighborhood community college without having tenure,” Alexander said. “Working in a community college is a kiss of death for an academic who has a desire to work at a research university or even a four-year doctoral granting institution. You don’t move up once you get down in the community college level. What’s the motivation for someone moving into a non-tenure track position, unless there just aren’t any other jobs available? The quality of faculty will go down.”

In recent years, Carothers said, more tenured faculty members have taken on additional course loads to make up for the lack of qualified instructors. He noted he was teaching seven courses this semester and eight next semester, including some pro bono work with individual students doing independent study work. Moreover, he said, in recent years these same tenured faculty members have not been offered a cost of living increase greater than the rate of inflation.

“If these can happen to tenured employees, what’s going to happen to non-tenured employees?” Carothers said of the additional work load and pay stagnation. “We believe folks who become professionals and dedicate their lives to educating others with a wealth of knowledge should be offered decent job security and receive decent health benefits.”

Carothers noted that tenure reviews at community colleges focus almost entirely on teaching, not research, but said the academic freedom issues are as important as at research institutions.

If such protection is unavailable for those in the Kentucky two-year college system, some professors believe their future colleagues will have little or no job security.

“Kentucky’s state employees and the employees of [community and technical college system] do not have the right of collective bargaining,” Alexander said. “That leaves tenure and continuing status as a college employee’s only viable protection against arbitrary and capricious personnel action by college and system administrators. … The plan to abolish tenure removes the security from the equation, and there is no realistic expectation that pay will increase to private sector levels to compensate for the loss of job security, and protection against political retaliation.”


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