Tenure Flashpoint in Kentucky

Amid outcry from faculty, the board of the state's community college system votes today on whether or not to eliminate the tenure track for all new hires.
March 13, 2009

After three months of debate, the Kentucky Community and Technical College System’s Board of Regents is scheduled to vote today on whether or not to get rid of tenure for all new faculty hires.

The proposed revision of the system’s employment policy would grandfather in individuals who have already been granted tenure and those who are in tenure track positions before July 1, 2009. If the revision passes, all full-time faculty members hired on or after this date would be offered term contracts that lengthen as instructors work for the system.

For example, those newly hired by the system would be offered only one-year contracts. Once those new instructors have been working for the system for at least four years, they would then have the option to sign two-year contracts. Exceptions to these short-terms contracts would be available under the proposed revision. They, however, must be “approved in advance” by the system president. The status for adjunct -- or what the system calls “at will” -- faculty members would remain the same.

Though the proposal has generated an outcry from faculty members across the state and derision from some Kentucky lawmakers, supporters of abandoning the system’s tenure structure for new hires have been mum. Michael B. McCall, the system's president, and all of the regents – both those known to be supportive of the changes and others -- refused to comment on the matter until after today’s vote.

When McCall presented the proposal to the regents’ Finance, Technology and Human Resources Committee in December, he argued that getting rid of tenure for new faculty fires would allow for greater flexibility in employment “to be more responsive to academic program needs and demands.” Comments backing the changes by official representatives of the Kentucky college system, however, are relegated to formal meeting minutes and committee recommendations.

Those opposed to the changes, however, have made their voices loud and clear. Faculty members who support the tenure system have inundated the regents with e-mails. The leader of the Kentucky AFL-CIO sent a formal plea to McCall to revoke the proposal. Also, the state’s House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution earlier in the week by voice vote asking the system “to reconsider any proposed actions which would eliminate tenure or continuing status for new faculty,” calling the tenure system “one of the foundations of the higher education system for faculty.”

Rick G. Nelson, Democratic chair of the Labor & Industry Committee and sponsor of the resolution, said the system was “going down a dangerous road” by considering this proposal. If it passes, he said it would be more difficult for the system to recruit high-quality faculty members. Though many faculty members contacted him and testified before the House in defense of tenure, he noted that no supporters of this proposal have lobbied their side of the issue to the Legislature.

“I guess if you have control of the board, you don’t really need anything else,” Nelson said of McCall. “The people that are doing this, they’re the ones in the little rooms. Those members of the board in support of this are the only ones in favor of it. They’ve not contacted people or tried to make their case.”

If the proposal passes today, Nelson said he would strongly consider drafting legislation to overturn the regents’ decision, noting that the Legislature has the legal authority to do so as it “created” the system.

The battle over tenure in Kentucky has attracted attention from around the country. Considering this a flash point for the issue nationwide, the American Federation of Teachers sent a national representative, Troy Brazell, to the scene to help organize a campaign to save tenure in Kentucky and defeat this proposal.

“Over the past few years, there’s been a growing imposition of the corporate business model in higher education,” Brazell said. “It simply looks at personnel as a cost and lower cost is an urgent goal right now. That’s what’s driving interest here in terrible economic times. But, the elimination of tenure does not save money, will not lower cots for students and will have an impact on the system’s hiring flexibility. People just won’t come to work here.”

David Cooper, president of the Kentucky Faculty and Staff Alliance -- a local affiliate of the AFT -- said there have been resolutions passed by faculty senates at four-year institutions in the state and community colleges outside it opposing the regents’ proposal.

“They see this as a slippery slope,” Cooper said. “If this can happen in Kentucky, how long will it be before this happens elsewhere?”

The Board of Regents is made up of 14 members -- eight appointed by the governor and six elected by faculty, staff and students. The appointed members have full votes and elected members have half a vote. At the full meeting of the regents in December, only three members spoke out against the proposal -- two faculty-elected representatives and the appointed vice chair. Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat who has been in office for just a year, has not spoken publicly about the proposal, and calls to his office for comment were not returned.

Those with intimate knowledge of the regents -- including local faculty advocates such as Cooper -- believe that the proposal is “already a done deal.” While faculty members incensed by this proposal admit they may lose the battle today, they are gearing up for a larger war over tenure in the state. Cooper said that, aside from seeking a legislative overturn of the proposal, he will lobby the American Association of University Professor to impose a sanction against the system.

“Even though this will not affect those of us who already have tenure, we know a proposal like this would undermine the quality of our faculty,” Cooper said. “Getting rid of tenure would only create a revolving door of faculty members coming in and out. If this passes, then our only recourse will be to go to the Legislature.”


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