Will Faculty Voices Be Heard?

Professors will participate in the White House summit on community colleges, but some of them remain concerned about the agenda.
October 5, 2010

After months of planning by organizers and anticipation by educators, the White House Summit on Community Colleges is scheduled to take place today. The high-profile event, hosted by Jill Biden — the vice president’s wife and a remedial English professor at Northern Virginia Community College — is expected to be something of a pep rally for two-year institutions and for the Obama administration's agenda for them. That agenda — and the summit's — is a focus on getting more students to graduate, improving remedial education, and bolstering job training.

In the past two weeks, as some community college presidents and students have announced their invitations, and as the official (but partial) White House list — which also names some prominent business leaders — was revealed, some faculty groups have been raising questions about why none of their colleagues seemed to be included. And for a while, the publicly announced names — the White House has declined to release the full list — did not include any faculty.

Despite some prior reports to the contrary, individual community college administrators, faculty — full-time and part-time — and those from groups representing them have been invited to the summit and are slated to engage in the discussion, say White House officials. Still, while many community colleges have made announcements about their administrators or students attending, there are few announcements about faculty. North Hennepin Community College, in Minnesota, is one of the few to announce in advance of the summit that a faculty member — Eugenia Paulus, an award-winning chemistry professor — would be traveling to the White House.

“We have invited a variety of faculty who have taught and do teach full and part-time in community colleges who will be in attendance, as well as teachers' unions who will be present at the summit so we can hear their views and recommendations,” wrote Courtney O’Donnell, spokeswoman for Jill Biden, in an e-mail. “Given the size of America's community college system, it would be impossible to fit everyone with an important perspective in one room. We sought to provide a representative and balanced group of leaders who could provide a balanced conversation.”

For those who either were not invited to the summit or cannot make it, organizers are planning other means to participate.

“We want to be as inclusive as possible and created the special online White House forum where others can participate and know that their views and voices on issues like this one will be heard,” O’Donnell wrote. “We will also be live-streaming the opening and closing session of the summit — many community colleges have already expressed an interest in hosting their own summit on the 5th.”

Officials from the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association both noted that their organizations have been working with summit planners for months and received informal invitations before recent speculation to the contrary arose from critics who were concerned faculty might not be well represented at the gathering. Still, last month, AFT officials wrote a blog post suggesting real concern that faculty would not be well-represented.

“We were never under the impression that faculty weren’t going to be invited,” said Sandra Schroeder, AFT vice president. “There was no sense of being slighted at all.”

Schroeder added that she and other union representatives have a number of faculty-related issues they want to discuss at the summit. But the question remains whether they will be the only ones to raise these issues. “It’s going to be interesting to see whether faculty and unions bring up certain things,” Schroeder said. “Staffing issues are important to us, but we’re also concerned about a whole spectrum of things related to student success. It’s not just that [some faculty] are being treated unfairly and that it’s affecting student achievement. We want to do better in community colleges and support all of the teachers that are struggling to do that.”

Schroeder argued that the “staffing profile” of faculty at many community colleges does not lend itself to student engagement and the so-called “completion agenda.” Chief among the union’s concerns are the treatment of adjunct faculty members and the evident growth in the sector’s reliance on them.

“We must figure out a way to provide equal pay for equal work in and out of the classroom for these faculty members and begin to reverse course to a reasonable level of full-time, professionally compensated and supported faculty corps,” Schroeder outlined in a blog post she wrote last week about what she plans to talk about at the summit. "The nearly 250,000 part-time/adjunct faculty members at our nation's public community colleges are committed to their work, but we must confront the fact that we have built a system that relies on their goodwill to keep doing what they do because of that commitment and passion. That is neither good for the faculty member nor the students they teach. It is also not good for community colleges in general which now have a depleted full-time faculty corps to help carry out the mission of the college.”

Leaders of the New Faculty Majority, a recently formed organization representing adjunct faculty, were among those concerned about the lack of representation of their members at the summit. Though they confirm that the organization was not invited to the event, they have encouraged their membership to actively contribute to the summit’s online discussion board and watch the event live.

Matt Williams, the group’s vice president and an assistant lecturer at the University of Akron, expressed optimism that some individual faculty and union representatives are planning to attend the event. Still, he noted his continued concern that the poor working condition of adjuncts will not be brought up as an issue at the summit, even with union leaders there.

“There are so many adjuncts that aren’t represented by unions at this point in time,” Williams said. “And even where adjuncts are unionized, there doesn’t seem to be that strong of a voice for them, because there is inherently a competition for resources between adjuncts and tenured and tenure-track faculty. In a perfect world, we would have hoped that [we would have been invited] so that adjuncts could make sure that their concerns were represented and that they didn’t have to rely on surrogates.”

Officials from the American Association of University Professors note that they too were not invited to attend the summit. In a video on the group’s website, a few AAUP members expressed similar concerns about the possible overlooking of faculty-related issues, and urged summit planners to consider their voices.

Gary Rhoades, general secretary of AAUP, noted that he worries that philanthropic foundations, like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, are primarily driving the community college agenda that will be discussed at the summit — sometimes to the detriment of faculty.

"From my perspective, what is problematic about the current pattern is that there is too little consideration of the expertise and perspective of the professionals doing the work," Rhoades wrote in an e-mail. "Of the professionals who are committed to the core academic and public missions of community colleges, and who carry out those missions. And that is not healthy, either for the development of policy or for its implementation. Obviously it is important and indeed essential to draw on the perspectives and ideas of various groups and constituencies outside the academy to discuss and brainstorm ideas about the future path of community colleges. But it ought to be at least as obvious that the conversation needs to incorporate the insights of the professionals, from the beginning of the conversation."

Monday, in a call with reporters, government officials and summit planners sought to assuage the worry of faculty groups.

“Role of faculty and staff is essential to community colleges,” said Martha Kanter, under secretary of education. “We have all had to retrench because of the economy … But we all have to pull together and use the summit to bring voices together. … We’ve got to look at what we can do now and that this is the reality that we face. … The voice of faculty is essential.”

Government officials also spoke of two public-private partnerships that are slated to be unveiled at the summit. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is funding a five-year, $35 million grant, called Completion by Design, “to learn where along the education journey students are being lost and to design an intentional educational pathway that employs proven and promising practices at every critical moment from enrollment to credential completion.” And the Aspen Institute is introducing the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, a $1 million annual competitive award “to recognize, reward, and inspire outstanding outcomes in community colleges nationwide.”


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