Who Gets to Decide?

English professors at a Michigan community college now spend four hours a week with students during an introductory composition course. Their president wants to cut that time to three hours for some students, and faculty members object.

July 23, 2015
 
Jean Goodnow

When the English faculty at Delta College in Michigan set four hours as the amount of time instructors would spend each week with students in the college’s introductory writing course, professors were under the impression that it was a permanent change. The college’s president had something else in mind.

The two-year community college has found itself as the battleground over the issue of who has the final say over curriculum changes. English professors say that President Jean Goodnow is overstepping her role in violation of the college’s Senate policies -- and it isn’t the first time she has been criticized for her management of the college.

In 2010, Delta’s Curriculum Council signed off on a series of changes to the college’s English curriculum, including adding an hour to the required composition course, English 111. Faculty used the new hour, which was designated as a contact or workshop hour -- not a credit hour -- to expand the topics covered in the course to include source and research-based writing and to spend more time individually working with students on writing.

Had the faculty increased the credits for the course, there would have been financial implications for the change, because instructors are paid per credit. But costs are minor since the additional hour didn't change the base pay for professors.

But in 2014, the administration decided to remove the additional hour from the English course, saying there hadn’t been demonstrated improved success for the students over the past three years. Faculty protested and a grievance was filed against Goodnow and the dean of teaching and learning.

The grievance committee found that because there were no criteria to determine the success of the extra hour, it couldn’t be removed at the time. In December of 2014, the Curriculum Council approved the hour staying on as part of the course.

Drew Colenbrander, an associate professor of English, said the additional hour made a huge difference for students in the course, who were afforded things they had been requesting in course evaluations for years, including an increased focus on topics like grammar and more time spent actually writing in the classroom.

He said that if the hour were to be removed, both students and faculty would be shortchanged in terms of how much information would be covered in the course. And after a change in requirements, students need only one English course to apply to four-year colleges, so this class might be the only chance students at Delta get to learn critical reading and writing skills.

“The time factor is huge alone. Adding the fourth hour enables us to do more with students than you can get done in just three hours a week,” Colenbrander said.

After hearing of the council’s decision to keep the hour, Goodnow sent a memo in January 2015 to the English division, offering a compromise: only students whose skill level required would receive the extra hour. Otherwise, it would be removed.

“The intent of this compromise is to support the decision made by Curriculum Council and to remove barriers for students that may not require the excess contact hour for success in ENG 111. It is my feeling that the English Division and I have the same goal -- to help our students succeed at Delta College,” she wrote, noting that the data on student success compiled by faculty didn’t demonstrate a statistically significant difference between having and not having the hour.

The faculty filed another grievance, and last week the Board of Trustees released a ruling in favor of Goodnow, a move that faculty say sets a dangerous precedent for how involved the president can be in matters she traditionally doesn’t address.

Colenbrander, who has taught at Delta for more than 20 years and has worked with three presidents at the college, said this is the first time he has ever seen a president get involved with details like how many hours a week faculty members should spend with students in a given course.

“I think we’ve seen a tendency of this president toward taking more personal control over more areas of the college, definitely more than with the previous two presidents,” he said.

Goodnow said in an email that she chose not to continue the pilot because she believed there was no demonstrated need to continue the program.

"As president of Delta College, I am responsible to serve as an advocate for students -- all students," she wrote of her decision, saying she based her decision on helping as many students as possible.

The chair of the Board of Trustees reviewed the second decision of the grievance committee and agreed with its decision that the authority to make the final decision on the curriculum rests with the president and the Board of Trustees.

The college’s policies on faculty state that curricular decisions are typically left to the professors, but “on these matters the power of review and final decision is lodged with the Board of Trustees or delegated to it by the president.”

In cases when the board differs from faculty opinion, faculty are allowed to communicate further with the board, but those views can be limited in influence on matters like “budgetary concerns; manpower limitations; the time element; and the policies and procedures of other groups, bodies and agencies having jurisdiction over the institution.”

“Delta College has a robust shared governance system that we all value as part of what makes Delta an innovative community college and a great place to work. We’ve had a lively debate on this issue and gone through the prescribed process to resolve it,” Goodnow said in an email.

She continued, “I’m looking forward to working with the entire faculty body on a variety of other projects at hand, which are focused on our students’ success. It is due to the hard work and dedication of our faculty that Delta College enjoys such a strong reputation of excellence, both here in our region, and nationally.”

But the fight isn’t over yet. Faculty said that in the coming months they will file a complaint with the Higher Learning Commission, the college's accreditor, saying that Delta is in violation of policies seen as the commission's core components for accredited institutions.

The commission requires that accredited institutions have “sufficient numbers and continuity of faculty members to carry out both the classroom and the nonclassroom roles of faculty, including oversight of the curriculum and expectations for student performance; establishment of academic credentials for instructional staff; involvement in assessment of student learning,” and that faculty are expected to oversee academic issues.

There is no direct mention of administrators, including presidents, in determining curriculum, although it is later stated that “administration, faculty, staff and students are involved in setting academic requirements, policy and processes through effective structures for contribution and collaborative effort.”

Goodnow said that she was confident that Delta is "in full compliance" with the criteria set by the Higher Learning Commission.

Alex Goudas, an assistant professor of English, said the Board of Trustees made their decision without seeing all of the data he and another professor had compiled on the course, including results showing greater success in other classes after taking the introductory composition class with the additional contact hour.

He added that one of the administration’s biggest arguments against the addition of the contact hour was that it made the class a four-credit course, which could cause difficulties during transfers. Goudas said this was inaccurate -- the course now meets four hours a week, but is still only worth three credits.

“The faculty have responses to every single one of those arguments, one of which is that the two flagship universities in Michigan … both of these institutions have four-credit and four-hour college composition courses,” Goudas said. “If our three credit plus one contact hour is much too big to be a barrier, it doesn’t make sense. Why, if anything, our course should be four credits to resolve that problem.”

Denise Hill, chair of the English division, said that "for the division and the faculty, I think it's an issue that has unified them," she said. "It's something we all have a stake in."

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