Rigor, Faculty Rights, Completion

Instructor says he was fired -- shortly after he complained to accreditor -- for refusing to water down his curriculum and requirements. Another instructor quit rather than comply.

November 7, 2016
 
Nathanial Bork

Colorado, like many states, wants to increase the number of community college students who transfer to four-year colleges and universities and earn bachelor's degrees.

To encourage such transfers, the state has designated some community college courses as Guaranteed Transfer Pathways courses, meaning that anyone who earns a C-minus or higher is assured of transfer credit at Colorado public colleges and universities. A major complaint of community college students who transfer is that the institutions at which they enroll don't grant credit for many of their community college courses. Programs like Guaranteed Transfer Pathways are designed to deal with that issue.

But one instructor has been dismissed by the Community College of Aurora and another quit over the way they say that college is carrying out the program. They allege that to make courses consistent with state guidelines, the college required them to make it easy for students to complete courses and earn good grades in them -- with academic rigor sacrificed.

The American Association of University Professors has launched an investigation focused on the dismissal of Nathanial Bork, who had taught philosophy courses at the college for six years before he was dismissed. The AAUP says that his dismissal raises concerns both because of the issues he raises about rigor and also because he was fired shortly after he complained about the situation to the Higher Learning Commission, the college's accreditor. Further, Bork was active in efforts to improve the working conditions of adjuncts at the college.

Bork's complaint to his accreditor is that he was ordered to take these steps to make it more likely that students could pass:

  • Reduce course content by 20 percent.
  • Ensure a "success rate" (passing rate) of 80 percent for all students and for students of different racial, ethnic and gender groups.
  • Set aside five class sessions for helping students with writing skills and learning how to write an essay.
  • Limit papers assigned to two to four pages, or a single six- to eight-page paper.

Community College of Aurora officials did not respond to requests for comment but have told local reporters that individual faculty members still control their curricular plans, and any guidelines still leave great leeway for individual faculty members. The Colorado Department of Higher Education has affirmed that the college is acting within what it considers acceptable standards.

But the AAUP is not convinced.

In a letter it sent to the college, it noted that Bork was "not alone" in viewing the college's demands as inconsistent with a faculty member's responsibilities. The AAUP says it has a letter from a former instructor who quit Aurora over the new requirements, writing, "I could not do what the school asked and keep any integrity."

A letter from the AAUP to the college states that it is concerned that Bork was raising issues that go to the heart of an instructor's need to assure quality instruction. He was fired after raising concerns over "severely degraded" standards ordered by the college. Further, the AAUP said, academic freedom should protect the right of a faculty member like Bork to express concerns to an accreditor without retribution.

In an email interview, Bork said that he was not opposed to the guidelines that seek to assure that credit can transfer. The system works, he said, "as long as you treat adjunct and full-time faculty as professionals, who can be trusted to make their own decisions unless a negative situation arises."

But if colleges try to comply with the guidelines by shying away from rigor or imposing "artificial" pass rates, the students will lose out even if they earn higher grades, Bork said. "That isn't going to set up students to succeed at the next level, where the difficulty will not have been artificially lowered for their peers," he said.

Currently, Bork is teaching four classes at Arapahoe Community College, where, he says, "I'm treated as a professional and my students and I are thriving."

Bork said that he strongly disagrees with the idea that students can only succeed with low standards. "If you set the bar high, and you pay attention to students as individuals so that you can put them in contact with the resources they need to succeed, then you can succeed in the mission of bringing real education to students who are hungry for it," he said. "As it turns out, people really like the success that comes with hard work in an environment where it isn't guaranteed. As much as I have any say in the matter, I intend to keep college that way."

Via email, Betsy Oudenhoven, president at Aurora, characterized the debate in a different way. "Like many community colleges, CCA's faculty and instructors are implementing some new instructional strategies in some of our gatekeeper courses," she said. "We are excited about this initiative and I can assure you that we have in no way lessened the quality or rigor of our courses."

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