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Lee College

Lee College

Faculty members at Lee College, outside Houston, don’t have tenure. But longer-serving faculty members did have the job security that came with renewable three-year contracts.

No more. Last summer, when many instructors were away from campus, the community college’s then-president, Dennis Brown, notified instructors via email that the Board of Regents would be considering moving to one-year faculty contracts at its next meeting. The note came just one month before the vote. Also proposed was a move to eliminate academic division faculty chairs and replace them with associate deans.

Faculty members universally opposed a move to one-year contracts. They mobilized to fight that proposal, contacting individual board members and organizing who would speak on which of their arguments in favor of three-year contracts at the meeting.

It was a losing battle. At that August board gathering, members voted unanimously for single-year appointments. Most members also voted in a favor of budgeting for a reorganization of division chairs into a system of deanships -- presumably a consolidated one.

How and if that restructuring would happen was left up to the college’s incoming president. The proposals’ exact origins remain something of a mystery to faculty members, who say that they’ve heard different rationales at different times by different regents and administrators. But Brown pushed both proposals forward just as he planned to retire.

Instructors at Lee now hope that the arrival of President Lynda Villanueva this term will bring a return to the kind of shared governance they say they once enjoyed. Even so, the change to one-year contracts is a done deal, and one that faculty members say has already weakened their morale.

“I’m not afraid to speak openly about anything that’s happened to me at this college, and primarily I’m very proud that we’ve had shared governance for the majority of the time I’ve been here,” said Jerry Hamby, an English professor who is retiring this year after 31 years at Lee. “But that has changed dramatically over the past six or seven years,” during Brown’s tenure.

Hamby said the move to one-year contracts didn’t influence his decision to retire. Yet the timing is good for him -- just not his colleagues, who will be moving to one-year contracts as soon as their current three-year terms expire.

“I think it’s a travesty. I think it’s a terrible thing to do a faculty member,” Hamby said. “My contribution to the college isn’t valued as much as it once was -- that’s what this says to me.”

The American Association of University Professors would probably agree. The group says that faculty members who have served the length of a typical tenure probationary period merit the due process protections of tenure, even if they don't have technically have it. Administrators at Lee note that faculty members there have the right to appeal contract non-renewals. But the professors say that one-year contracts make it that much easier to get rid of an unpopular or outspoken instructors for any alleged policy violation.

Were he younger and staying on at Lee, Hamby said, “I’d pick up and move, or consider it.” He’s done it before: Hamby began a career at Lamar University on one-year contracts, but says he moved to Lee instead, as it provided some sense of employment security.

Citing a common argument against tenure and continuing contracts -- that they don’t exist outside academe -- Hamby said the “business community doesn’t have to deal with academic freedom issues.” Academic freedom is misunderstood, he said, but it's simply “the freedom to teach your content in good faith and not have to be scared of petty reprisal. But with one-year contracts, that safety net is gone.”

Lee says that it’s simply aligning its own policies with many of its peers. At the August board meeting, Brown cited an internal study of 50 state colleges and community college districts. According to that study, 38 have one-year contracts. Four have two-year contracts, seven have three-year contracts and one college has no contracts. Tenure is possible at 11 of the 50 institutions. 

Brown assured faculty members that the change had nothing to do with the college’s past financial crisis, which resulted in it having to take out a $4.8 million loan from a local bank in 2017 to temporarily cover regular expenses, including payroll. As of August, Brown said then, the college was in the strongest financial position he’d seen it in, with steady enrollment and cash reserves at $14 million and growing.

Mark Hall, board chair, said in an interview that flat enrollment amounts to good news in oil country in a strong economy, as student numbers tend to rise and fall inversely with available -- and high-paying -- jobs. Enrollment hovers under 8,000 students.

“I know a kid, well, a 23-year-old, who dropped out of school in seventh grade, and I can’t get him to get a G.E.D. because he’s working on pipeline construction for $100,000 a year,” Hall said. “That’s the reality here."

Hall said that the board voted as it did primarily based on the study of other colleges. Echoing Brown’s comments at the August meeting, Hall also said that administrators recently moved to one-year contracts, and that faculty contracts are now aligned. The president's contract is still for three years, however.

Another faculty member who did not want to be named, citing fear of retaliation -- especially now that contracts last just a year -- said that multiyear contracts and even tenure remain at peer institutions, just not the majority. So the change feels like “More of a way to say, ‘Shut your mouth’” than anything else.

Hall said there’s “always a tension between what you offer faculty and trying to stay financially prudent, and we’ve always tried to say within the top 10 in terms of pay at Lee College.” Faculty members have never been laid off, either, he said, and there is no plan to eliminate positions now. Yet the new contract system provides the college more “flexibility” to respond to various changes. As an example, he cited the possibility of having to carry faculty members through three-year contracts in the event of a closure for a catastrophic hurricane.

Weather events are a very real threat on the Gulf Coast. Asked whether the college could declare financial exigency in such an event, or whether it had any other protections, Hall said he didn't know.

Hamby said the proposal to eliminate division chairs is just as controversial as one-year contracts, in that chairs, unlike deans, are faculty members. Chairs supervise their colleagues to some degree, but they are disciplinary peers who understand the work their fellow instructors do, he said. By contrast, deans serve at the will of the administration.

“If that person [a chair] is not there, in my mind, faculty have no advocate and no voice, and are totally at the whim of administrators."

Veronique Tran, vice president of instruction, and two deans also opposed moving forward with the restructuring plan immediately, according to a letter obtained by faculty members through an open records request. The August letter from Tran to Brown said that faculty and staff members and administrators “have not had the opportunity to provide input,” that national searches for qualified associate deans would take time, and that the change could result in negative publicity for the college.

Tran said that if division chairs are eliminated, then the “burden of managing all departments falls on the two deans while the associate dean search is ongoing.” She also expressed concern about adequate program coordination as required by the college’s regional accreditor, and so proposed the inclusion of program coordinators where appropriate in any plan.

Hamby has served on Lee’s representative Faculty Assembly in some form for most of his time at the college. The campus president is a full member of that body, which has made for a strong tradition of communication and shared governance, he said. And while there were no major confrontations between the faculty and Brown, Brown’s leadership style was guarded.

In particular, Hamby and other instructors said, assembly members were concerned as to how the college fell into the recent financial crisis.

“Personally, I never found that satisfactory answers were given,” Hamby said. Brown could not immediately be reached for comment. The college has since adopted a financial plan with multiple layers of budgetary oversight. 

Villanueva, Lee’s new president, said that the college has “no plans to eliminate faculty chairs.”

“The board determined, prior to my tenure, to provide the fiscal resources to determine the most appropriate organizational structure to achieve our mission,” she said. “To that extent, I am working with the Faculty Assembly president to design new pathways that provide the best-quality education to our students and the community we serve.”

As for the current financial state of the college, Villanueva said that it now has $34 million in unrestricted cash and that an audit recently gave it the highest rating of “unqualified opinion.”

Karen Guthmiller, an instructor of kinesiology and Faculty Assembly president, said she'd asked the board to delay any changes until the arrival of a new president. As for the other proposal, which the board did leave up the new president, she said, “We have no plans to eliminate faculty chairs."

“Our new president supports faculty chair positions” and “made it clear that they are integral to a college’s ability to respond to the needs of its students,” she said in an email. “Dr. Villanueva has repeatedly stated this in her presidential interview, college convocation and our faculty meetings, and I believe her.”

Guthmiller added, “She has consistently stated she will work with the college community to find ways to better support student learning, which will include faculty chairs, and so far her actions have unequivocally shown her to be a person of her word.”

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