The Need for Tenure and Engagement
by Gary Rhoades
General Secretary, AAUP (American Association of University Professors)
I write to you as a scholar of higher education, as the new general secretary of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), and as a colleague who has former students and colleagues like yourself, who teach in the vitally important sector of community colleges. I write to you because I am deeply concerned about the action of your system’s board of trustees.
The recent decision of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System’s board to eliminate tenure for all new hires is based on faulty premises and will lead to bad outcomes—bad by way of institutional decision making, bad for students and quality education, and bad for faculty’s academic freedom and engagement with students, curriculum, and the institution.
Board chair Richard A. Bean’s reported claim that such a move is required to provide for managerial “flexibility” belies the fact that in the Kentucky system there are already high proportions of both part- and full-time contingent faculty. There is more than ample flexibility now in the system; indeed, some, including the president of the system, have expressed concern about existing numbers of adjunct and part-time faculty.
The objective of increased flexibility is also based on the faulty premise that greater flexibility leads to better decisions that better serve the interests of the institution, the public, and its students. It has become clear in our larger economic decline, and in numerous cases of poorly thought out managerial decisions in higher education, that the major problem has been NOT that there is not enough managerial flexibility, but quite the contrary, that there is insufficient deliberation and consideration of the views of professionals within the organizations. Due diligence and consultation take time. They mean that managers cannot act on a whim, without sufficient analysis of available data and without sufficient listening to the ideas and concerns of the people doing the work. That has become clear on Wall Street. It has also become clear in the towers of colleges and universities. And it is now clear in KCTCS on 300 N. Main Street.
A national consensus is emerging that engagement is central to the quality of students’ education. That consensus is translating into institutions and accrediting bodies establishing measures and conditions to promote engagement of and with students. Students benefit from engaging with faculty members who have the security, longevity, and working conditions that come from an institution committing to their employment. Students benefit from institutions that engage their faculty members, among other ways, with professional development opportunities.
Eliminating tenure and job security is not a path to engagement.
Moreover, with all due respect to President McCall, the connection between academic freedom and tenure is not a matter of his “professional opinion.” It is a matter of standard practice in the overwhelming majority of colleges and universities in the United States. And it is a matter of fact, lived out in the classrooms and work of countless faculty members. Tenure is key to providing faculty members the genuine freedom to challenge and engage students in the classroom. The AAUP has successfully embedded in the policies and practices of thousands of colleges not only the value of academic freedom, but the centrality of tenured faculty to that freedom. Investigations conducted by the AAUP show that contingent faculty are at great risk from administrations that respond to the vagaries of the day or to outlier student complaints. For example, in one case last year, a contingent faculty member with over a decade of strong teaching evaluations was let go over a handful of student complaints—including one from a student who had plagiarized an assignment.
Finally, adopting a policy in the face of overwhelming opposition from the very people who make the KCTCS work makes little managerial sense. It is a recipe not for increased flexibility but for decreased academic and educational quality and engagement. The working conditions of faculty are the learning conditions of students. KCTCS has adopted an ill advised policy that compromises both. At thousands of colleges and universities, policies and practices reflect the AAUP’s standard that decision making in higher education is best when it includes consultation and shared governance with faculty—but not at the Kentucky Community and Technical College System. The decision of the KCTCS, and the manner in which this decision was undertaken and presented fly directly in the face of all accepted models of best practices in governance in higher education (and judging from my reading of the KCTCS policies online, it may not have been in accord with the procedures established in your own system).
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