Tenure and the Two-Year College

June 11, 2009

The nationwide assault on tenure has found a beachhead, it seems, at community colleges.

Of course, not all two-year colleges and systems have traditionally offered tenure. But even among those that have, the practice is now under attack. Consider the situation in three Southern states.

Recently, the chancellor of the Alabama community-college system resigned amid charges from faculty groups that he was seeking to end the practice of awarding tenure there.

In Kentucky, the situation is even more serious. Up until about 10 years ago, the state's community colleges were part of the University of Kentucky system, and professors could earn tenure in that system. Then the two-year campuses were merged with the state's technical colleges to create the Kentucky Community and Technical College System. Recently, its Board of Trustees voted to abolish tenure for new hires, although it didn't revoke tenure for those who already have it.

Something similar seems to be happening in my home state of Georgia. We currently have eight two-year colleges —including my employer, Georgia Perimeter College —that operate as part of the University System of Georgia. Faculty members at those institutions have academic rank and can earn tenure. But Georgia also has 33 technical colleges that form an entirely separate system, and its faculty members don't have academic rank and can't earn tenure. A proposal currently in front of the governor recommends bringing all of the state's two-year campuses together under the authority of the technical college system. (Interestingly, the committee that drafted the proposal had no representation from the two-year colleges in the university system.)

Whether or not such a merger will take place, and how it would affect faculty members, we don't yet know. We don't know if our rank and tenure would be revoked, with the inevitable lawsuits to follow, or if we would be "grandfathered in," like our colleagues in Kentucky. But I suspect, along with many other faculty members, that the proposal was motivated, in part, by a growing antipathy toward tenure among certain elected officials. We also suspect that the measure essentially constitutes an opening salvo in the state's war on tenure, which may begin with the two-year colleges but is unlikely to end there.

If that strategy gains traction nationally, it will be because community-college faculty members are fighting the war on two fronts. Not only are we subjected to all the same attacks on tenure from politicians and chamber-of-commerce types as our colleagues at four-year institutions, but we also find ourselves battling the apathy (at best) of those very colleagues who seem to believe tenure isn't as important at two-year colleges, or that it somehow isn't as valid for community-college faculty members because it isn't as difficult to acquire.

Before I return to that last point, however, let's examine the three most common arguments against tenure raised by elected officials, business leaders, and opponents within higher education: that it exists primarily to protect bad teachers, providing them with guaranteed lifetime employment; that it isn't really necessary, since the Constitution already guarantees freedom of speech; and that tenure has no connection to academic freedom.

The first complaint could come only from someone who hasn't spent a career teaching college students, someone who has merely heard occasional, anecdotal, and probably exaggerated accounts of professorial misconduct. During my 23 years at community colleges, virtually all of the faculty members I've been privileged to work with have been remarkably dedicated and hard-working teachers.

As for guaranteed lifetime employment, well, no one who actually works in higher education believes there is any such thing. We all know that tenure can be revoked for any number of good and proper reasons, such as sexual harassment of students or chronic dereliction of duty. At many institutions, including mine, professors even have to pass periodic performance reviews in order to retain their tenure.

We also know from hard experience that tenure is only as good as the institution that awards it. During the current economic downturn, we've already seen a number of campuses close their doors; tenure clearly did not protect those faculty jobs. And then there are the types of situations mentioned above, where entire systems can morph into something quite different overnight, abandoning the concept of tenure along the way.

The second charge —that tenure isn't necessary because freedom of speech is already guaranteed —shows a clear lack of Constitutional understanding. In reality, the Bill of Rights is binding only upon government in relation to its citizens. It doesn't apply to the corporate employee who criticizes her CEO. Nor does it apply to the college professor who publicly objects to the dean's new program or the chancellor's latest policy. Even though most colleges, as public institutions, are government entities, professors are still "employees" who would serve at the will of their "employers" were it not for tenure.

Indeed, largely because of tenure, a college or university is really not like a corporation at all, as much as some might want it to be. It's really more like a small nation-state, and a democracy at that. (And perhaps that's what the chamber-of-commerce types really find objectionable.)

Just as democracy depends on people's willingness to voice their opinions, so does academe. Faculty members are its citizens, and tenure is their Bill of Rights. Unlike employees of a corporation, faculty members don't merely work for the institution; in a very real sense, they are the institution, just as this country is not its government but its people. And, like citizens, faculty members not only have a right to speak out on matters of importance to the whole, they are duty-bound to do so —publicly, if necessary. But they can only speak out freely if their livelihoods are protected by tenure.

Which brings us to the final charge: that tenure has nothing to do with academic freedom. To me, nothing could be clearer than the direct connection between the two, especially if we understand academic freedom to encompass not only the speech and actions of individual professors in their classrooms but, more important, the right and responsibility of the faculty as a whole to determine the curriculum. After all, the greatest danger when faculty members are not allowed to speak freely is not that they will lose their jobs —although that is a danger. It's that bureaucrats will ultimately subvert the curriculum for political purposes. (See "In the Hot Seat," an essay in The Chronicle by Mindy Stombler, a senior lecturer in sociology at Georgia State University.)

Most institutions, including most two-year colleges, at least pay lip service to the concept of shared governance, the idea that faculty members should have oversight of the curriculum. When that ideal is actually put into practice, it means that lowly assistant professors may find themselves disagreeing with department chairs, deans, vice presidents, and maybe even presidents. And that is as it should be, since faculty members collectively know more about their subject areas than the administrators with whom they sometimes differ.

Faculty members can only speak their minds, however, if they are confident that doing so won't place their jobs at risk should a dean find their remarks offensive. In regard to tenure, that is the precise point where, as they say, "the rubber meets the road." And that's why tenure is just as important at two-year colleges as it is at four-year institutions: because it's just as important for faculty members at two-year colleges to own their curricula.

That would be true even without the articulation agreements that allow community-college students to transfer to universities with their course work intact. The fact that such agreements are commonplace means that tenure, and faculty control of the curriculum, should be just as important at two-year colleges as they are at four-year institutions.

I realize that tenure takes longer to get at most four-year colleges and universities: six years or more, as opposed to three to five years at the typical two-year college. No doubt that fact engenders some resentment, even disdain, among faculty members at four-year institutions who feel that those of us in the community colleges haven't really "earned" our tenure, at least not to the extent that they have. (Even though, by the time we're tenured, we've probably taught as many courses, and more students, in three to five years as they've taught in six or more.)

But what I'm trying to say is that we're all in this together. If our opponents succeed in abolishing tenure at the two-year-college level, it won't be long before the erosion in skills and knowledge is apparent among students transferring to four-year institutions —or failing to transfer, as the case may be. According to reports, that's already happening in Kentucky, where transfers have steadily declined over the past 10 years.

And once the opposition stands astride the carcass of community-college tenure, is there any doubt where it will cast its baleful eye next?


Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English and director of the Writers Institute at Georgia Perimeter College. He writes occasionally for our community-college column.