The Lack of Public Intellectuals at Community Colleges

Fear and disrespect keep faculty members from speaking out on major issues

Gian aulo Pagni for The Chronicle

March 24, 2014

Nicholas Kristof offended many academics recently when he declared, in an essay in The New York Times, that public intellectuals among the professoriate had gone the way of the landline telephone. "There are," he wrote, "fewer public intellectuals on college campuses than there were a generation ago."

Not only is Kristof wrong, I believe, but it seems to me that exactly the opposite is true: With the rise of social media and, in particular, of personal blogs, more professors than ever are adding their voices to the public debates of the day (sometimes to their detriment, as I noted last month in a column about faculty members’ getting into trouble on social media).

Perhaps our disagreement has to do with how we define "public intellectual," which Kristof does not actually attempt to do. He merely cites one well-known example—his colleague at the Times, Paul Krugman—as if to set the bar for being considered a public intellectual at winning a Nobel Prize, teaching at an Ivy League institution, and writing regularly for what is arguably the world’s leading newspaper.

But virtually any college faculty member who uses print publications or social media to engage with a broad audience can be called a public intellectual. More and more academics have been doing exactly that, at colleges large and small, with varying degrees of success. Few are household names, perhaps, but at least they’re getting their ideas out there in blog posts and newspaper columns, and many are having a significant impact on their towns and beyond.

In fact, faculty members at just about every type of institution have been entering the fray in large numbers—every type, that is, except for community colleges. Kristof might actually be correct when it comes to them: My 25-plus years of experience on two-year campuses suggest that public intellectuals are indeed few and far between there. And that’s lamentable, because professors at community colleges have a lot to say.

Why do so many of them hesitate to speak out? An obvious answer: They’re busy, with heavy teaching and service loads. Unfortunately, there’s more to it than that.

Administrators at community colleges tend to be more autocratic than their counterparts at four-year institutions. Many two-year campuses are run more like high schools than colleges, with a chain of command, little in the way of true shared governance, and strict division of duties. Much like school principals, some community-college presidents believe it is their role, and theirs alone, to speak out on issues of concern. Anyone else who does so is risking his or her future on that campus.

A few years ago, the then-administration at my two-year college introduced several policies, including threats of "discipline," that seemed designed to discourage faculty members from speaking out publicly. Because I’m a tenured associate professor, backing up those threats would have proved difficult for the college in my case. So I just took a few common-sense precautions, such as adding disclaimers to my columns, and kept on writing. But not everyone was so fortunate: An adjunct friend of mine wasn’t rehired after an opinion essay she wrote apparently drew the ire of her bosses.

Given that such administrative abuses are not uncommon at two-year colleges, it’s no wonder that their faculty members aren’t lining up to speak out on public debates.

Another reason that community colleges don’t produce more public intellectuals might be called "Claggart Syndrome," after the character in Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd, Sailor. John Claggart, the small-­minded master-­at-arms of the ship, hates the "handsome sailor," Billy Budd, for no apparent reason other than that he’s well liked by the other men.

That same sensibility appears to be at work at community colleges, where most faculty members don’t have any sort of public persona. And that’s fine. They’re immersed in their teaching and service, and have no inclination to blog or write editorials for the local paper. The vast majority of them don’t care if one of their colleagues takes on the mantle of public intellectual and might even vicariously enjoy it. But there always seems to be a few who disdain any faculty member with a public persona and make no secret of it.

Sometimes that’s because they disagree on the issues. But at other times, there appears to be no logical reason. Perhaps they fear that they’ll look bad by comparison. Or maybe they’re just the kind of people who try to build themselves up by tearing others down.

I just know that such people exist at most community colleges, and that they can occasionally become quite vicious. Realizing that some of your colleagues might end up hating your guts and trying to destroy your career would make most people think twice about venturing outside the cloistered walls.

Finally, some would-be public intellectuals at two-year colleges are likely to be dissuaded by, well, the public.

The bias against community 
colleges—and, by extension, their faculty members—runs deep in our society, and not just among academics. I’ve encountered a surprising number of people, from all walks of life, who naturally assume that professors at two-year colleges must be second-­rate intellects who couldn’t get a job at a "real" college and whose ideas are, therefore, not worth considering.

A few years ago, I wrote an essay defending tenure on a popular conservative website. I wasn’t surprised that nearly all of the commenters disagreed, or that some attacked me personally. What did surprise me: Most of the attacks were aimed at my résumé—as if, because I teach at a two-year college instead of a prestigious university, my arguments couldn’t possibly have any merit.

If you are a faculty member at a two-year college and want to put your ideas out there for public consumption, you have to accept that some people—maybe a lot of people—are going to dismiss them (and you) out of hand.

And that’s a shame. To be fruitful in the long run, our public debates over educational issues like assessment, college readiness, the Common Core, online learning, student loans, corporatization, adjunctification, state funding, guns on campus, and tenure must include more faculty voices from community colleges. Those colleges are where, if you’ll forgive the cliché, the rubber meets the road. We serve students who most need financial aid, who are least likely to complete a degree, who work the most hours, who need tutoring services the most, who have the least family support, and who have suffered most from poor secondary education.

At many large universities, tenured faculty members rarely interact with first-year students. But at a two-year college, that is the main work that tenured faculty members do. In the five courses I’m teaching this semester, I have about 125 students, and 80 percent of them are first-years. Almost half of those freshmen are actually still in high school. Nearly all of my advisees are in their first or second semesters of college.

And I’m not unusual in that. Regarding many of those pressing issues I listed, we might have more firsthand knowledge than any other group of educators in higher education. At the least, we are in a position to provide insights that could help shape public understanding, insights that legislators and policy makers, not to mention our colleagues at four-year institutions, would do well to heed.

Unfortunately, most community-­college professors probably won’t offer their insights in a public way. They don’t have time. They don’t want to rock the boat. They don’t want to bring the administration down on their heads, or face their colleagues’ resentment, or risk being laughed at because, after all, they teach at a community college.

And that is more than a shame. It’s a tragedy, not just for community colleges, but for the nation.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College and the author of Building a Career in America’s Community Colleges. He writes monthly for The Chronicle’s community-­college column and blogs for Vitae. The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @HigherEdSpeak.