Too Many Poor Leaders

It’s not just careerist presidents who are weakening community colleges. It’s apathetic faculty members, too.

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August 18, 2014

Just how much control do faculty members at community colleges have over their work circumstances or the decisions made in their name?

I began this series of columns last month with a broad look at the challenges facing today’s two-year colleges. This month I want to focus on the issue of faculty control (or lack thereof), because it speaks to one of our most significant challenges in the community-college sector—a crisis of leadership at all levels, from the president’s office all the way down to the tenure-track faculty. That crisis manifests itself in the failure of shared governance, the questionable decisions of careerist executives, and the rising influence of corporate America on two-year campuses.

The failure of shared governance. In discussing poor leadership, I have no intention of letting faculty members off the hook. In fact, I believe they—OK, we—may be primarily to blame for the sorry predicament that so many of our colleges now find themselves in. (If you’re not sure what I mean by "sorry predicament," just Google "community college scandal.") As the French philosopher Joseph de Maistre famously observed, people generally get the kind of government they deserve, and that’s no less true on a college campus than it is in the world’s capitals.

Speaking as someone who has worked at five two-year colleges, visited dozens, and talked with colleagues at scores of others, I can honestly say that I’ve never known even one campus that had what I would consider true shared governance. Some aim for that, to be sure. My own college has, at times, made real strides in that direction. But in my experience, most two-year colleges are either faking it—that is, they have something they call shared governance that really isn’t—or else they ignore the concept altogether.

There are many reasons for that, as my colleague Beth Jensen and I wrote in an article for Academe magazine a few years ago. Two-year colleges, more than any other type of higher-education institution, tend to be very "top down," with strong, autocratic leaders and strict chains of command. In some parts of the country, they are run much like secondary schools, and faculty members have very little say in the administration’s decisions.

That said, at many two-year colleges, shared governance is absent simply because faculty members do not insist on being part of the decision-making process. They might complain about being treated like high-school teachers, or might resent it on some level, but in the end they appear to accept the status quo and do nothing to change it. Perhaps some leader has them thoroughly cowed. Or maybe they’ve just become complacent, content with their salaries and benefits and unwilling to upset the apple cart.

Whatever their motivation, they have essentially abdicated their responsibility as faculty members to share in the governance of the college. As Beth and I noted, several conditions must exist in order for an institution to boast anything resembling true shared governance, and one of them is faculty participation: "Shared governance … requires a willing faculty every bit as much as a willing administration. It entails hours spent on committees, poring over reams of documents, most of which aren’t particularly interesting. It means having the courage to express unpopular points of view—and the intellectual rigor to back up those opinions with facts. It means working late nights and early mornings and sometimes even on weekends. No amount of willingness on the part of the administration can produce real shared governance unless the faculty is also willing to share the burden and responsibility of governing."

Too many faculty members are unwilling to accept that responsibility. Others may be willing but are hesitant to go up against an administration uninterested in sharing power. In either case, the result is that decision-making is too often limited to a few people, some of whom are corrupt, many of whom are self-aggrandizing, and most of whom simply don’t have enough information or expertise to make all of these decisions wisely.

If you wonder why so many two-year colleges seem to exhibit a kind of institutional attention-deficit disorder, always chasing after this educational fad or that "new initiative," the explanation can be found in the failure of faculty to lead collectively. We could rein in the administration’s ADD tendency and keep the focus where it ought to be, on teaching, if we took the initiative to lead.

Careerist presidents. Another problem is that academe isn’t producing enough leaders—specifically, presidents—from within the ranks of two-year colleges.

Research institutions, it seems to me, mostly get this right. To become president of a major research university, you usually must have an impressive record of scholarship in addition to administrative experience (the recent trend toward hiring former politicos notwithstanding). Why, then, shouldn’t the chief executive of a teaching institution be someone with many years of successful teaching experience? After all, it seems to me, it would be easier for longtime faculty members to learn all they need to know about finance, public relations, and so forth than it would be for a career administrator to come to understand what it takes to be a good teacher.

Instead, more and more community-college presidents these days seem to be people who, if they ever taught at all (and many of them never did) grabbed hold of the administrative ladder at the first opportunity and began working their way up. An alarming number of them aren’t even qualified to teach, having earned their advanced degrees in subjects we don’t offer, like "community-college leadership." They earn those degrees not to expand their knowledge or improve their teaching, but purely to qualify themselves for upper-level administration.

Hence the credentialed class, whose training and education prepare them for just one job: community-college president. They are, practically by definition, careerists, jumping from campus to campus, always in search of a more influential position, a larger budget, a bigger paycheck. They make decisions based not on what’s best for faculty, or even what’s best for students, but what’s best for them and their careers. That’s simply the way the game is played at that level.

Careerist presidents are slowly destroying our two-year institutions. They take the job and immediately start draining the college’s resources and sapping faculty morale by pursuing ill-conceived programs or mandates, all in an attempt to enhance their own résumés. They move on to the next job before the consequences of their decisions can affect their job projects, but not before they affect the rest of us.

I’m not sure how we can fix this. My objective in this series is to point out challenges, not necessarily offer solutions. But I think it would be a good start if more experienced, qualified faculty members who love teaching and love their institutions would put themselves forward for administrative positions, and if the rest of the faculty would refuse to accept a president who hadn’t spent at least 10 years in the classroom.

Corporatization and corporatism. Along with careerist presidents, trained not as academics but as executives, comes the increasing corporatization of our campuses.

As I noted in an "On Hiring" blog post last month, I’m not anticorporation. No doubt colleges can learn a great deal from responsible corporations about things like fiscal management, marketing, and public relations. The problem is that corporations exist primarily to serve their own interests—to make a profit by giving customers what they want. Colleges exist to serve the public good by giving students what they need, whether or not they want it or even know they need it.

When colleges behave like for-profit corporations, making decisions based primarily on the bottom line and treating students like "customers" (who are, of course, always right), the educational enterprise invariably suffers. We fail at our responsibility to serve the public good.

An even bigger challenge that I see is corporatism—the idea that our entire educational system exists primarily to serve the needs of large corporations. It appears to me that influential corporatists in the private sector, government, and the media have drawn a bead on two-year colleges in particular, advancing the narrative that our primary mission is "work-force development," by which they mean producing highly trained but mostly intellectually incurious worker bees for the corporate hives.

The corporatists are also the ones who keep insisting that two-year colleges can educate students more "efficiently" by steering the majority of them into online courses and MOOCs. Faculty members understand that while some students do just fine in a virtual environment, many others don’t—and that’s especially true at community colleges, which, serve those students who are already least likely to succeed.

Allowing the corporatists to dictate how our students learn will inevitably produce even more economic stratification, as wealthy students at elite institutions enjoy a highly personalized education, preparing them for leadership roles, while community-college students receive their "job training" via increasingly depersonalized "delivery methods."

For the record: I have nothing against preparing students for good jobs. That is certainly one of our roles at two-year colleges. I just don’t believe it’s our only role, or even the most important one. Surely we are in the education business, first and foremost, and in the job-training business only secondarily.

Unfortunately, we can’t count on careerist presidents to help us respond to this particular challenge, since they’re mostly on board with the corporatist agenda, whether they realize it or not. The only remedy is for tenured and tenure-track faculty members to accept their share of the responsibility for leading their institutions.

The only thing that can stem the corporatist tide is a strong shared-governance model. The fact that the tide threatens to sweep us all away is proof enough that shared governance in our two-year colleges has failed miserably.

Next month: A discussion of the challenges related to adjunctification, competition, and technology.

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