Free (Or Fettered) to Teach at the Community College?

BY STEVE MUMME

The academic freedom wars rage across the country as professors debate trigger warnings, hostile environments, bullying eradication, and multiple other sins infringing on academic speech.   The discerning reader will surely have noticed that most of this discourse is located on university campuses, not community colleges. There’s a reason for that.

As we at the Colorado Conference of the American Association of University Professors have observed first hand our community college faculty are increasingly muzzled in the place it matters most, the classroom. The causes are various but rarely entail Title IX abuses, or bullying, or other discretionary judgment by individual faculty or administrators.  They are, arguably, more structural than that, a result of the rising number of adjunct faculty delivering classroom and online instruction, this coupled to greater centralized curricular decision-making, administrative indifference, and a lack of due process in personnel matters.

To appreciate the threat these combined forces present to the academic freedom of community college faculty it is useful to frame current trends in the language of the AAUP’s 2012 rather pithy but pointed Statement on the Freedom to Teach.  It says,

The freedom to teach includes the right of the faculty to select the materials, determine the approach to the subject, make the assignments, and assess student academic performance … without having their decisions subject to the veto of a department chair, dean, or other administrative officer. In a multisection course taught by several faculty members, responsibility is often shared… [for assigned texts and syllabi] …but [common standards]should not be imposed by departmental or administrative fiat.

By this standard a rapidly diminishing number of adjunct professors in Colorado now enjoy the freedom to teach.   Adjuncts comprise 77 percent of the community college teaching staff at the Colorado Community College System, a sprawling entity that oversees 13 institutions across the state.   They are nearly as many at the few colleges outside the system.

Just a few years back one could argue that temporary faculty had a semblance of academic freedom.  They rarely were brought into textbook decisions but baring that shortfall had some discretion in course design, syllabus construction, and determination of assignments.  Today that discretion is waning.  If trends continue it may soon be easier to find a rare fossil at Dinosaur National Monument that an original syllabus at the Community College of Aurora.

The proximate causes of this deterioration in pedagogy are located in the contemporary drive to enhance access, retention, and graduation rates at state community colleges, an initiative linked to a decades old effort to guarantee credit transfers and establish reliable pathways linking community college students to a four year degree at Colorado universities.    The state’s Guaranteed Transfer-Pathways protocol, offspring of the national pathways movement, is in its motives reasonable.   Unfortunately, it also endows administrators with a tool and incentives to harmonize syllabi and course requirements within and across institutions.

Convinced that GT-Pathways justifies blanket equivalence in course Design and Delivery, with mandates in hand to strive for unprecedented levels of vocational achievement and transfer performance,  administrators are stripping away any semblance of faculty discretion in the double DD’s, usually with little to no consultation with the adjunct instructors contracted for the course.

Templates are imposed and adjuncts comply, or else!  Any concerns with mediocrity, dumbing down of content, or low expectations bigotry may justify an instructor’s dismissal. And God help any adjunct with the audacity to write a letter of complaint to an external authority.   That is an intolerable dereliction of duty.

Fortunately some adjuncts are risking their jobs to question these new mandates.  But absent recourse to mediation or grievance procedures, available only to Colorado’s adjuncts for civil rights violations, they raise these issues at their peril.  Full time faculty, the New Teaching Minority on campus, have some protection but lacking professional tenure are also at risk when challenging administrators.

Colorado’s situation may be particularly dire but these same trends are evident in neighboring and states beyond. Indeed they are actively promoted by the Association of American Community Colleges, the Gates Foundation, and other would be pedagogical reforms willing to sacrifice educational quality for retention and graduation rates.  Absent the freedom to teach it is not much an exaggeration to suppose our national community college curriculum is headed for a league on par with technical institutes in Russia, China, and Iran.

There is a solution.   Community colleges could review the AAUP guidelines and pursue a degree of curricular harmonization and pathway promotion by engaging full and part-time faculty in the designs, allowing individual instructors to tailor syllabi and set standards of evaluation and achievement exceeding the minima now in force.  Could that impact student achievement?  Certainly, but largely in the positive by validating learning quality and ensuring achievements commensurate with expectations at four year institutions where the freedom to teach still exists.  If such reforms are to be effective, adjuncts also need access to due process protections against arbitrary dismissal.

The challenge today for community colleges, pressed as they are to grant access to ever greater numbers of students, is how to meet that demand while sustaining the quality of classroom and online instruction.  That cannot be done by curtailing the freedom to teach.   Nor can it be done by denying adjuncts due process.  In Colorado no less than any other state, the failure to honor academic freedom is degrading, of curriculum and faculty alike.   That’s no credible platform on which to craft a promise of higher education for all.

Steve Mumme

Co-President, AAUP Colorado Conference

 

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