As an advocate for two-year colleges and a member of the American Association of University Professors, I’ve been following the recent debate over tenure on these pages with great interest. No one has brought up community colleges yet, but I think it’s time to make them part of the discussion.
Some might argue that tenure isn’t necessary for faculty members at community colleges, because we aren’t generally involved in research. For that matter, many two-year colleges across the country (including some entire state systems) don’t even offer tenure, and others have recently tried to abolish it.
Obviously, many administrators and lawmakers are among those who don’t believe that tenure is important at two-year colleges. I disagree. I believe it is just as important for us as it is for faculty members at research-oriented universities, for a couple of reasons.
The first is collective. The principle that the faculty should have oversight of the curriculum and other academic matters is widely accepted (or at least paid lip-service to) throughout academe. It is just as true at community colleges, where faculty members, even if they’re not heavily engaged in research, are still the content experts and still have primary responsibility for making sure that what is taught meets students’ needs and is in their best interests academically.
That means faculty members must be free to speak out in department meetings, curriculum-committee meetings, general faculty meetings, and faculty senates. In doing so, we may well disagree with powerful administrators who have different priorities — enrollment growth, cost savings, personal advancement, political gamesmanship. At such times, the academic integrity of the institution depends largely on the collective willingness of faculty members to stand up for what they believe is right — and the only two things that can protect them when they do so are tenure and the goodwill of powerful administrators.
Personally, I know which of those two I would prefer to put my faith in.
The second reason that tenure is vital at two-year colleges has to do with the individual. In the classroom, every faculty member must be free to teach in the way that he or she believes is most effective. Within guidelines established by the faculty as a whole, we each must feel free to cover the topics and issues that seem relevant to us — without interference or censorship from the administration or the government. That is just as true at community colleges as at four-year colleges.
Moreover, sometimes individual faculty members must be willing to adopt, on principle, unpopular points of view or to question prevailing orthodoxies, whether in internal discussions or in public forums. And once again, tenure is the only thing that really protects faculty members who take such risks. But when the day comes that no individual faculty member is willing to speak out for fear of losing his or her job, then academic freedom has ceased to exist for all of us, whatever our institutional type.
I know that to some extent I’ve been preaching to the choir here, and that much of what I’ve said applies equally to four-year colleges. But it’s especially important that we advocate for tenure and academic freedom at two-year colleges, because that is the sector of American higher education where those concepts are currently most vulnerable.
I would like to see my colleagues at two-year colleges — who sometimes, quite frankly, tend to be a little complacent if not oblivious about these matters — become more engaged in the national debate. Tenure and academic freedom are under attack in many states, and we as community-college faculty members need to become more vigorous in the defense of those principles, by whatever means available. The future of our profession may depend on it.