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Ending The Community College Stigma: A Response to Dr. Williams 4

(This is the final post in the series. In the last post, we ended by pointing out that higher education’s increased reliance on adjunct faculty has come under scholarly scrutiny. In this post, we talk about some of that scholarship. Click on these links to read posts one and two. If you’d like to read all four posts as a single essay, click here.)

Rationales for relying so heavily on adjunct faculty range from the need to keep the lights on and the doors open—ie, the challenge posed by the ever-shrinking budgets with which community colleges have no choice but to deal—to the claim that tenure, because of the job security it provides, makes full-time professors lazy and complacent. The research, however, does not bear this latter reasoning out. Indeed, at least one study has shown that the tenure system actually increases faculty commitment to and productivity within an institution—assuming that the institution is also organized to foster that kind of commitment and productivity. To put this another way, if only because we are not scrambling to cobble together a living by teaching at multiple institutions, often taking on more classes than we do as full-timers, we are better positioned than adjuncts to contribute to campus life in ways that directly and positively impact students.

Research has shown, for example, that full-time faculty are more involved with student learning, devoting more out-of-class hours to working with students than adjuncts do. Moreover, in a related example, in 2009, the Community College Survey of Student Engagementasked full- and part-time faculty with the same teaching loads how many hours per week they spent involved in various non-classroom activities (18-19). It’s a little confusing, because the survey reports the number of faculty who indicated they spent no time at all, but if you turn those numbers around, the results look like this:

  • 85% of full-time faculty (FT) vs. 60% of part-time faculty (PT) spend at least some time doing student advisement;
  • 50% FT vs. 18% PT spend some time with students on activities other than coursework; and
  • 78% FT vs. 53% PT are otherwise involved with students outside the classroom.

The disparity in these numbers is also borne out in Contingent Commitments: Bringing Part-Time Faculty Into a Focus, a 2014 special report put out by the Center for Community College Student Engagement, the same organization that performed the survey cited above.

Simple common sense tells us that any sustained and substantive faculty-student interaction is more likely than not to contribute to student success. Research suggests, however, that students actually do less well when most of their interactions are with adjuncts. In at least two studies, for example, an over-reliance on adjunct faculty was shown to harm community college graduation rates; other studies have found that increased exposure to adjunct faculty made community college students significantly less likely to transfer to a four-year school. Still other studies suggest that, when the majority of instruction is provided by adjuncts, student grades and certain kinds of student persistence can suffer as well.

All of these studies, we hasten to add, are careful to point out, as are we, that the deficits they identify reflect not on the disciplinary or pedagogical competence of adjunct faculty, but rather on the systemic inequities—low pay, lack of institutional support, and the absence of job security—inherent in an adjunct faculty position. Moreover, except for their shared conviction that sustained interaction with faculty is central to student success, none of the researchers whose work we have linked to present their findings as in any way conclusive. As good scholars must, they hedge and qualify, detailing the limitations of their studies and pointing out where further research is needed.

Nonetheless, the work these researchers have done should at the very least motivate us to reflect on whether the values driving community colleges’ reliance on adjuncts align with the educational values we say we hold. How, for example, is it not an inherent contradiction for community colleges to claim equity as one of our core values, while at the same time relying for the lion’s share of their teaching on the fundamentally inequitable treatment of adjunct faculty? Doesn’t behaving like a business that creates value for its customers by decreasing for its employees the value of working there demonstrate a fundamental commitment not to higher education as a public good, but rather to the exigencies and vicissitudes of the bottom line?

We have already acknowledged the socioeconomic and political realities with which institutions like ours must contend, and we recognize that questions like those above neither alter those realities nor provide practical strategies for dealing with them. Nonetheless, such questions do help highlight why it is problematic to conceive of the community college stigma primarily as a misunderstanding of the value proposition we offer: it accepts the premise of the bottom line as the defining value of the education our students come to us to claim. 

We are proud to be community college educators; we are proud to serve students who bring to us not only a wide range of needs, desires, and goals, but also an often bewildering range of obstacles to overcome; and we are proud of the way our classrooms and the services we offer so often become laboratories of innovation, pedagogical and otherwise, to help students address those obstacles so they can achieve what they come to us to achieve. Both in the lives they bring to us when they choose to attend NCC, in other words, and in the lives for which it is our job to help prepare them, our students are more than customers. Granted, they pay for and deserve an education that prepares them for the world of work they will eventually inhabit, but they also deserve an education that prepares them for their lives as citizens, in all the various ways that citizenship manifests itself.

To give them that education we need to help them learn that making and acquiring knowledge are neither entirely separable nor merely transactional activities; that the discipline through which intellectual curiosity becomes substantive, meaningful, and potentially transformative inquiry is a life skill, not one that is useful only to students and scholars at four-year institutions or of real value only in pursuit of a good grade or a job; and we need to help them see—to use a phrase that figures in our mission statement—that being a lifelong learner is not merely a matter of personal enrichment. It is also the foundation for informed participation in every aspect of their lives.

Whatever else it may be, in other words, a college education is also a kind of intellectual apprenticeship—a framing that, if we take it seriously, requires us not only to see our students as more than customers, but also our faculty as more than customer-service oriented facilitators of graduation/completion rates. After all, the masters from whom apprentices learn their trade do far more than teach the mechanics of that trade. They also provide the role models on which apprentices base their future lives in that trade. Getting a liberal arts education may not be precisely the same thing, but learning what it means to engage critically and proactively with the world around you is also not something you can do simply by taking tests and passing classes. You need role models, and that means having access to faculty whose work lives are organized such that they can provide the kind of sustained and substantive engagement that makes a strong role model strong.

Nassau Community College has always operated on the belief that students deserve that kind of education and that kind of faculty. We may not yet know the specifics of the vision Dr. Williams plans to lay out for us, but we believe that he agrees. The challenge before us is to make sure it is the kind of education we continue to deliver. We look forward to working with Dr. Williams to meet that challenge head on.

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