Tuesday, September 20, 2005

 

Mission Creep and Job Satisfaction

A big Thank You to Academic Coach for calling my attention to a new study that shows that community college professors, statistically, are more likely to be satisfied with their jobs than are professors at four-year schools.

Honestly, I think community colleges are the best-kept secret in American higher education. We’re so far below the prestige radar that we don’t even merit mention in most popular discussions of higher ed. The media are consumed with the Ivies and the top ten state universities, as are the disciplinary associations. Community colleges (or, my pet peeve, “junior” colleges) are treated, when at all, as the red-headed stepchildren of academe.

Yet we enroll more students than every other sector of higher education, combined.

Our students are more likely than others’ to be female, over 21, minority, working full-time, first generation college students, and from struggling high schools. A surprising number of our students are immigrants themselves, often brand new.

Faculty at cc’s teach more credits per year than their colleagues anywhere else except the proprietaries. That said, they’re more satisfied with their jobs.

Clarity of mission is the key. I would guess that faculty are happiest at the top research schools and the cc’s, and least happy at those schools stuck in the middle that can’t decide what they want to be. Top research schools know their mission, and follow it either aggressively or ruthlessly. Publish, bring in grant money, or get out. If you’re a research machine, you will be happy there; if not, you won’t. On the flip side, cc’s know our mission, and follow it clearly. Teach a lot, and well, and you’ll be valued.* Research is nice, but it’s not the focus; sports are fun, but they’re not the focus. I heard a speaker once describe the students who attend cc’s as falling into three categories: those who need a first chance, those who need a second chance, and those who need a last chance. That’s about right.

The schools in between (i.e. if the name ends in “State,” or has a compass direction in it) often want both, and resolve the contradiction by demanding that their faculty, like Mary Poppins, be practically perfect in every way. That’s insane. Most of these schools started as teachers’ colleges – a perfectly worthwhile mission – and gradually grew in whatever direction seemed to make sense at the time. Mission creep, driven by politics, fashion, and funding, set in, and the near-impossibility of actually eliminating programs meant that change was usually additive, rather than transformative. Got an idea for a new program? Just glom it on. Over decades, the underlying shape gets harder to discern, and the add-ons make governance clunkier. Since these schools can’t attain excellence by focusing their resources, which would require actually saying ‘no’ to some programs, they try to get there by just raising the bar for tenure higher and higher, while cutting professional development money and stuffing class sections ever fuller. Let the faculty figure it out. Do more with less. Seek efficiencies. Form public-private partnerships. Charge faculty for parking.

We aren’t immune to mission creep; some community colleges have started awarding four-year degrees. The appeal is obvious: keep the students enrolled longer, get the tuitions, get the prestige, etc. Mine doesn’t do that, and I’m glad it doesn’t. Doing our core mission well (which we do, I think) is HARD. Let’s not muddy the waters. Keep it simple, stupid. Let the rest of higher ed worry about the upper-level courses, graduate education, and the like; we’re happy teaching the intro courses (and, yes, the remedial courses), acclimating people to academic life, and having time to spend with our kids when we get home. If you aren’t a research machine, and prefer a balanced and happy life to a chaotic stress festival, you could do a lot worse than a cc.

Your thoughts?

* The shift towards a permanent, heavy adjunct presence in the faculty violates this mission, and for that reason (among others) strikes me as a slow-acting poison. If we, of all places, don’t value teaching, then it’s not clear to me why we exist.

Comments:
It's very hard for me to imagine, from my Canadian location, what it would be like to teach in a 2-year college in the States. We have colleges here, but they have no academic focus -- or rarely do outside of BC. That is, they are usually vocational and teach either media, nursing, social work or policing. Many of those who graduate from those programmes are findign now that accreditation in their fields will require moving up to university education later, or face demotion and stagnation.

In BC, the colleges are now becoming "University Colleges" and are beginning to offer 4-yr degrees. I think this has to do with attempting to offer university education to people who would otherwise not be able to because they cannot afford to move for 4 years to a large urban centre. So the mandate is different from, say, just trying to maximise efficiencies.

In Canada, depending on whom you ask, peolpe will say there are between 3 and 7 major research universities, and all others are what you might call "2nd tier" in the US. I work at a 2nd tier. I began my career at the UofT, which is probably *the* university that most people outside Canada think of when they think we have universities at all. I can't tell you! Every conference I ever went to in the US, I was asked if I had graduated from the UofT, and similar was true when I travelled in the UK.

Anyway, I was *miserable* at the UofT. Love the buildings. Hate the institutional culture. Really wanted the students to get over themselves.

But I am still very attracted to the majors out West.

For now, hwever, I am in one of those schools that is trying to do it all. We are developing more and more grad programmes. Research is valued very highly. WE are also expected to be brilliant teachers. (Unless we are senior ranks; then, we can be lazy at everything and still insist that we be treated as kings).

Thing is, I like the double-demand. I love the classroom and think it's crucial, but at a certain point, I want to go away to think about big things all by myself. This 'double-duty' school allows that to happen.

It has many of the frustrations about idenitity that ou mention in your post, but a recent demand for departments to really assess our strengths and hire accordingly has made ours a very good department in which to reside.

We have reasonable opportunities to secure internal funding, and there are good deals for research time off. (I can't tell you specifics, or I'd give away the inst).

I think I'm pretty happy. I just wish that the push on teaching development centres didn't come with a discourse of validating their existence by insisting that profs are all badly damamged people with poor communication skills who are basically incompetent. Yes, we've all known a few who were... but I am afraid that these teaching developers are going to make it so that after 12+ years of schooling, would-be profs are goingto have to then go to Teacher's Colleges as well.

Well, I never wanted to be a *teacher*. I wanted to be a thinker who shaed ideas with other thinkers. My experience of 16 different public schools in 2 countries was that Teacher's College had not helped the vast majority to be good teachers.

The irony here? Spouse is a teaching developer. But... he's on the good side of the force, always reminding the other developers that we aren't here to play nurse-maid to the lazy, inadeuately prepared beer-chugging crowd. I like to think I keep him honest.

Unfortunately, a lot of universities seem to want to become high-schools, so I am worried about that kind of role conflict with the research mandate.
 
You raise a good point. The balancing act of trying to be all things can be invigorating, when it's done with enough resources, intelligent management, and a self-directed but forward-thinking faculty. The problem is that a golden combination like that is rare and hard to sustain, and if any one of those components is missing, the imbalances quickly mount.
 
I *heart* the Community College where I taught this year! (That's why I gave it the acronym VNSCC, which stands for Very Nice State Community College.) I taught there one semester and I feel like I learned more and was valued more there than at the private university where I spent my undergrad and grad years before becoming an adjunct there.

I have a lot of respect for CC students. They're not snobby 17- and 18-year-olds whose mommies and daddies are paying for their tuition, apartment, and Lexus. These guys are the ones who gave "the real world" a try before doing the college thing. They're paying for it themselves. They're working full time and often raising a family. They do it one course at a time, and they get it done, even if they have to do it one course at a time.

Actually, I felt the "imposter syndrome" kick in a lot while I was there. Almost all of the students were older than me, and had a lot more life experience than I did. But I think that inspired me to perform better, as I wanted that course to be worth their while. I wanted the course to be interesting after a long day of working, I wanted it to be flexible to fit their busy schedules, and I wanted it to be rigorous enough for them to get something out of it. And I think I succeeded most of the time.

One of my high points in the semester was when I was evaluated by one of the senior faculty, who offered me a chance to teach the next course in the sequence. I was sad to turn it down, but I know I will get back into the CC system as soon as I return from England.

My VNSCC is part of a statewide Community College system (the programs are standardized so students can take courses at multiple CCs), and quite a few of the SNEPU adjuncts also adjunct at one of those CCs. Whenever I find out that one of my fellow SNEPU adjuncts is also teaching at a CC, it's like we have this great bond--we start ranting and raving about how great the CC is. It's awesome.
 
Everything you say about State-School-with-Direction is spot on (says the girl who works at such an institution). RCU is better than most as far as this goes, which I think is because it's a relatively young university, but I'm really afraid of what will happen should we lose our focus about what we want. Part of the problem is that certain disciplines here want to be more research oriented, while the administration is all about service to the community. What those who want to be research-oriented seem to fail to realize is that if we make the research requirements higher, our service and teaching requirements are NOT going to decrease. Also, there's a real lack of understanding about the differences between research in different disciplines (says the girl in the humanities, where papers are not-co-authored and getting published in a peer-reviewed journal isn't exactly easy as pie).

At any rate, as I said, RCU has pretty realistic expectations for faculty right now, but I wonder what the future holds, and what you wrote about is exactly the problem.
 
Oops! I meant to say, "They do it one course at a time, and they get it done, even if it takes ten years."
I also wanted to add that the only thing that I find tougher than teaching at a private university is the nature of their excuses. Private university students don't get assignments done because they were arrested/went to Florida for the weekend/their boyfriend came to visit. CC students don't get assignments done because they have business trips or they can't get a sitter for the kids. I feel sorry for the latter types of excuses, and sometimes I end up being a little too lenient.

But I can't complain. I still loved working at a Community College this past year.
 
You've nailed it, Dean Dad. I taught at Mission Creep U for many years. When I started, we were all told that MCU was going to be Research 1, that we should do the minimum of teaching and publish, publish, publish. Then we became "scholar-teachers," which meant that we still had to publish, only while teaching 50% more. Then we told that we all had to distance-teach. Then we returned to Mission #1. At the end of a ten-year period, everyone at MCU had been told at one point or another that what s/he was doing was worthless. Once we were back to Stage 1 again, I managed to get out.
 
Clarity is sadly undervalued. My own institution has struggled with mission creep over the past few years and I'm not too impressed by some of the grand visions people lob about. It seems a lot like the Emperor's New Clothes to these jaded eyes.

Anyway, I'm glad to read that you have such a good sense of institutional culture -- it gives me hope that we might find someone with similar values during this year's decanal search. You don't happen to be fluently bilingual in French and English, do you?
 
Ancarett -- Thanks, and Canada is more tempting to me than you might know, but my French just won't cut it. Good luck on the search!

Bushpigeon -- Loved the name 'Mission Creep U'! Do you mind if I steal it?

Adjunct Kait -- I hear ya on the imposter thing. As a thirtysomething dean, it's part of daily life. The only way around it is through it, imho.
 
Sure--I stole it from you, after all!
 
Thank You Thank You Thank You Thank You! Your blog has convinced me I've been in the wrong racket. In the last two years especially I've wondered why my students are so dramatically different from when I was a student, and from when I adjuncted at a community college while earning my Ph.D. Now I know.

I've been teaching at private universityhighschool hell for 10 years and am fed up with the attitude of both students and administrators. I'm out and looking forward to again adjunct at a community college, unless I can get on full time.

The last private school I was at had a continuing ed division with open enrollment. I taught a few classes in that division and found the students, by and large, to be more determined to succeed through hard work, more realistic in their expectations for the workload of a college class, and genuinely interested in obtaining an education. These are the same qualities I've seen in the majority of community college students.

And the administration at private uhigh couldn't make up its mind on what the school should be. Every year we added more minors, which turned into majors, which led to new courses for which there were no faculty. So many choices that students had no idea what to take, or in what order. I taught three disctinct courses with no sequence such that every semester some students had the basics and were ready for advance material while others did not. So every course became repetitive.

Frustrating for me and for students. But administration insisted all three courses should be taught anytime students wanted to take them, or nearly every semester. Quite the circus.
 
DD,

Thanks for the expansive follow-up. Great comments as well...

mission-creep --- I love it!
 
This makes tons of sense to me - it's why I always felt I'd be happy with a small liberal arts college, OR a big famous R1, but not much inbetween because of the mission creep. SLACs have their own problems - there is often a demand for great research at the same time that you are expected to be an excellent teacher - but the mission is quite clear. I think some SLACs face financial pressures to expand/alter that mission in a more money-making direction, but thankfully, my school isn't facing that.
 
Hate to sound like a me-too, but here's another vote for the returning students.

I have several years of teaching experience with a college that specializes in returning students looking for a four-year degree. Most of my students were my age or substantially older, with management positions and families. Most hadn't taken any science course in 15-20 years. But they were enthusiastic debaters, diligent students, and a heck of a lot of fun to teach.

After a recent promotion, I am now teaching a class of entering graduate students in my department. We're three weeks into the semester now. This week, I had one of my students inform me that he shouldn't be expected to complete an assignment at the scheduled time, because he's still "acclimating". He has a fellowship, so he isn't even working (as most of the other grad students do). My department administrator is still shaking her head about it, two days later.

I don't suppose I could recruit some of my old students into the graduate program...
 
Just to go in a different direction, I thought that in most places there was a difference between "junior" and "community" colleges in that junior colleges often offer residence halls and perhaps fewer vocational programs than do community college.
 
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