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.