Community Colleges in the AAUP

The AAUP belongs everywhere.
By Paul Davis

During my almost thirty years as a professor at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, I have witnessed extraordinary changes. When I began this journey, my institution was a technical college with a mission to teach students who were primarily interested in earning terminal technical degrees to get a job. Our students came from diverse backgrounds and all walks of life. We had recent high school graduates as well as much older students looking for opportunities to be retrained. We were good at fulfilling our mission—so good that the Wall Street Journal and ABC News did features on how successful our graduates were. But there came a point when everything changed. The community needed much more than a technical college.

Every community should have a place where students who need help with basic skills—reading, writing, and math—can go for instruction and, eventually, earn associate’s degrees. Colleges such as ours were pretty adept at meeting this need, and these students had nowhere else to go. Universities, for the most part, were not interested in students seeking two-year technical degrees. Nor did they have a mission to serve students who struggled with basic educational skills. Teaching skills that students should have learned in K–12 settings is expensive, especially if the state is not subsidizing colleges that offer these classes.

The next round of changes came during the latter part of the 1990s. As state funding for public universities and four-year colleges dropped and tuition began to skyrocket, and as financial aid became harder for low-income, first-generation, and many other students to find, growing numbers could not afford to attend four-year institutions. These developments led to the emergence of a new concept: community colleges were increasingly seen as less-costly places where people of all ages could go to complete two years of college before transferring to four-year institutions as juniors.

Roles of Community Colleges

Community colleges today still serve students who are seeking terminal technical degrees. These graduates can be found everywhere. We find them in many health-care fields and in well-paying civil and mechanical engineering careers. Alumni of community colleges work in the hospitality professions. Graduates of community colleges are often fixing and servicing our automobiles. Community college faculty teach many individuals who need basic educational skills just to reach the point of being a college student. Many of our students go on to earn degrees from universities and colleges across the United States. I am proud of every student who has crossed my path over the years. I would not trade my career for any other, but I am deeply concerned about the future of community colleges in this country.

For all of the great work that we do, what a community college faculty member does for a living is not appreciated. The first problem is identifying where we fit in the college model. Full-time faculty members at Cincinnati State have been part of the AAUP for more than twenty-five years. During this time, our AAUP chapter has fought hard for shared governance, academic freedom, and tenure. The Cincinnati State chapter has been true to AAUP principles, but it is extremely difficult for a community college faculty group to carry on this fight. Most community college faculty members have very little, if any, opportunity to form an AAUP collective bargaining chapter. In the past, the AAUP has been reluctant to organize community college chapters: either the college was seen as too small to warrant spending much-needed AAUP resources on organizing or, sadly, AAUP leaders saw community college faculty as akin to K–12 teachers rather than as colleagues in higher education.

As a result, many community college faculty interested in unionization have not had an obvious choice of labor organization with which to affiliate. The benefits and core academic rights derived from AAUP principles that I have enjoyed have resulted from my chapter’s affiliation with the AAUP; too few of my colleagues at other two-year institutions are as lucky. Unfortunately, many of these colleagues are now facing careers in which they lack opportunities for participation in governance, have no annual contracts, and receive poor benefits.

It has been my mission since I became part of the AAUP leadership to help as many of my fellow community college faculty members as I can, and the current AAUP leadership shares that goal. I hope that the AAUP’s strong support for community college faculty will continue throughout the organization’s second century.

Persistent Challenges

If the problems described above were the only ones that community colleges faced, it might be possible to solve them by organizing and training current and future faculty members. But there is a deeper problem: What is our mission supposed to be? It is difficult to be all things to all of our stakeholders. It is impossible without adequate funding. Like all public colleges and universities, community colleges have seen their state subsidies slashed in recent years, and it remains unclear—almost impossible—to envision how our institutions could raise the money they need. Most community colleges have small donor bases and, for all of the rhetoric about the importance of community colleges to the success of the economy, large contributions from business and industry are rare. As at four-year institutions, the choices made by some administrations have only exacerbated the problem. Too many resources are diverted to new upper-level administrative positions, athletics, and expensive building projects.

These decisions have contributed to an inability to provide decent salaries and benefits to community college faculty members, to too much dependence on adjunct faculty members who are poorly paid, and to a dependence on outside funding and proprietary companies to sustain the vitally important community college mission.

Every community, whether rural or urban, needs a community college, but for students to succeed, community college faculty must be able to participate in the governance of their institutions. We need academic freedom, a pathway to tenure, and just salaries and fair benefits.

You may have noticed that I have not addressed President Barack Obama’s recent proposal for free tuition for all community college students. Like the GI Bill, free tuition at community colleges could provide an outstanding opportunity for our students, but the devil will be in the details. Who would finance this plan and what would be expected from our students and our faculty in exchange? Issues like these need to be addressed. If the plan goes forward, I hope the individuals developing the legislation will allow community college faculty members, the individuals on the front lines, to play a major role in determining how this plan will work. Community colleges and their faculty are an important part of the higher education system, and they become more significant every year. They need to be recognized by everyone for the role they play in making our higher education system the greatest in the world.

They need to be—and will be—an important part of the AAUP over the coming century. 

Paul Davis has been a professor at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College since 1987. He is currently vice chair of the AAUP Collective Bargaining Congress and a member of the board of directors of the AAUP Foundation. His e-mail address is paul.davis