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Institutional Change We Can Believe In

by Lee Maltby, MSW, Dean of Instruction, St. Augustine College, Chicago (with thanks to Amanda K.)

I am a dean at a small private college in Chicago. We are an Hispanic-serving institution not quite thirty years young. I arrived eleven years ago as a social worker who had no experience in academia except as a student. I showed up at the main campus with the proper credentials, a working ability in Spanish, and some knowledge of the Hispanic community. I had ideas about how faculty should serve the students and institution, as well as how faculty should be treated by the institution. What I discovered was that my ideas about academic freedom and the roles of faculty had little basis in reality. This is a cautionary tale that describes my experience of how things have changed at the institution where I serve, and how important it is for faculty to uphold their place in the academy.

My initial shock came the very first day, when I was told that I had to punch in and punch out when I came to work. It had never occurred to me to even ask! A time clock?! The second report (like a gunshot) was when I discovered that full-time faculty were expected to teach five courses a semester—and each course was four credit hours! The third blow—that faculty were given annual contracts. The fourth—the faculty were a group who in too many cases lacked a sense of professional identity, voice, and power.

Yet, as a department chair (yes, chair!) I had a little more freedom to operate, but all the conditions above applied to me except for the teaching load. Six months later after a visit from the Higher Learning Commission (for which I was totally unprepared), the financial house of cards tumbled down. An acting president was appointed, and we went into survival mode, trying to operate with few resources and many doubts about the future.

During the time of the interim president, I wrote the draft of a faculty manual (since revised, of course). In 2004 I joined the AAUP, attended the summer institute, and later went to Washington DC for my first annual meeting. I became the secretary for the Illinois conference. The interim president approved the draft of the manual as a means to upgrade the status of full-time faculty. In the approved draft, adjustments were made in the teaching requirements. Professional development was to be required. Faculty were expected to serve the students, college, or community in some way. Not wishing to go with a no-start position, I drafted a proposal for multi-year contracts as a compromise between a tenure system and an outrageous and potentially abusive system of annual contracts (and don’t even think about sabbaticals).

A couple of years later—we had a new president. I was a little smarter, and steps had been taken toward accrediting the BSW program of which I was in charge. Two full-time faculty had been hired, adjustments were made in their job descriptions, the time clock was long gone, and I was hopeful that things would turn around. When the newly hired president was presented with the draft approved by her predecessor, she began to “work” on the faculty manual. The grass in my backyard grew faster than the pace at which this manual was being edited. We went nowhere.

Nowhere eventually led to a dead end. To our credit, the faculty managed a vote of no-confidence. The good news was that we had found our voice, common cause, and even a blog. But it was a calculated risk. If the faculty vote of no-confidence didn’t “take,” we could have all potentially been out of a job at the end of May that year. The stress took its toll on everyone.
2008—déjà vu! After a few more years of an interim president (same person as before!) we had a legitimate search for a new president. I was on the search committee. He is hired, and the faculty manual is approved in less time than it takes my son to cut the lawn (not quite, but you get the idea). Kudos to the president! Faculty workloads are still high, but we have more opportunities for creativity and participation in the life of the college and the community; we are to seek out professional development activities, and we have a better sense of what it means to be faculty. There are still a few whose “full potential is not realized,” but we are moving ahead.

Our participation in the governance of the institution is much improved at the departmental and college level, including several committees. Communication has improved both horizontally and vertically, including quarterly meetings with the president, faculty presence on the board, faculty council, etc. Yet we really have little to say about how the college budget is crafted, except to verbalize what we need (what some VP’s call “faculty whining”). And we can speak out, professionally of course, because we have an administration that has its head on straight, and faculty who know that they have the right and the responsibility to speak.

As the mission of our college is teaching, not research, academic freedom in the classroom primarily concerns courses in social sciences and humanities. But the faculty have a sense of how to exercise that freedom and we have not had any problems. No one here is talking about the Academic Bill of Rights and other such nonsense. We have seen our roles increase in the development of curriculum and assessment (boy have we!), and we are discussing and implementing policies related to student success.

As a young institution and one that is still growing in its understanding of what it means to be faculty, we are still getting our bearings. The organizational culture of those earlier decades stunted our growth. The original administration sought to control faculty through fear and suppression. Like any organism, we “connived” the system while suffering administrators whose methods were at times unfair and incoherent. How we managed to survive is an amazing feat, and I might add all the more remarkable considering the financial sandpit we seemed unable to escape.

Ultimately this is a tale of leadership, of how key individuals can persevere and make a difference in the life of an institution. Change is difficult, but we are growing. Enrollment has risen after several years of decline. I think that morale has never been this good among the full-time faculty (yet we do struggle with very large workloads). Our upcoming climate survey for full-time faculty (which includes several AAUP questions on governance) and our adjunct faculty survey should provide us with ideas to improve what has begun here. The naivete is gone, replaced with a much more realistic understanding of what it means to be faculty. Academic freedom is a fragile thing. It should not be taken for granted, even at institutions with collective bargaining. We are all at risk here. The academy needs leaders—at all levels.