Does Texas Higher Education Have a Morale Problem?

When Chancellor Bruce Leslie implemented a new progressive discipline procedure for tenured faculty at San Antonio’s Alamo Colleges in August, it was not well received.

Among the unacceptable behavior listed: “loitering and loafing during work hours” and “disrespectful attitude towards a supervisor such as back-talk or ‘grumbling.’”

“I hate to say this,” said Dawn Elmore-McCrary, an English professor at San Antonio College and chairwoman of the faculty senate, “but there was some grumbling about the language.”

Faculty did not disagree with the sentiment that they should be held accountable, Elmore-McCrary insisted. Department chairs had been asking for a discipline policy for tenured faculty some time. It was the tone they found demeaning. “It sounded like you were dealing with people you didn’t consider to be on the same level as yourself professionally,” she said.

There has been much hand-wringing across Texas about changes being considered at the state’s flagship four-year institutions in response to a public perception that college and university faculty need to be more productive. Tuition at public institutions around the state has risen, and students are amassing significant debt. Yet graduation rates in the state remain low, causing some students, parents and the politicians who represent them — and control the state’s higher ed funding — to wonder if they’re getting their money’s worth from the faculty.

“Somebody’s just got to work harder,” Texas A&M University System regent Phil Adams said to a group of faculty at a meeting in May.

That sentiment has also been driving controversial policies at other higher education institutions, including community colleges, that have largely gone overlooked. Some worry that they changes are creating a significant statewide faculty morale problem with potentially serious consequences.

At the Alamo Colleges, Leslie has already agreed to tweak the policy and remove restrictions on “back talk” and “grumbling.” Some say that “loitering” and “loafing” should go, too. As Mary Aldridge Dean, executive director of the Texas Faculty Association, said, “How do you know it’s loafing and not thinking?”

Dean travels the state visiting with members of her organization. She says that, increasingly, she hears frustration. Some recently suffered pay cuts as high as 30 percent without warning. Those getting close to retirement are virtually counting down the days.

In May, Renee Rubin retired from her tenured faculty position at the University of Texas at Brownsville at the relatively young age of 56. While her decision was for personal reasons as well as professional, she said the job had become more unpleasant. Moves are being made around the state, she said, with an eye on making universities “more like a manufacturing business.”

“Nobody’s going to cry for the poor faculty,” she said, “but what’s important is the impact it has on students.”

As professors are called on to teach more classes with more students, she said, they have to give simpler assignments with less personalized assessment. As they are asked to get more of those students through the system faster, some faculty worry about declining quality and rigor.

“I think a lot of faculty feel that higher education is not being appreciated for what many of them feel like it should be,” said Rubin.

Rubin, whose annual salary was just more than $59,000, said that many people engaged in the higher education reform discussion assume all professors are compensated like those at the relatively well-heeled flagship institutions. At smaller institutions with less of a research-driven mission, salaries tend to be lower, as does the amount of administrative support.

Dean said many professors enter the academic field knowing they could make more in the private sector. “They’re doing this because they like doing it. They like being with students. And now they’re being trashed for it,” she said.

For Dean, some of the changes schools are implementing just make no sense. For example, Houston Community College recently changed contracts for professors who intend to teach a summer course in addition to the standard academic year. While they previously signed nine-month contracts and then signed onto another stint in the summer, they now sign a 10.5-month contract. Some are scratching their heads, because it seems they will be forced to work for three weeks between the spring and summer sessions when students aren’t in classes.

Cary Wintz, a distinguished professor of history at Texas Southern University professor and a TFA board member, traces the roots of such policies to long before the recent push for productivity measures. It stems, he said, from a trend to train people specifically to be administrators, creating a professional class of higher education managers who have little or no teaching experience.

A spokesman for HCC, meanwhile, said the contract change was one of many cost-saving measures made in preparation for the state’s budget slashing. The college also reduced the marketing budget and expenses for supplies and increased the average class size. The new contracts, which the school calls “simpler and more straightforward,” will save about $3 million per year.

But Dean worries the savings pale in comparison to the cost if star faculty — those who would never loaf or loiter — leave for schools with more faculty-friendly policies in other states or give up teaching in general. “They’re all talking about getting out,” she said. “You’re getting ready to lose a lot of people you don’t want to lose.”

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