Dec. 2015 Advocate: Emphasis on efficiency hurts students, programs
Emphasis on efficiency hurts students, programs and the whole college
by Doniella Maher, Cañada AFT 1493 Executive Committee Rep.
At our Fall College flex day, much of the data shared with faculty and staff was meant to reassure faculty that the college was in a great place. The deep cuts that we experienced in classes during the recession were cast as a distant memory, and it was noted that property taxes are higher than ever. At Cañada, the focus of the day was on efficiency, the increased productivity of our college, and the possibility of what lies ahead.
Large number of classes cut, at earlier dates
Behind the hoopla was a much more disheartening reality. Across the college, a depressingly large number of both elective and, in some departments, core courses had been cut—and not for the first time. Such cuts have been happening increasingly earlier, before faculty and students have returned to campus. The much-lauded efficiency levels, which mainly refer to high fill rates, are the other side of cancelled classes.
The entire strategy regarding course offerings has changed dramatically over the last few years. Rather than starting with a higher number of course offerings and cutting classes when necessary, a smaller number of courses are offered with the assurance that more sections will be offered if needed. When additional sections are inevitably needed, deans and departments are left scrambling to find qualified instructors at the last minute. Often these last minute classes are added as online sections, since it is difficult to know what the overflow students’ availabilities are.
While I understand the desire to prevent last minute cancellations that are extremely difficult for students and faculty, the current system isn’t working either. With every section full, or nearly full, faculty experience increased pressure from students. In some cases, waitlists have been increased to give a better understanding of student enrollment patterns, but for faculty members, that transforms into 15 or 20 students on the waitlist and expecting to add along with anyone else who comes the first day. With few open sections, faculty also face fewer options to give to students, and sometimes nearly every course with open space is online.
Besides increasing faculty and student stress levels at the beginning of the semester, increased efficiency comes at a high cost to departments. At Cañada, smaller programs and electives in the humanities pay the highest price. Mechanical course cutting hurts programs, faculty, and students. When the first-level courses in a program are cancelled, a chain reaction begins that prevents students from completing course sequences necessary to their degrees and certificates. Because of this, students are unable to meet their goals. At Cañada, our students tell us that they have given up taking literature courses and other electives because they are so regularly cancelled. Increasingly, students look to other campuses and other districts to ensure that they will be able to register for the courses they need.
National trend emphasizes training over humanities
The experience at Cañada is, unfortunately, not unique. The neoliberal drive to transform community college education from an opportunity for a broad education and personal growth to a data-driven jobs training system can be seen across the nation. In addition, the recent focus on making students “transfer-ready” and regulations about repeatability have exacerbated the attacks on the humanities within all colleges. Austerity measures that began during the great recession are being continued under the guise of efficiency. According to Nancy Welch’s excellent article, “Educating for Austerity”, colleges are “cutting faculty, moving classes online, and shuttering departments of French, philosophy, and theater. They are erecting new athletic and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) complexes, and expanding not only the size and expense of their administrations but also their managerial power. What they are not doing is using that power to jettison core curricular requirements. Instead, administrations and governing boards increasingly insist on holding faculty and students “accountable” for a growing list of required ‘outcomes’ even as they hollow out the programs, faculty, and classes needed for such requirements.” (http://isreview.org/issue/98/educating-austerity)
Creating transfer models and pathways does us little good if the students are not able to complete the required coursework. I believe that community colleges have another role to play as the site of lifelong learning, holistic development, and community engagement, but even the focus on transfer is hard to fulfill without the courses being available.
I believe that we can do better. Our students deserve better and so do our dedicated faculty. While I am happy that some faculty members were able to make passionate appeals for their programs and classes, I don’t believe that these sort of decisions should be made in backroom bids. Either we are committed to offering a multitude of unique and inspiring programs and certificates to our students and we commit to offering the courses needed to do that, or we will experience the gradual hollowing out of our college.