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From the President

One MLA Serving All Faculty Members

Reprinted from the Winter 2010 MLA Newsletter

Currently numbering some eight hundred of the total of thirty thousand-plus MLA members, community college faculty members constitute the fastest growing sector in the association. Convention workshops and sessions now address issues of urgency and interest to community college colleagues. Community college faculty members are represented on the Executive Council by Jane Harper and have eight representatives serving on the Committee on Community Colleges. In addition, there are eleven community college faculty members on seven other committees and ten in the Delegate Assembly.

The MLA has important reasons to build membership from this dynamic sector of higher education. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, community colleges in the United States enrolled an estimated 8 million full- and part-time students in credit-bearing courses in 2009 ( They educated 43% of undergraduates and 39% of international students in the United States in 2007 ( Canada’s approximately nine hundred community colleges enroll an estimated 2.4 million full- and part-time students ( The 2004 National Study of Postsecondary Faculty (NSOPF) reports that some 39,500 faculty members in English and 8,400 in the foreign languages teach full- and part-time in community colleges. While the majority of students enroll in technical and job-related programs, significant numbers transfer to universities and four-year colleges after earning an associate’s degree. To that end, flagship and regional state universities increasingly negotiate articulation agreements with community colleges to accept transfer students for seamless degree completion. Then, too, the community college model has become, as Jill Biden observes, “a key U.S. export” (Saltmarsh): the community college system in Saudi Arabia now numbers fifty institutions, and the first community college in Chile recently opened (Abramson). The White House Summit on Community Colleges, convened on 5 October 2010 and chaired by Biden, attested to “the critical role these institutions play in achieving the President’s goal to lead the world with the highest proportion of college graduates by 2020” (

Given the high cost of postsecondary education at universities and liberal arts colleges, increasing numbers of students from low- and now middle-income families are opting to stay closer to home for the first two years of a baccalaureate degree, where tuition payments are not budget breakers and the cost of relocation is almost nil. In the current economic crisis, the new jobless have turned to the system tasked with the reeducation of a workforce adjusting to massive layoffs in major industries and shifts in the service economy. With the Obama administration and philanthropic donors calling for a significant increase in the number of young Americans with baccalaureate degrees, community colleges are being asked to take more students and to improve graduation rates.

Why should the MLA build membership from community colleges? First, a commitment to educational justice calls us to do so. Long lauded as “democracy’s college” (J. R. Valadez, qtd. in Dowd, Cheslock, and Melguizo 462), the community college has been an affordable and accessible place of entry for low-income students who seek the cultural capital, social mobility, and economic benefits attached to postsecondary education. Community colleges open a crucial pipeline to the BA, MA, and PhD programs that four-year colleges and universities offer in literatures and languages. With expertise in addressing the aspirations and needs of immigrants, first-generation students, and underrepresented populations as well as returning adults, including veterans, community college faculty members are critical partners of four-year college and university faculty members in “closing the socioeconomic enrollment gap in higher education” and “increas[ing] overall educational attainment in the United States” (Dowd, Cheslock, and Melguizo 449). The more successful the articulation from community colleges to four-year colleges and universities, the more people there are to bring diversity of background, heritage, life experience, and linguistic competency to four-year colleges and universities, contributing to what Louis Menand terms the needed “oxygenation” of the academy and of the humanities (153).

Second, community colleges have also been a bellwether of disturbing trends in higher education that the MLA is committed to addressing. As the MLA’s December 2008 report “Education in the Balance” revealed, community colleges have the highest percentage of faculty members employed off the tenure track in our fields: 57.8% in English and 66.3% in foreign languages; another 18.5% in English and 14.2% in foreign languages teach at institutions without a tenure system ( The majority of contingent faculty members in the humanities are women—71% of those teaching in English and foreign languages, according to the 2004 NSOPF—a reality starkly illuminating the “femininization” of the humanities. Many part-time faculty members work for wages that, when aggregated for full-time-equivalent compensation, place them well below the poverty line. The exploitative conditions of employment for non-tenure-line faculty members, an effect of what Cary Nelson terms “our contingent future” (79–106), contributes to the erosion of higher education’s commitment to the tenure system, academic freedom, and faculty governance.

Third, the situation on the campuses of the nation’s community colleges bears on the future of graduate education in the humanities. Statistics provided by the 2004 NSOPF reveal that 69% of full-time and 74% of part-time faculty members in the humanities in the community college sector hold a master’s degree. In effect, the MA has become a qualifying degree for teaching in higher education institutions. Concerned that graduate directors and faculty members are sufficiently aware of the current demographic and its implications for the conceptualization of graduate degrees, the Association of Departments of English has charged an Ad Hoc Committee on the Master’s Degree, chaired by Paul Lauter, to engage the question “How should MA programs address this job market in developing curricula and communicating with prospective students about the careers for which their degrees prepare them?” This committee is currently exploring how best to prepare MA graduates for faculty positions and teaching in the first two years of college, in two- or four-year institutions.

Our doctoral students have often sought to supplement incomes by teaching in nearby community colleges. Now, with the precipitous drop in the number of faculty openings in the humanities generally and in our fields particularly—a 40% drop in JIL listings over the last two years—more of our doctoral students will seek faculty positions in community colleges. Some see in community college careers an opportunity to address socioeconomic inequalities and educational justice by preparing low-income students for successful transfer to colleges and universities. Some with particular passion for teaching rhetoric and communication recognize that a successful first-year experience in community college writing courses remains one of the best predictors of later success in completion of an AA and BA or BS (see Wang). In recognition of the role that community colleges will undoubtedly play in the professional careers of those in the academy holding PhDs, some universities, such as Temple University and San Francisco State University, are offering a community college teaching certificate (Moltz).

The MLA’s Academic Workforce Advocacy Kit asserts that we are “one faculty serving all students,” a mantra for our individual campuses and for the entirety of higher education. The MLA is now becoming one association serving all faculty members across the full spectrum of higher education.


Works Cited

Abramson, Larry. “Community Colleges an American Export.” National Public Radio. Natl. Public Radio, 9 May 2010. Web. 17 Oct. 2010.

Dowd, Alicia C., John J. Cheslock, and Tatiana Melguizo. “Transfer Access from Community Colleges and the Distribution of Elite Higher Education.” Journal of Higher Education 79.4 (2008): 442–72. Print.

Menand, Louis. The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University. New York: Norton, 2010. Print.

Moltz, David. “What Your Ph.D. Didn’t Cover.” Inside Higher Ed. Inside Higher Ed, 25 Aug. 2010. Web. 18 Oct. 2010.

Nelson, Cary. No University Is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom. New York: New York UP, 2010. Print.

Saltmarsh, Matthew. “Jill Biden Says Community Colleges Are a Key U.S. Export.” New York Times. New York Times, 7 July 2009. Web. 17 Oct. 2010.

2004 National Study of Postsecondary Faculty. Natl. Center for Educ. Statistics, 24 Apr. 2007. Web. 18 Oct. 2010.

Wang, Xueli. “Baccalaureate Attainment and College Persistence of Community College Transfer Students at Four-Year Institutions.” Research in Higher Education 50.6 (2009): 570–88. Print.
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Sidonie Smith
2010–11 MLA President Sidonie Smith
© 2015 Modern Language Association. Last updated 02/12/2014.