PITTSFIELD -- The state's community colleges need more full-time professors in the faculty, according to a new report, which cites them as factors in student success.

The review of public community college data -- including Berkshire Community College's -- indicates that "state legislation, regulations, tuition and fee structures, staffing practices and public funding policies have contributed significantly to the problem of poor student outcomes."

Joe LeBlanc, president of the Massachusetts Community College Council, said the report "does put some hard numbers on a problem that's been worsening over the past 10 years."

LeBlanc has been a professor of English at Northern Essex Community College since 1988. He said when he began, about 90 percent of courses there were taught by full-time professors. During the 2010-11 academic year, 1,620 courses were taught by part-time faculty compared to the 642 courses taught by full-time faculty.

Generally speaking, full-time faculty are state employees who receive benefits and have responsibilities to teaching, student advising and serving on committees. Part-time faculty are hired by contract. They are not obligated to do advising and other non-instructional work, and do not receive benefits like health insurance.

At Berkshire Community College, 1,183 courses at BCC were taught by part-time faculty compared to the 353 courses taught by full-time faculty during the 2010-11 school year, according to the Massachusetts Teachers Association report.

The report, "Reverse the Course: Changing Staffing and Funding Policies at Massachusetts Community College," was published in July by the Center for Education Policy and Practice of the MTA.

Four members of Berkshire Community College recently met with The Eagle to discuss the findings, including Deborah Cote, vice president for human resources and affirmative action; Frances Feinerman, vice president for academic affairs; Michael Bullock, vice president for student affairs and enrollment services; and Heidi Weber, public relations manager.

Feinerman said the "Reverse the Course" report makes "a strong argument for full-time faculty," but that the claim that part-time faculty don't contribute as much to students on campus "is false."

She said BCC contracts with some adjunct and other non-faculty professional staff to take on advising roles, and pays them to do so. This occurs, for example in the college's culinary and music and theater departments, where the majority of faculty are adjuncts.

"There are many people who teach part-time and are able to develop relationships with students and mentor them," Feinerman said.

"There are many excellent adjunct faculty in the Division of Continuing Education who play an important role in our colleges and universities," said MTA President Paul Toner in a written statement. "However, adjuncts are not given the time, the money, the office space or the mandate to provide students with comprehensive academic advising on how to navigate the college system through to job placement or transfer to a four-year institution."

Berkshire Community College administrators said this isn't entirely the case for their institution.

Cote said BCC offers adjunct faculty shared office and meeting spaces and resources like computer equipment to use in between classes. She said some adjuncts sit on the college's steering committee for New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) audits and accreditation. Bullock said BCC also provides professional development programming specifically for adjunct faculty.

Some of these practices may actually have proved to better help BCC students. According to the report, between 2004 and 2010, BCC had the highest average graduation rate, with 23 percent of associate degree candidates completing their programs and graduating within three years.

Feinerman said that this average is still low because many community college students are not full-time attendees and often face various social and academic struggles.

Still, she and other community college leaders say this doesn't exempt colleges from grounds for improvement, from funding to student support services to making a more dedicated effort to hire more full-time instructors.

"It does concern us," said Bullock who said the report ultimately raises a set of complex issues.

Massachusetts Community College Council President Joe LeBlanc said he'd "like to see the No. 1 priority be some full-time hiring." He's not the only one to acknowledge this need.

Commissioner of Higher Education Richard Freeland said, "Massachusetts needs to be a national leader in public higher education, and that goal cannot be achieved without heightened levels of funding for our state's colleges and universities. The over-reliance of our community colleges on adjunct faculty highlighted in the MTA report is one of the most problematic consequences of the constrained budgets our institutions have received in recent years."

Gary Zabel, a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts who has also chaired the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor, said the current balance arrangement of full-time to part-time community college staff, concerning matters from wages to decision-making, "is unsustainable."

Statewide, it was only until two years ago that members of the adjunct faculty caucus of the Massachusetts Community College Council got a full vote in elections for union leaders; prior to that, an adjunct ballot was only counted as a quarter-vote, despite adjuncts making up the majority of teaching staff.

LeBlanc said a new Community College Staffing Commission, enacted in July, could help progress this matter, but any final decisions on systemwide staffing changes and hiring practices will likely be made at a state executive level.

Read the full MTA "Reverse the Course" report here: http://bit.ly/13ntafo.

To reach Jenn Smith:
jsmith@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6239.
On Twitter: @JennSmith_Ink