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Statement on Colorado House Bill HB 12-1144

February 29, 2012
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Below is a transcript of testimony given by Don Eron of the University of Colorado-Boulder to the Colorado General Assembly’s hearing on House Bill 12-1144, sponsored by Rep. Randy Fischer and others, concerning authorizing institutions of higher education to enter into employment contracts for non-tenure track classroom teachers.  Don’s website is at https://sites.google.com/site/doneronaaup/

By Don Eron

My name is Don Eron. I am a senior instructor in the Program for Writing and Rhetoric at CU-Boulder, where I have taught since 1989. However, I testify today not as a representative of the University, but a private citizen.

When I attended CU over 35 years ago, at-will status for some faculty might have been considered unfortunate, at least for them, but tolerable. A relative minority of faculty were then employed at-will. The percentages were, arguably, acceptable; universities needed a certain degree of flexibility over the workface. Gradually, however, everything has turned topsy-turvy. Today, when the considerable majority of our faculty (approaching 75% nationally), who teach the majority of our credit hours, can be fired at any time for any reason, or for no reason—when the considerable majority of our faculty understand that if they are to fulfill their professional responsibilities they may do so at their peril—we have a guarantee of classroom mediocrity.

As somebody who has taught “contingently” for these last 23 years, in a position that the administration insists is temporary so that they can maintain maximum flexibility, I can tell you that at-will employment is a towering institutional disincentive against my fulfilling my professional responsibilities. When I walk into the classroom I understand that I am far more likely to get fired, or not be rehired, if I evaluate students honestly and hold them to rigorous standards, than if I don’t. If you don’t think that influences the way I teach, you imagine me being far more heroic, or reckless, than I am.

Similarly, when I attend a faculty meeting, if my administrator advances a policy that, through my years of professional experience, I know will be damaging to students or against the interests of my program or community, I understand that I am far more likely to be fired, or not be rehired, if I speak up and contribute my professional expertise and thus risk inconveniencing my administrator with my opinion, than if I keep silent. In other words, I am far more likely to lose my job, and possibly my career, if I fulfill my professional responsibilities, than if I don’t.

Some you may wonder why I am making so much out of at-will employment. After all, Colorado is an at-will state. Many of you, when you’re not serving in the legislature, are at-will employees. But the difference is that—and I say this unabashedly—as a university teacher I have unique responsibilities that require unique protections.

Here is what I mean by unique: Suppose that I was a construction worker, employed by Mr. X, who in turn was employed as a general contractor to build a house for Mr. Y. In the course of helping to build Mr. Y’s house, let’s say that I had suggestions that I believed would help us achieve our goal more efficiently. Let us also suppose that, rather than acting upon my suggestions, Mr. X found them to be inconvenient, and chose to fire me instead. In that I was employed at-will, I would be out of luck. Similarly, assuming that my idea was a good one from which Mr. X might have benefited had he been more receptive, Mr. X would be out of luck, as would Mr. Y, whose house might have been

built more efficiently. While we would all be out of luck, society wouldn’t be, for there’s no societal interest in whether Mr. Y’s house is built as efficiently as it might be. Indeed, the sole purpose of Mr. X’s business is to make money for Mr. X. That’s where the imperatives of business and education differ. There is a central societal interest in providing students with the best possible education to prepare them to face the challenges of our collective future.

And the truth is, not every university teacher requires the protection of a binding contract. There may be teachers who are happy not to challenge students in the classroom, and would not dream of speaking up at a faculty meeting to take a position on an important matter that may be contrary the position of their department head. Those teachers do not require protection because, always keeping their heads down, they will never give anybody cause to fire them.

But it is the teachers that you most want teaching your children who need this amendment. There are many problems in higher education that HB12-1144 will not remedy. But what it may do is mitigate the at-will status of our university teachers for up to five years, if the university decides that it is in their interest to take that step. I hope they will, because it will be an important step in providing our teachers with the tools to do their jobs. Our students and our state deserve no less.

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