Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Bill Priest revisited

The other side of the coin

In my recent post on Bill J. Priest and the creation of the Dallas County Community College District, I commented that the biography by Kathleen Krebbs Whitson is a “hagiography,” that is, an account of the life of a saint. According to Whitson's book, the never-wrong Priest was often betrayed by incompetence and intransigence—always in others. For example, here is her report on Priest's travails in his pre-Dallas post as founding president of American River Junior College in Sacramento in 1955:
Priest was hired as the Superintendent/President of the new college. He had the arduous task of not only beginning a new college, but also absorbing an existing college, Grant Technical College, into the new organizational structure. Grant Technical College had actually been the top two years of a kindergarten through fourteenth grade school in the local public school district. The faculty of the college levels, however, had tenure. That was the first hurdle. The new college being founded would not have tenure for the faculty. This was one of the first conflicts. The established faculty felt they should be grandfathered [with tenure] in the non-tenure for faculty policy. They sued and won. Now Priest was faced with a faculty in which some had tenure and some did not. Many of the former faculty of Grant Technical College felt that none of the new rules should apply to them. This perpetual problem more than doubled the efforts of establishing a new college.
Certainly Priest's task would have been greatly eased if only the tenured faculty of Grant Technical has simply rolled over and allowed him to strip them of their job security. What ingrates they were, failing to appreciate the great man's effort to reduce them to at-will employees!

Whitson's coda to Priest's ordeal in assimilating Grant Technical has this interesting twist:
There were continual lawsuits and the attorney was less than competent. He lost nine cases out of nine. Fortunately the Board of Trustees gave full support to Priest in the challenges he faced. In Priest's estimation, they were a quality board with a focus on the educational good for students.
Poor Priest! Saddled with a “less than competent” lawyer. (Who hired this lawyer, anyway? Did the president have no role in staffing the new college district?)

It's easy to offer a different take on this report. Was the attorney incompetent or was Priest pushing too hard against the rights of his faculty members and simply getting rebuffed by the courts? I'm curious to know more about what these nine lawsuits entailed.

By the way, the colleges of the Dallas County Community College District have tenured faculty in addition to part-time and temporary faculty, so it appears that Priest was unable to create an at-will system of faculty employment in right-to-work Texas. Furthermore, the two-tier system that was created at American River Junior College (now just American River College) went away as tenured faculty became the rule rather than the exception at the Sacramento institution. Neither in California nor in Texas was Bill J. Priest successful in establishing himself as an unfettered benevolent dictator. His accomplishments notwithstanding, Priest belongs to the patronizing era of father-knows-best. No doubt the great man would be aghast at the shared-governance practice that emerged in his wake.


Kathie said...

Tenure is not just some amorphous touchy-feely right, but in fact is legally recognized as a PROPERTY right for faculty who have earned it. So removal of it without due process FOR CAUSE constitutes nothing less than theft, just like theft of any other property. Bill Priest's attorney wasn't necessarily incompetent, just up against settled case law.

Anonymous said...

DCCCD has no tenure for faculty. None. We have rolling 3-year contracts, so it takes 3 years to fire faculty.

Zeno said...

Thank you for that information, Anonymous, which I presume comes from direct personal experience. I actually checked the on-line edition of DCCCD's Board Policy Manual and discovered the statement "For the purposes of Education Code 51.943, the College District is not required to provide an annual contract to tenure or tenure-track faculty, but must provide tenure and tenure-track faculty with any written notification required in the College District’s tenure policy of a change in a term of employment according to the policies of the College District," which naturally led me to conclude that tenured and tenure-track faculty must exist. A closer look shows that the BPM also contains a proscription on employment contracts exceeding three years, which presumably trumps the tenure language and the implication that tenure exists. Interesting.