Nathanial Bork was fired from Community College of Aurora in September. He claims it was because he was trying to blow the whistle on what he considered a weakening of academic standards in the classroom.
Now, the American Association of University Professors is investigating the firing. At issue is whether or not the college has watered down certain courses to allow people to pass more easily.
CCA refers to certain courses as “gateway courses” -- transfer courses with high rates of failure. The new “gatekeeper strategies” took the emphasis off traditional classroom teaching and put it on shorter, professor-guided writing assignments, peer review and reduced classroom content. One of Bork’s chief complaints was that the new strategy made him focus five classes on crafting a writing assignment -- something he says was not his job as a philosophy professor.
Bork’s intro to philosophy course was considered one of the gateway courses. After implementing the new standards, he says it felt he was teaching an overpriced high school class. Bork wrote to the Higher Learning Commission - CCA’s state accreditor - and to CCA’s administration expressing concern that the school was making his class too easy.
“I said -- this is my interpretation -- that this is the soft bigotry of low expectations, that students are going to leave CCA with an associates degree but they’re not going to have any actual college education behind that degree,” Bork says. “And when they go out to the job market or they go out to the four year colleges, they will not be prepared to compete.”
Things moved fast after Bork sent the letter. The following week during his class, he got a surprise visit from the chair of the philosophy department for an on-the-spot performance review.
It didn’t go well.
“For six years I’ve not had a single bad review, all my student evaluations were really solid,” he says. “I get that bad review, and then on Tuesday they call me while I’m getting an oil change and they tell me I’m fired.”
On paper, CCA’s reason for dismissing Bork is “lack of effectiveness in implementing the philosophy cirriculum redesign.” He says when he was evaluated, he was actually in the process of teaching to the new standards. He was not given an opportunity to appeal his firing.
CCA declined to comment specifically on Bork’s firing, but Janet Brandau, vice-president of academic affairs, insists that nothing was out of the ordinary.
“We followed our policy. And I think that’s the only thing I can say,” she says. “There’s nothing in what happened with Mr. Bork that did not follow our policies through the state board.”
The Colorado Department of Higher Education conducted a brief three-day inquiry of their own. In an letter to CCA president Betsy Oudenhoven, CDHE said they were satisfied with the way the school was implementing the standards.
At the time of his firing, Bork was the president of the CCA chapter of the American Association of University Professors, an advocacy group. He immediately alerted the national organization of his dismissal. They reviewed his case, and in September, contacted CCA and recommended that Bork be allowed to appeal his firing. Oudenhoven didn’t act on the recommendation.
In October, AAUP decided to conduct their own investigation. It formally began on Dec. 2. Bork, along with members of CCA’s administration and faculty, was interviewed by their investigative committee. Greg Scholtz is AAUP’s director of academic freedom, tenure and governance. He says the case not only involves Bork’s rights as an employee, but also his academic freedom.
“AAUP conceives of the people teaching on the college university level -- you know, in professional terms, these people are trained, they know their subject matter supposedly -- and what is their purpose in being there? Their purpose in being there is making sure their students learn something,” he says. “When the person who is most interested in the students’ learning, and who knows most about the subject matter, can’t control the course, then what happens to higher education?”
Another philosophy professor - William Honsberger - chose to resign when the standards were implemented. In his resignation letter, he voiced similar concerns. Both professors also said they weren’t involved in developing the curriculum and that it was foisted upon them, something that CCA’s Brandau denies.
“All faculty were given the opportunity, all faculty were given a voice, all faculty were invited to the table so to speak, and to be a part of this process,” she says.
Both sides agree on one thing though - CCA’s imperative was either teach these classes according to their standards, or don’t teach.
AAUP will continue interviewing people at the college until they decide they have gathered enough information. Then they will put together a report with recommendations for CCA. If CCA doesn’t implement those recommendations, AAUP will vote on whether or not to censure the school next year. As for Bork, he says he isn’t looking to get his job back. He doesn’t want what happened in his class to become the standard for college courses around the state. And he wants someone -- whether it’s the school, the state board, or the legislature -- to take a closer look at these standards.