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Teacher's Fret

Part-time instructor John Hart claims he had something to teach the Community College of Aurora. But was his lesson plan too personal?

John Hart is a fine writing teacher; his student evaluations are nearly unanimous on that. Last year his students nominated him as Teacher of the Year at the Community College of Aurora, where he also served as co-chair of the faculty senate. He has a graduate degree in fine arts, solid references, and his poems and short stories have been published in established journals.

So why did so many people expect him to get fired?
"I was afraid that would happen," sighs Elizabeth Nick, a sociology instructor at Front Range Community College, after learning of Hart's sacking. "It was inevitable," adds Anne Valenti, a colleague at CCA.

Hart was canned last month. In a telephone call with CCA's dean of instruction, Karl Van Etten, Hart was told he was being relieved of his post as a part-time instructor of composition, a position he had held for the past two years without major complaint.

The dismissal was unusually abrupt. The catalogue for the school's fall semester, which began this week, showed Hart was scheduled to teach four courses.

He says he was given no reason for his dismissal, and Van Etten isn't offering any explanations. Through a secretary, the college president, Larry Carter, declines to discuss CCA's faculty in general, and Hart in particular. Jerome Wartgow, president of the state's community college system, also refuses to talk to Westword.

But Hart and his allies are convinced they know the reason he was ousted: He was dismissed for becoming too involved in his college.

In addition to teaching at CCA, Hart had become a major irritation there. Over the past year he had tackled the touchy issue of academic credentials, accusing several full-time professors at the community college of having no scholarly reason to pass themselves off as experts in their subjects.

Hart's biggest project, however, was pushing colleagues and the administration to grant more recognition to part-time faculty. Notoriously underpaid and left out of decisions regarding how their campuses are run, part-time college instructors nonetheless are being heavily leaned on by Colorado's colleges to handle day-to-day teaching duties.

At CCA, where nearly 90 percent of the courses are taught by part-timers, Hart had begun to see some success. Thanks largely to his efforts, part-timers there had been allowed to participate in the faculty senate, alongside full-time professors.

Some of the adjunct instructors had also begun to enjoy medical benefits, something part-timers at other community colleges only dream about. Earlier this year, Hart himself was elected to represent CCA's faculty on the state's Community College and Occupational Education System Board, another first for a part-timer. The nine-member board, whose members are appointed by the governor, sets policy and budgets for the schools.

Ten weeks later Hart was out of a job.
"There's no doubt in my mind I was let go because of my organizing activities," Hart says. "I was becoming very threatening to the full-time faculty and administration." He says he posed a particular threat because agitating for part-timers' rights promised to shake a basic operating premise of a community college: an inexpensive education made possible only by the skimpy pay earned by adjunct faculty.

"John was the messenger," says Valenti, a studio-art instructor at CCA since 1992 who quit two weeks ago to protest Hart's firing. "He was protesting the injustices of the system and the administration wanted him out. They're holding him up as an example to other part-timers--of what can happen when you step out of line."

Where students attend college is changing. While Colorado's four-year colleges and universities still attract more students than the state's community colleges, the two-year programs are catching up quickly. In the past ten years their enrollment has skyrocketed by 68 percent, to 44,000 students.

The students themselves are different from what they once were, too. The typical student at a community college used to be middle-aged, training for a new career or returning to school after raising a family. Now the fastest-growing segment of community-college students is 18- to 24-year-olds, just out of high school.

That change is causing specific growing pains. Community colleges admit virtually everyone who applies (the sole entrance requirement is that a student be over the age of sixteen). As a result, teachers must be prepared to deliver a daunting range of instruction. Although a number of the students are older, these days community college teachers are just as likely to find themselves explaining basic reading and writing to a teenager who had difficulty in high school and who couldn't get into a four-year school. Then there are the bright students who could have easily gained entrance to Colorado State or the University of Colorado, but couldn't afford the tuition.

At the same time that instruction at two-year colleges has become more challenging, however, fewer of the people at the front of the classrooms are full-time teachers. Twenty years ago 70 percent of community college faculty were full-time and 30 percent were part-time. Today that number has nearly reversed at some colleges. Across Colorado's community college system, about half of all courses are taught by part-timers. At Community College of Aurora, the number is 84 percent.

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