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.
"What we have now is just this constant drift into part-time," says state senator Pat Pascoe, who taught at Metropolitan State College as a part-time faculty member for six years. Adds Monika Von Glinski, who has taught at Red Rocks Community College since 1992: "The administration knows the community college system would collapse without part-timers."
The shift has a lot to do with money. Community colleges' biggest selling point is that they remain the most affordable higher education available. In Colorado, taxpayers foot about 40 percent of the bill--$91 million annually--to keep the state's eleven community colleges running. Most of the rest of the schools' budgets come from tuition, which is about $54 per credit hour. (The University of Denver charges $465.)
Like other schools, community colleges have been wrestling with their budgets and looking for ways to conserve money. One especially effective tactic has been to rely more heavily on part-time faculty.
For administrators, the savings are huge. Unlike full-time professors at two-year colleges, who can earn as much as $40,000 a year, adjunct instructors average about $500 per credit hour. That means a part-time instructor teaching 15 credit hours--effectively a full-time course load--for two semesters takes home $15,000 a year.
Most adjunct faculty also receive no medical or disability benefits. And frequently, these part-timers work in conditions that a full-time teacher would find intolerable. Many adjunct faculty are still expected to keep office hours to meet with students--even though they have no offices and get no pay for those hours. At Front Range Community College, the part-timers aren't even included in the college's faculty directory.
Last year Pascoe proposed a state law that would have extended certain considerations to part-time faculty that full-timers expect as a matter of course, such as equal (though pro-rated) pay and benefits, and participation in faculty governance. "Part-time faculty are often denied the fair treatment commonly granted to full-time faculty," Pascoe wrote in defense of the proposal. "This treatment...ultimately decreases the quality of the statewide system of higher education."
(No studies have been done to measure how the shift from full-time faculty to part-timers has affected the education students receive in Colorado. But at the very least, relying on so many adjunct instructors presents quality-control challenges. In March 1994, for example, a student attending Community College of Aurora's Basic Law Enforcement Academy was killed when he was shot in the back of the head by another student. The course was taught by two Aurora detectives on a part-time basis. No charges were filed, and the policemen were cleared in an internal investigation. But two lawsuits filed this spring allege that the instructors were negligent in permitting students to point guns at one another and by bringing live ammunition into the classroom.)
Pascoe's bill, which the senator herself describes as "pie-in-the-sky," was killed early in committee. In arguing against it, administrators claimed that most part-time instructors in the community college system were teaching in the spirit of volunteerism, expecting little in the way of pay and relying on other, full-time jobs for health benefits.
Many adjunct faculty still fit that profile. Yet more and more part-time teachers are anything but part-time. A 1995 state study shows that nearly one-third of adjunct faculty in the community college system teaches seven or more credit hours.
For conscientious teachers, the hours can pile up. "I'm on campus by 7 a.m.," says Elizabeth Nick, who teaches twelve hours per semester. "I'm teaching by 8. After class I hold office hours until 9:45. I'm in class again at 11 and from 12 to 1 hold more office hours. From 1 to 2:15 I have another class. I usually leave the campus at 3, eight hours after I arrived."
And that schedule doesn't take into account the instructors who teach courses at more than one community college in an effort to earn a living. Tony Valenti, a math teacher, juggles an 18-credit-hour teaching load at Arapahoe Community College, Red Rocks and Community College of Denver. At each school he is considered part-time, even though, he says, "this is effectively my full-time job."
Teachers like Valenti worry college administrators for a couple of reasons. The public one is that instructors who try to cobble together a living at such low wages must by necessity spread themselves very thin, teaching six, seven or more courses. "When someone is teaching thirty credit hours a semester, we get concerned about the quality of education," says Richard Voorhies, an administrator with the Colorado Community College and Occupational Education System. In private, administrators also concede that part-time faculty teaching full-time could legally demand full-time benefits.
Last year the CCCOES board flirted with the idea of limiting the number of credit hours a part-timer could teach to eleven. (Most courses are three credit hours, so the rule effectively would have limited part-time instructors to three classes.) The proposal died, thanks in part to protests of adjunct faculty members who complained that not only was the state paying them poorly, now it was trying to limit the amount of time they could teach.
College administrators take advantage of the part-timers, says Pascoe, because a glut of relatively young, hyper-educated people means that they can. "I finished my Ph.D. in 1982, in Renaissance literature, and there were no jobs in my field," she says. "In the fifteen years since then, I've heard of only two openings.
"The bottom line is the administration is exploiting these people. And as long as they can get away with it, it's going to continue."
In response, part-time faculty organizations have been springing up at Colorado's community colleges. One of the first was started four years ago at Arapahoe Community College. The state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers began organizing at many of the other colleges early this year--an AFT adjunct faculty group popped up this past spring at Pikes Peak Community College--and is planning a big membership push for the fall.
One of the union's most successful organizing efforts has been at Community College of Aurora.
After earning his MFA from the University of Arkansas, John Hart moved to Oregon, where he began teaching at Linfield College. Later, he taught at Western Oregon State College, and then at Oregon Institute of Technology. He arrived at the Community College of Aurora in 1994.
A dormant union organizer, Hart says he became inspired again in the spring of 1995. "I was attending this conference at Aims Community College," he recalls, "and some part-timers did the keynote presentation about the difficulties faced by adjunct faculty. I just couldn't keep my mouth shut."
Community College of Aurora was an obvious target for organization. Founded just over a decade ago, CCA began with a faculty that was exclusively part-time. As the college grew, full-timers were added. Today there are about 30 full-time teachers, although that number is dwarfed by the 240 people who are considered adjunct faculty.
CCA's administration also had shown itself to be particularly resistant to organizing by its faculty--even full-timers, teachers there say. As recently as early 1995 it was the state's only community college without a faculty senate. Last year, Hart says, the Community College and Vocational Education Board finally ordered CCA to form one.
Hart jumped in. "John was saying all the right things," recalls Kathy Mills, a CCA math instructor. "He started saying, 'Even though we're part-time faculty we still have rights.' The part-timers were like, 'We do?'"
In May 1995 the new faculty senate was formed. Unlike any other official college faculty group in the state, CCA's was a coalition of both part-timers and full-timers. Hart was elected co-chair for the part-time faculty.
Other reforms piled up. By the end of the year, primarily at Hart's insistence, CCA had become the only community college in the state with a position of resident instructor. Intended as a middle ground between part-time and full-time faculty, resident instructors receive a higher rate of pay than other part-timers, as well as additional pay for office hours and committee work. They also are guaranteed an interview if a full-time position in their specialty opens up at the college.
This past spring, Hart was voted to be the CCA faculty representative to the state board that governs community colleges, the first time a part-timer had gained that position.
At the same time he was winning concessions for CCA's adjunct faculty, however, Hart was also alienating an increasing number of people at the college. Even his supporters concede he could be abrasive. "Sometimes John would say things to people that were just outlandish," acknowledges Mills. For example, she says, he attacked CCA's faculty education program without good reason. The program provides continuing learning opportunities for instructors.
When Anthony Clark, a history professor and the faculty senate's other co-chair, got into a dispute with the administration, Hart swooped into the fray. Clark had been approved for tenure only to have it revoked over a clerical error. When he met with the president to sort out the mess, Hart attended as the union representative.
Hart recalls that he wasn't particularly conciliatory. "I told Larry Carter that if he attempted to revoke Clark's [tenure] the union was going to come down on him in a big way...I challenged the administration constantly."
Hart didn't confine his criticism to his bosses, though. He soon found himself stepping on the toes of some of the full-time teachers. One of the perks traditionally enjoyed by full-timers is that they can select the courses they will teach in the coming semester. In mid-April, however, Hart proposed that part-timers with similar academic credentials be given equal standing in course assignments.
The specter of adjunct faculty exercising real control frightened the full-timers. "I withdrew that proposal in the face of massive resistance from full-time faculty," says Hart. "You'd have thought I was trying to take away their jobs. What I was trying to do, of course, was take away their privileges."
Hart also began attacking some faculty members personally and became caught up in a delicate debate over credentials--whether CCA's full-time faculty members were academically qualified to teach their courses. In late 1995 he took up the cause of Kathy Mills.
Mills, who has a master's degree in anthropology and is a veteran of archaeological digs in Israel, had been appointed lead instructor of the anthropology department in 1991, even though she remained, technically, a part-time teacher. In 1993, she claims, she was booted from the post and replaced by George Bruner, an administrator who'd been working on a temporary grant at CCA.
Mills says Bruner exercised an off-the-books policy at CCA known as "the right to retreat," which allows administrators to slip back into a full-time teaching job. He chose anthropology. Mills was furious.
"George Bruner, who has a degree in vocational education, who has never taken a course in anthropology, started campaigning for my job," she fumes. She also claims that what he touted as field experience--trips to Mexico and East Africa--were nothing more than extended vacations. "I called him on it," she says. "But no one would listen to what I had to say."
Hart did. He launched a personal investigation of Bruner and reported his findings to CCA's president: Bruner was unqualified, Hart said. Carter dismissed his concerns, Hart recalls, replying that Bruner's background was adequate to teach the courses. (Bruner still teaches anthropology at CCA.)
Although he had made genuine progress for part-timers, Hart's caustic style began to catch up with him this past spring. In April, his tiff with Bruner broke into the open when Bruner and about eighteen other full-timers defected from the recently formed faculty senate. "The full-time instructors felt that we needed better representation," explains Michele Amon, a foreign language teacher who joined the new senate.
Like CCA's president and the dean of instruction, Bruner declines to comment on Hart. He refers questions to his attorney, Gregory Parham, who says he has advised his client not to talk in case Bruner is named in any future legal action brought by Hart.
As the spring semester drew to a close, the atmosphere on CCA's campus became increasingly thick with tension. When Stephanie Lynn, a reporter for the student newspaper, the Highline Chronicle, began collecting information for a story about the full-time/part-time fracas, she quickly ran into trouble.
First her faculty adviser admonished her to be very cautious. Then Lynn began receiving anonymous phone calls at her home. She says that in half of them--there were about ten in all--a male voice would warn her to be careful, and then hang up. Lynn decided to postpone writing the story. "I got scared off," she admits. "There was so much tension I thought maybe I should just back off." She never wrote a story, and the phone calls stopped.
In early July, Hart says, he received a call from Van Etten requesting a meeting. When the dean refused to disclose the reason, Hart declined to attend--which, Hart says, is when Van Etten told him the purpose of the meeting: Hart was being fired. He received notification of his termination from CCA on July 15.
Late last month an attorney for the American Federation of Teachers, of which Hart is a member, wrote a letter to Carter demanding a justification for Hart's firing and threatening a lawsuit. Hart has yet to receive an official explanation of his dismissal.
Pascoe, for one, thinks Hart has a good case. "I think they're in deep trouble firing John," she says. "That's a political speech issue."
Still, as a part-time instructor, Hart is the first to admit he doesn't have much recourse. As Mills points out, because part-timers work only on temporary contracts--if any contracts at all--they have little claim to job security. Says Mills, "The administration says that since they don't hire us, they can't fire us.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.