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Teacher says she lost job for speaking out

Teresa Knudsen stands outside Spokane Community College, where she taught as an adjunct English instructor for 17 years. The college decided not to rehire her in December. 
 (Brian Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Teresa Knudsen stands outside Spokane Community College, where she taught as an adjunct English instructor for 17 years. The college decided not to rehire her in December. (Brian Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Teresa Knudsen taught English at Spokane Community College for 17 years.

She had an office. She was listed in the course catalog. She frequently taught three classes a quarter. But as a member of the adjunct faculty, Knudsen was paid less, got fewer raises and had no guarantee that she’d have a job when the next quarter rolled around.

Then, in December, she didn’t. Knudsen says she’s being punished for being an outspoken advocate of the adjunct faculty, part-time instructors who make up the majority of teachers at most community colleges nationwide.

Administrators say she’s not being retaliated against for her public statements.

But her circumstances illustrate many of the complaints critics have about the heavy reliance on part-timers – a “permatemp” system in which adjuncts teach more than half the classes but are paid much less, get almost no raises and have no job security. Some adjuncts have taught full-time hours at part-time status for years in a row; some piece together part-time work at different schools.

“There’s simply no other profession that I know of where people are on continuous probation like this,” said Keith Hoeller, who co-founded the Washington Part-Time Faculty Association with Knudsen.

College officials say they’re forced to use a lot of part-timers because their open enrollments mean that the number of students changes all the time and because they get less money from the state per student than four-year schools.

“The cost per student to the Idaho taxpayer at the two-year schools is about half what it is” at four-year schools, said North Idaho College spokesman Kent Propst.

At NIC, about half the instructors are adjuncts – lower than Washington state’s average of two-thirds. Propst said that the differences in pay can be discouraging for part-timers, who may wait years for even the chance at a job.

“In higher education in general, longtime adjuncts get to a point where it’s frustrating for them to know what they’re making versus the full-time faculty,” he said.

Critics say a heavy reliance on part-timers hurts the quality of education, and they cite a range of reasons. There tend to be fewer adjuncts with doctorates than among the full-time faculty, and there’s some evidence to suggest they are easier graders, in part because they fear they’re more susceptible to student evaluations. They also note systemic problems, such as the fact that adjuncts often have limited office space or office hours and worse equipment than full-timers.

A recent University of Washington study found that as the use of adjuncts rises, graduation rates decline. The study’s author, Daniel Jacoby, concluded, “the dangers of expanding part-time faculty appear to outweigh any benefits.”

‘Caste system’

Knudsen says her troubles began last February, when she and Hoeller published an op-ed piece in The Spokesman-Review saying adjuncts “may very well be the state’s most mistreated and exploited employees” and calling the community college system a “state-run feudal system.”

“The colleges have followed a Wal-Mart model of hiring a skeletal crew of 3,300 full-timers, and staffing their courses with 10,000 low-paid professors,” they wrote.

Soon thereafter, she says, she was called into her dean’s office, where she was told that her comments had offended full-time faculty members and that she’d lost support.

“He said – and this chilled me – ‘There are limits and consequences to free speech. I think you should leave SCC,’ ” Knudsen said.

Knudsen and Hoeller say that she was then systemically pushed out. First, she lost her status as an “associate” faculty member – a kind of senior adjunct status. Then she was notified in December that she wouldn’t be hired back.

Administrators won’t discuss her case, because it’s a personnel matter that’s still ongoing. However, they did say that the decision not to hire her back had nothing to do with her political speech or activity.

“We’d reject that out of hand,” said Greg Stevens, chief human resources officer for Community Colleges of Spokane. “Any personnel issues with Teresa have nothing to do with her right to free speech.”

Knudsen has applied several times unsuccessfully for full-time positions.

The faculty union at the school is pressing her case in arbitration, saying that she was denied due process rights to proper notification and a grievance process, among other things.

“We’re saying they didn’t follow” proper procedure,” said Carla Naccarato-Sinclair, president of the CCS Association of Higher Education.

But, Naccarato-Sinclair said, she doesn’t believe that Knudsen was punished for her article in The Spokesman-Review.

Whatever the outcome, critics say it illustrates the inequities between adjuncts and full-timers. Hoeller said that Knudsen should have had the opportunity for a hearing and a forum for a grievance, as well as having some more formal manner of notification surrounding the reasons she was not rehired – the steps of “just cause” that the colleges must meet when firing a full-timer.

“We’ve got a caste system,” he said. “It divides the faculty in two.”

Hoeller, who has taught philosophy at community colleges in the Puget Sound area for 12 years, said he earns about 57 percent of what a full-timer earns. Knudsen left SCC earning the same paycheck that a brand-new hire would make.

Raises, meanwhile, have gone overwhelmingly to the full-timers. Hoeller noted that between 1999 and 2004, 90 percent of state funding allocated for faculty raises went to full-timers.

Adjuncts have made gains in recent years in many arenas such as summer benefits, insurance and other compensation issues. Knudsen was a plaintiff in a class-action suit that led the state to agree to pay summer benefits for adjuncts who work more than half-time the rest of the year.

A bill moving through the Legislature would provide funding for incremental pay increases for part-timers – something most community colleges in the state don’t have, Hoeller said.

‘Work toward balance’

In the UW survey, half of Washington’s adjuncts said they wanted to be full-time. Another fifth said they wanted more work than they were getting.

But there’s another kind of adjunct instructor – the lawyer or business executive who teaches one class a week. Livingston said that type of instructor is a big benefit to students, bringing current, practical experience into the classroom and connecting the college and the community.

Skip Bonucelli, a longtime former spokesman for the Central Valley School District, has been teaching a sophomore-level course at Gonzaga University for about six years. Bonucelli is now the principal at St. Charles Catholic School.

“The idea of going back in the classroom was pretty exciting to me,” he said.

Bonucelli said that people like him bring something important to university learning – recent, practical applications of the theories and ideas students are learning.

“Both ends of the spectrum are important for kids,” he said. “It’s like anything in life. You have to work toward balance.”

CCS Chancellor Gary Livingston notes that he himself worked as an adjunct. About three-quarters of CCS adjuncts probably fall into the category of people wanting to teach a single class, he said.

Livingston and Stevens, the CCS human resources officer, said that the schools would like to see adjunct faculties reach 75 percent of full-time pay – it’s now about 60 percent – but that tenured and tenure-track faculty have more responsibilities and should be paid more.

“We continue to make progress as the Legislature gives us the funds,” he said.

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