"Freeway fliers" find less pay for their efforts
Dana Rush trains his telescope on the glowing clouds of hydrogen in the Orion nebula and excitedly motions some students who've stayed behind...
Seattle Times staff reporter
Dana Rush trains his telescope on the glowing clouds of hydrogen in the Orion nebula and excitedly motions some students who've stayed behind to come take a look.
It's a crisp, clear night at Green River Community College in Auburn, and Rush has a 30-minute break between two grueling, three-hour lecture and lab sessions. But a recent workday for the astronomy instructor began on another campus in another city: At 9 a.m. he was starting his first three-hour class of the day at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma.
For 16 years, Rush has been a so-called "freeway flier" — a part-time faculty member who shuttles from campus to campus eking out a living.
Like hundreds of others, Rush reapplies for his job quarter after quarter, year after year, with state community colleges, but is never offered a full-time job. Despite teaching at Green River since before President Clinton took office in 1993, he could be terminated with less than a month's notice.
The economics are simple: State figures show that part-timers are paid 58 cents on the dollar for the same workload as full-timers. Put another way, the average full-time community-college faculty member earns $49,500 — yet a freeway flier teaching the same number of classes at two colleges is paid $28,800.
Full-time faculty members are expected to perform extra administrative tasks but also get guaranteed health and retirement benefits, and perks such as sabbaticals. Part-timers get benefits only if they work more than half-time.
The state Board for Community and Technical Colleges estimates there are about 300 freeway fliers — sometimes called "road scholars" — at any one time within its system. That number doesn't include such people as Rush who combine teaching jobs at community and baccalaureate colleges.
Beyond the freeway fliers, the board estimates many more part-timers, perhaps 3,000 a year, rely on their jobs as a primary source of income. The number of part-time faculty working at community colleges has grown to 9,300 annually — they now outnumber full-timers nearly three to one.
State Sen. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle, said the increasing reliance on part-timers has seen the state community-college system devolve into a series of "academic sweatshops."
The plight of part-timers has become a perennial issue in Olympia. While part-timers can point to some modest gains in wages and benefits, they say the basic disparity remains.
This year, five separate bills aim to close the part-time salary gap and give those workers more job security. But should legislators take up Gov. Christine Gregoire's plan to boost part-timers' salaries by $7.5 million over the next biennium, it would still close the gap by only 2 or 3 cents on the dollar. The state board estimates it would take an extra $132 million to achieve pay equity for part-timers.
Part of the problem is that the part-timers themselves have become politically divided. Some, Rush included, have become frustrated with their unions — and with what they see as glacial progress and a bias toward tenured faculty. So they are pushing their own legislation. The unions, meanwhile, say they've made gains for part-timers and are pushing for more, and they're urging legislators to ignore the breakaway group.
"We are on the run"
At PLU, where Rush was finishing up a short but intensive winter-term course earlier this month, he strode into the classroom carrying a candle and dressed in robes, looking like Obi-Wan Kenobi from "Star Wars." The dramatic flourish was aimed at emphasizing the importance of the celestial knowledge the students were receiving. The students seemed to dig it.
"How many other teachers would care enough to make a memory like that?" said sophomore Katie O'Grady.
"I'll remember more from this class than any other because it was really interesting," added freshman Briet Johnson. "And I hate science."
Rush's students at Green River have a similar reaction. But Aimee Wiseman, who is taking science credits to finish her teaching certificate, said a scheduling conflict means she can't meet with Rush during his limited time in the office.
"I have to just grab him in a break," she said. "With some of those mathematical equations, I have a little more trouble."
Rush said that while part-timers teach just as effectively as full-timers inside the classroom, their lack of after-hours availability lets students down.
"Students don't bond with part-time instructors as much as they do with full-time, and they don't get mentored as much," he said. "We are on the run. A student has got to catch me for five minutes and get satisfaction."
National studies by University of Washington professor Dan Jacoby found that student graduation rates are significantly lower at community colleges that rely heavily on part-timers.
Figures from this state show that in the late 1970s, part-timers were teaching less than a third of all classes at community colleges but these days teach nearly half of classes.
Rush said his two jobs combined add up to the equivalent of 1.3 full-time jobs. He earns $43,000 a year, thanks to more generous pay from the private university.
He believes that despite having a decade of practical field experience in the Air Force space program to draw upon, one thing that has worked against him getting a tenured position is that he never obtained more than a bachelor's degree.
A "pathetic" ratio
Chris Reykdal, the director of administrative services at the state Board for Community and Technical Colleges, said that while he agrees the pay for part-timers is too low, it's worth noting that 85 percent of tenured positions are filled from the ranks of part-timers, and that about half of part-timers are strictly moonlighting.
"It might be an insurance agent picking up $600 or $800 for teaching a course, or a Boeing worker getting an extra $3,000," he said.
Community colleges need to maintain a flexible workforce to keep up with changing demands from industry.
"That means turning off and on programs really fast," he said.
But Sandra Schroeder, president of the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), said hundreds of positions in core subjects such as English and math could be converted from part time to full time overnight without affecting flexibility. The union would like to see at least 75 percent of core classes taught by full-timers, she said.
"It's way out of whack. The part-time/full-time ratio is pathetic," said Schroeder. "If someone is good enough to be a part-timer for 10 years, then they are good enough to be a full-timer."
Aiming for equality
In the Legislature this year, the two unions representing part-time faculty — the AFT and the Washington Education Association — are pushing bills that would set a long-term goal of more equitable pay for part-timers.
But Keith Hoeller, co-founder of the breakaway group Washington Part-Time Faculty Association, has helped draft three bills of his own, championed by Jacobsen.
Those bills aim to reach permanent pay equality for part-timers immediately, as well as giving increased job security to those who have been teaching more than half time for at least three years.
Like Rush, Hoeller has spent 16 years shuttling between campuses. He teaches philosophy at Green River and Highline community colleges. He has a doctorate from Penn State as well as two master's degrees, and yet earns just $33,000 a year.
"Washington state has set up a higher-education system on which it's spending billions to help people better their lives," Hoeller said. "And yet the faculty who are making these things possible are being denied those same things from the very same colleges."
Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or firstname.lastname@example.org
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.