'Freeway flyers' now make up the bulk of faculty

Adjunct community college instructors log many miles, collect low pay

By Mary Strope

Cesar Chavez once compared part-time, temporary community college instructors to migrant farm workers. Like those laboring in the fields, they are poorly paid, constantly commuting between jobs, and enjoy little security.

Dubbed "freeway flyers," they carry the bulk of the teaching load at City College of San Francisco and at community colleges throughout California and the nation.

City College of San Francisco fashion instructor Judy Jackson at the school's Evans Campus in the Bayview. Photo credit: James Fanucchi

City College of San Francisco fashion instructor Judy Jackson at the school's Evans Campus in the Bayview. Photo credit: James Fanucchi

They go by different names: road scholars, adjuncts, part-timers, non-tenured faculty, lecturers, contingents. In New York City, they’re called “subway schleppers.”

Their many nicknames reflect their uneasy status in the halls of academia. They teach the same classes that tenured professors do, but don’t receive the same pay or benefits. 

And increasingly, they subsidize higher education.

They travel from college to college, their textbooks, school supplies, laptops, boxes of course materials and class files piled in the trunks of their cars. Once they get to campus, they search for parking, hoist course materials from car to classroom, and race to class.

Because they are constantly on the road – some commute over 100 miles a day – they can be hard for students to reach.

“As a part-timer, you have your foot in two camps,” said Capitola resident Kathleen Perry, who has been teaching photography at City College since 1988 and at UC Santa Cruz since 1998, a once-a-week round-trip commute of nearly 160 miles.

“You have your place on campus, but you’re an outsider,” she said.   

With drastic reductions in public funding, two-year institutions have cut costs by hiring more and more contingent faculty.

In California, part-time teachers make up 70 percent of community college faculty, according to the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office. That corresponds to the national average, which confirms that 280,000 of the nation’s 400,000 public community college professors are part-time.

At CCSF, adjuncts represent 56 percent of the school’s 1,576 professors.

City College’s freeway flyers get only 86 percent of a tenured teacher’s salary for each in-class hour, according to the teacher’s union, the American Federation of Teachers Local No. 2121.

“The face of contingency is now the majority,” said Alisa Messer, the local's political director, herself a former freeway-flying English teacher.

Alisa Messer, City College of San Francisco English teacher and Union AFT 2121 political director at City College's Ocean Campus. Photo credit: James Fanucchi

Alisa Messer, City College of San Francisco English teacher and Union AFT 2121 political director at City College's Ocean Campus. Photo credit: James Fanucchi

It hasn’t always been this way. In the 1970s, about 80 percent of faculty was tenure-tracked. That’s when the practice of hiring mostly adjunct faculty started in the community college system. The cost-cutting measure has spread across all levels of higher education.

“It’s gone in the direction of big business,” Peter Brown, a journalism professor at SUNY New Paltz and adjunct advocate said in a PBS News Hour interview.

Longtime freeway flyer Tom Graham, who commutes an hour each way from Petaluma, agrees.

“It’s no different than the way Wal-Mart treats their employees,” he said.

Between 1970 and 2008, adjunct pay has plummeted 49 percent, while college presidents’ salaries have shot up by 35 percent, Brown said.

The full-time, part-time system has created an academic caste system, with adjuncts treated as the underclass, according to a story in the January-February 2014 issue of Academe magazine.

A full load for tenured faculty at City College is five classes. With their teaching load spread between schools, many part-timers here teach a full-time load or more  – without benefits.

“To earn a living as a part-timer, you have to work more than what adds up to a full-time job,” Perry said.

Graham teaches at College of Marin and City College. He drives 75 miles round trip three times a week from Sonoma County to the Ocean Campus  – for a single three-hour class.

“Teaching a one-hour class three times a week is a lot different than teaching a three-hour class once a week,” Graham said. “I commute more than six hours a week for just that one class.

“That triples my gas expenses and takes away time I could be spending with my family.”

Gas and other extra expenses eat away at an already-low paycheck. Dry erase pens, paper clips, photocopies and cables and cords for “smart classrooms” add up.

“I wish I had an RV to put all my teaching supplies in,” Perry said. Living so far from campus forces her to stay organized – anything forgotten at home can and will negatively impact a teacher’s lesson plan.

“I do consider my car to be my office,” said Judy Jackson, a City College fashion instructor and veteran freeway flyer, who also teaches at Santa Rosa Junior College and Redwood City’s Cañada College.

“It’s pretty unusual for me to even have a desk," she said. "Every school says it's supposed to give you a space, but it’s not always usable or close by.

“I always tell people, I love what I do for a living, but I don’t like the way I have to do it,” she said. 

Like many freeway flyers, Jackson holds office hours in the classroom. But fashion courses at City take place at satellite campuses around the city, making it even more difficult to structure a schedule around a specific place.

“No one can do their best work under those circumstances,” the union's Messer said.

Not all adjuncts are freeway flyers. Unlike tenured professors, part-time faculty are often professionals who share their real-world experience. At City College, where practical, career-driven education is often emphasized, students can benefit from a teacher’s professional experience.  

Twenty-five years ago, the California legislature and community college board of governors approved AB 1725 to ensure a 75 percent ratio of tenure-tracked teachers. Considered a mechanism to involve faculty in the creation of college policies, it was never fully implemented. The UC system has managed to skirt around it, while many institutions simply pay fines to avoid the law.

But the money is no longer in the pot to pay that number of full-time faculty, Messer said.

College administrations are rarely eager to share numbers about part-time faculty.

“Throughout the country, college administrators, often with the collaboration of academic unions, have gone to great lengths to keep their increasing numbers of adjunct faculty secret from students, parents, legislators, accreditors, foundations and the public,” according to Keith Hoeller, an adjunct at Green River Community College in Auburn, Wash.

In their review of City College of San Francisco, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges did not discuss the pay and treatment of adjunct professors. In fact, their report indicated that there were too many full-timers at City. But they did compel part-time faculty members to participate in curricular planning, student learning outcomes and faculty evaluations.

“Colleges have been telling us they don’t have the money to pay part-time faculty to do this. Our response has been that they must do it,” ACCJC President Barbara Beno told the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2012. For a huge college like City, managing an army of part-timers is costly, and a lot of administrative work.

“It’s ironic that the community college system relies so heavily on part-timers, because it’s structured for full timers,” Jackson said. “It assumes your sense of place, your ability to stick around.”

Many teachers at City say the accreditation crisis has simply meant more work for them.

“They’re demanding more of us,” Graham said. Many teachers find the new emphasis on student learning outcomes an extra burden. Teachers are also under pressure to create “attendance rosters,” which estimate how much time students spend on schoolwork outside of class.

This spring, Mary Faith Cerasoli staged a one-woman protest against the working conditions of adjuncts in Albany, NY. Cerasoli, who is homeless and finds little hope of overcoming mounting health care debts on a $22,000 annual salary, sparked a social media following when adjuncts across the country tweeted photos of themselves holding signs that read, “I am Mary Faith.”

“Adjuncting is the bridge to nowhere,” she told PBS. “I would never recommend becoming a professor to my students.”

After 38 years of freeway flying, Jackson would like nothing more than to teach full time. The fashion instructor has seen some progress for part-timers. Thanks to the teachers union, she now has a retirement plan.  

But she still makes less than a tenured teacher. She loses health benefits every summer and is forced to rely on unemployment. She’s laid off during the winter holiday season. And she’s never had a paid vacation.

Freeway flyers may cobble together enough jobs to work the equivalent of a full-time schedule, but that doesn’t mean they enjoy the same benefits.

“To make a living,” Jackson said, “I have to keep moving.”