by Julie Cosgrove. Including student testimonials.
For the past four years, art history instructor, Denise Johnson, has been an advocate for adjunct, or part-time faculty, who currently make up 77% of the teachers on the various Chaffey campuses. As the union representative for part time teachers in the Chaffey College Faculty Association, she currently represents some 650 part time teachers.
Then in the spring of 2014, Johnson found herself a victim of the circumstances many adjunct teachers must deal with semester after semester.
A sudden and unexplained change came in the fall schedule, reducing her course load and income by two thirds.
She has been an art history teacher at Chaffey for nine years and for seven years has taught a course she considered herself uniquely qualified to teach, the history of women in art, focusing on issues of feminism. A graduate of Cal Arts, she aimed the classes at undergraduate students just beginning their college careers. And successfully introduced many to new ideas and insights through the study of women in art history.
But this spring, she found herself eliminated from the fall schedule, except for a class in the history of photography. The college has no obligation to explain its actions and legally can hire and fire adjuncts at will. Johnson had to learn from a statement made at a public Governing Board meeting that the new transfer standards (ATT) eliminated her course because it was too much like upper-division offerings at the four year colleges. She also heard she was not considered qualified to teach Art 1, contemporary art history, although she had been doing so for seven years.
Her students were devastated to hear the news and organized a petition drive and appeals to the Governing Board on her behalf. On April 24, an online petition of 600 and testimonials from many former students joined a chorus of voices in support of Johnson. Sara Goding, a past editor of the Breeze, Sheila Taylor, instructional aid and past president of (u)ntitled, students Inkyung Sung, Maria Gonzalez, Megan Flanders protested against the elimination of Art 6, women in art history, and in support of Johnson. (Copies of these testimonials are appended.)
In California, adjunct faculty are not legally entitled to “due process,” that is, the right to know the reasons for dismissal or to hear about any charges levied against them. They do not have the right to a hearing before a faculty committee to answer those charges. Earlier in the year, another adjunct faculty member was summarily dismissed in the middle of the fall semester, despite having taught at Chaffey for seven years. Stefan Veldhuis, instructor of political science, had been involved in reporting misconduct of another Chaffey staff member. He believed he was summarily dismissed because he was “whistle-blowing,” according to an interview in Inside Higher Ed, an online educational journal. Neither Veldhuis nor Johnson are legally entitled to a discuss these issues before a forum of their peers.
Johnson feels she “has not been part of the conversation.” She has had to learn of the reasons she was eliminated from the schedule from public statements. In her experience, Johnson found that adjunct faculty who go through this rarely challenge the process, lacking the legal and financial resources to mount a challenge in the face of legal indifference. They simply put their heads down and look for “other teaching opportunities,” because the vast majority need and are grateful for any teaching job they can get.
Attempts to grant adjuncts due process rights through legislation in the California legislature have failed in the California Assembly. A 1999 legal study of the predicament of adjunct faculty by Texas law professor observed that, “In this half of the twentieth century, the academic equivalent of the indentured servant isthe ajunct faculty member in higher education. Adjuncts cannot say or do much about their plight. If they try to seek redress, they will simply not be rehired.”
Student reaction to Johnson’s dismissal was immediate and strong. The following are examples:
From Sara Goding:
I do know that Denise is a advocate for all adjunct professors and one of the most passionate fighters for professor and students’ rights. She is truly an inspiration. I wanted to go before the board to bring it to their attention that the administration was making a huge mistake by not rescheduling her normal classes for the fall. I took her Contemporary Art class when I was at Chaffey and the lessons I learned in that class I use everyday. One of the greatest lessons I learned in her class was that the personal is political. This rally cry became all to real for me as I stood before the governing board. A school is nothing but a collection of empty buildings and it is the professors that bring the institution to life. Denise is one of those professors that enriched my time at Chaffey and brought a sense of wonder to the classroom. I am deeply saddened that my alma mater does not value the teachers they employ as much as the students who were priviledged enough to learn from these amazing people. I think this callous behavior sends the message that the administration does not care about their employees or students. Losing great professors such as Denise is a real shame and tarnishes Chaffey’s reputation within the community.
From Christine McBeyan:
Denise Johnson has been my Art Instructor at Chaffey College for the last 2 semester. I am disabled and in a wheelchair. She has been an advocate. We had some adjusting that had to be dealt with. The classroom doors were very heavy for me to open and the desk that the students with wheelchairs sit at was heavy as well. Denise got maintenance out to take a look at the doors, and the doors were adjusted and we got a lighter desk in the room. She has shown me how to really look at art in a whole new way. Denise truly is a genuine person and I have been honored to be a student of hers.
From Nicole Hudson:
I wanted to share my experiences with Professor Johnson as my Art 6 professor. Art 6 was one of the few classes I have taken where I was genuinely sad when it was over. I learned so much from that class, not only from the material, but from Professor Johnson. I looked forward to every class because I loved the debates that were sparked. Denise Johnson didn’t just recite facts and dates and expect us to remember them; she educated us. Her passion and love of her subject was evident in the way she taught the class. She took a group of timid students, who knew next to nothing about art, much less women’s art, and had us thoroughly educated on the subject so well, we felt comfortable to hold debates. In the few months that have passed since my Art 6 class ended, I have not been able to get the material off my mind. I’ve been dragging friends to museums and buying books on the Riot Grrrls. I have become more involved in feminism. I have felt more comfortable to stand up for myself and my rights as a woman, because since having Denise Johnson as a teacher, I feel more knowledgeable as a feminist and surer of myself. In all honestly, Denise Johnson was not only an amazing professor, she is someone I look up to. Her class and her teachings have made me more confident. I look upon where women started and where we are now, and I’m proud. I will always hold dear the lessons I have learned with Professor Johnson, and I am saddened knowing others may not get to experience it, to experience her passion, and the pride as a woman, to learn of how accomplished women have always been, since we are not always taught that. It may be cliché to say this class opened my eyes; but it did. Denise Johnson is an amazing professor, one of the best I have ever had.
From Maria Gonzalez
Denise hasn’t only been a great influence in my life these past years but she has also been such an inspiration. I came into chaffey not knowing that I was going to join such a great club with two amazing advisors, Denise Johnson and Julie Song. Denise is such a strong woman that you can’t help but to admire. She’s very loving and caring towards other while still remaining so kick ass. I can say that over the years she has helped me become a better person, helping me gain courage and strength to stand up for my rights. I am now more aware of the inequality women experience on a day to day basis and all the things that we can do to fight for equality. Denise isn’t only a great advisor but also a friend. I know that if I ever need advice or someone to just talk to she will always be there. Although I have never had her as a professor, I have heard nothing but great things from her students. Overall Denise has inspires me to make goals for myself, chase my dreams, and fight for my rights. It is because of all these things that the board meeting I attended in April made me sad. Just to hear people talk about cutting courses that not only means a lot to Denise, who has taught them for years, but also means a lot to so many other people. The main course we talked about that day was art 6 because it’s a course that includes female artist around the world. The day we talked we held up a poster that said “don’t cut Frida!” mainly because art 6 is the only class that actually focuses on famous artist around the world like Frida. In an art history class a lot of artist don’t even get mentioned, women are usually the first to be cut off when teaching a course, so the fact that there is a class that mainly focuses on women artist is truly unique, especially for a community college. Cutting this course to me didn’t make sense, it’s taking away from people getting a chance to learn about great artist specially those people whom plan on majoring in women studies.