I can hear him thundering down the street from two blocks away. He’s riding an expensive, spiffed-up Harley, but I just wish he had enough money left over to buy a muffler. I hope the neighbors aren’t home.
He parks the bike and walks to the door wearing the requisite black leather jacket with a small American flag. He’s big, about 6-foot-4. He’s bouncy for a man of 62 and has a personality to match the bike. He’s Lee Johnson, and you’d like him, especially if you’re partial to thunderstorms.
Johnson is a real person talking serious issues, something we get too little of in the media. As are many people, he’s all over the map politically and culturally. The only party he’s interested in has a keg. Johnson hunts for injustice the way lizards hunt beetles.
After spending two decades teaching college, he knows what he doesn’t like.
He says he learned that while employed as a “freeway flier” at Grossmont College. That’s an arrangement in which an institution of higher learning treats highly educated, part-time “adjunct” instructors as day laborers — no security, paltry wages and few, if any, benefits. The name comes from part-timers “flying” from school to school. That sort of servitude means the school teaches fair employment practices for “thee, not me.” To be a flier, a teacher either dearly loves teaching or needs to pay the rent. Whichever way you’re desperate, they’ll exploit, Johnson says.
“After 21 years teaching there, I earned half the pay per class of what full-time faculty earned, with no medical coverage, no retirement benefits and no Social Security credits.”
Johnson’s sense of right and wrong was honed by growing up in National City and Spring Valley, where money and privilege were something the other fellow had. In years gone by, he crisscrossed the U.S. on a motorcycle. (They heard him coming on Manhattan Island, in Manhattan, Kan., and Manhattan Beach). He also “rode the rails” by sneaking long-distance rides in boxcars. He learned some things about life not covered by a grad school syllabus.
He served three years in the Army in the Vietnam War era but was lucky enough to be stationed in Berlin. “The most dangerous thing I faced was probably a thrown beer bottle in a bar fight over a blonde.”
He’s a bachelor living in Spring Valley. He hasn’t been married for 25 years but has four adult kids.
He’s also a natural-born contrarian. If the Chargers won the Super Bowl, he might say they dropped too many passes. A lock-step, go-along person would think him crazy. Despite being as out-front as a howler monkey, when the dust of his arrival settles, he comes across as polite and friendly.
Johnson, in his long and varied career, has worked on a drug program for the Australian government and has taught college in that country and in New Zealand. He also worked for 10 years at UC San Diego on a federal program to prepare youths for college.
Although schooled in psychology, he taught about 100 math and statistics classes at Grossmont, ending in 2010. He says he got sparkling reviews in student and faculty evaluations all those years. If he hadn’t, one would think his career would have abruptly ended since adjunct teachers are hired one class at a time, with no guarantees.
In the several times he applied for a full-time position, he says he was given some smiles and nods, a handshake, and shown the door.
He says that, finally, one evaluator of his statistics class rated him as poor, and that led to a meeting with administrators. Also in attendance was a union representative.
“It was apparent they wanted to get rid of me, and they used an unfair evaluation as pressure. They actually said the next class I taught would be monitored by another faculty member. After two decades of strong evaluations, that’s insulting. The union rep just sat there and said nothing.”
Johnson says he stood up, made an indelicate suggestion of a sexual nature and walked out.
That undoubtedly put him on the dean’s list, but not the good one.
Asked recently about the incident, Jim Mahler, president of the teachers’ union at Grossmont, said: “That’s totally false. Did he mention to you why he was let go? If he tells you the truth, he wouldn’t want it published.”
(The merits of the matter aside, that’s a strange thing for a union president to say about a member he was representing.)
Johnson replies, “Mahler wasn’t in the meeting. He knew nothing about this. He’s just trying to protect the union. There’s nothing about my years at Grossmont that I’d mind seeing on a freeway billboard. I was not fired, but rather quit because of the conditions the administration wanted to impose on my next class offering.”
Grossmont College refuses to comment about personnel disputes.
I asked Johnson what it was the school objected to about him, and that segued into another gripe.
“They objected to me, period. They objected to my outspokenness, and they objected to my relationship with students.”
What relationship was that?
“I would tell (students) the truth. It was candor, it was honesty. It was get off your a— if you want to succeed. It was quit making excuses. I had a black guy walk into my class one day wearing a T-shirt that read, ‘The hardest job in America is being a black man.’ Right in front of the class I called him out. I said, ‘So what? Everybody knows about the injustice that exists in the world. What are you going to do? You going to let that stand between you and where you want to go? You going to let that stop you from succeeding?’ ”
What was his reaction?
“He stepped up and did the work.”
It’s easy to understand the communications gap between Johnson and administrators. Few of them would have hopped a freight or gotten into a bar fight in Berlin. However, Johnson says it goes beyond that.
He thinks there is a communications gap between tenured faculty and students. In his opinion, while there are many superior students in community college, many others are from disadvantaged or minority backgrounds. And that is where he thinks the problem lies.
“(Faculty) do not understand the neighborhoods or the hard-nosed backgrounds of a lot of these kids. They didn’t bare-knuckle their way up; they came from the middle class or above. They would walk into a class of minority students, and they were afraid of them. They were afraid to be frank, they were afraid to talk to them like they would talk to their other students.”
And the minority students would sense that?
“Of course. They know when you’re blowing smoke up their skirt. That’s how they survive on the street, by having a sense of that. They know when they’re being pandered to.
“Often times, when a minority student was not making the grade, the (faculty) answer would be to dial back the standards. They used to drive me nuts. That is patronizing, it is insulting.”
He also thinks academic freedom has taken a hit by ideologically driven faculty imposing a progressive agenda that pervades the campus and is the opposite of traditional liberal education. It has teachers looking over their shoulders and puts a damper on balanced teaching.
“They are not overtly subversive with their progressive ideas. It is more covert. If you are not part of the flock, then you will be quietly held at arm’s length. You are suspect. You will never be part of the inner circle, and you will never be seen as part of the team.”
He has no affection for teachers’ unions. He believes in the time he was a member, they used adjunct teachers as bargaining chips in negotiations — i.e., they would threaten to get a better deal for adjuncts, and then trade that threat for increased benefits for tenured faculty.
Johnson says adjunct teachers have always been a transitory group and usually are not long-term members of the union, and even though they pay dues, they have no influence with the power structure. Also, if they were given substantially better pay and benefits, it would diminish the benefits package split among tenured faculty.
There does seem to be a growing dissatisfaction by part-time college teachers over the compensation gulf that separates them from tenured teachers. If that leads to some form of redress, then Johnson might become something of a prophet. If given a choice, he would probably prefer to be Isaiah: “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness.”
NOTE: Connie Lewis, 47, of Jamul, who struggled against cancer using both faith and science, and was twice my subject in recent months, died April 24. A gentle woman sleeps without pain in her moonless night.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is [email protected]