Some call them "road scholars" or "freeway flyers" for their shuttling between teaching gigs a class in Chaucer at one university, then on to basic writing at a college across town.
More-polite labels for the fast-growing ranks of part-time college professors are "adjunct faculty" or "contingent faculty."
Whatever the moniker, many in these ranks do not have an office or even a phone number at colleges where they teach. What most do have in common is that, despite their lofty educations master's degrees or PhDs they have little more job security than janitors, and often earn about as much.
Colleges' reliance on these professors is a phenomenon most administrators would rather not talk about, says Richard Moser, a union organizer at the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in Washington. But part-timers are demanding more attention: They're organizing on a growing number of campuses, and they're taking to the streets. For the first time in more than a century, faculty lecturers at the University of California decided to strike earlier this year.
Nearly half of campus faculty are now part time, according to a report released last week by the American Council on Education (ACE). According to the analysis of federal data for all types of higher-education institutions, the number of part-time faculty has grown 79 percent over the past two decades, to more than 400,000 out of 1 million faculty. Add to those ranks the faculty who are full time but not on a tenure track and you have nearly two-thirds of all faculty, the report says.
Not surprisingly, the majority of part-time professors (64 percent) work at public, two-year schools. And many people prefer working part-time, the report says. But critics of this shift to nontraditional faculty say that many people are stuck with jobs that offer low pay and few benefits, and that the quality of teaching and academic freedom are being undermined.
"Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions," says Gary Zabel, a part-time professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. And part-timers, who typically have no vote in how a university is run and may be clinging to a job, are unlikely to challenge school policies, he says.
The move toward hiring part-time faculty began in the 1980s when there was a mass of retirements. Between 1994 and 1998, about two-thirds of those hired were part time, a much higher level than previously.
Despite their large numbers, part-timers' woes have been relatively invisible. Indeed, one book about adjuncts' trials is titled "Ghosts in the Classroom." But a movement to unionize has been building steadily since 1998. That's when part-timers formed unions at Roosevelt University and Columbia College in Chicago, the first to do so after a 1980 Supreme Court ruling halted unionization by full-time tenured faculty and cast a chill over other efforts.
In Boston, a college town with an estimated 10,000 adjunct faculty, there are union glimmers, too. Last year, part-time faculty at Emerson College voted to unionize the first such move in New England since the high court's decision.
This summer, New York University adjuncts voted to join the United Auto Workers union. And part-timers are organizing unions on at least a half dozen campuses including Illinois State University in Normal, and others where the movement is still secret, Mr. Moser says.
Among the groups coordinating efforts nationally are the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor, the American Federation of Teachers, and the AAUP.
The nine-campus University of California (UC) system has seen three faculty strikes so far this year. Last month, part-time faculty, known as lecturers, hit the picket line on five UC campuses, demanding better pay, benefits, and, most of all, job security.
Victor Squitieri was one of the picketers. A former award-winning lecturer at the University of California at Davis, he joined a strike Oct. 14-16 that shut down hundreds of classes. He and five others had been fired last spring after nearly six years on the job. Since part-time faculty become eligible for three-year contracts, unionists accused UC of dropping lecturers before they could win a contract.
"Administrators are trying to float their institutions economically on the backs of contingent faculty paying them less, not paying benefits, getting rid of them when they move up the pay scale," says Fred Glass, a part-time instructor and spokesman for the University Council-American Federation of Teachers, which represents part-timers in California.
In response to such complaints, administrators generally argue that schools have moved in this direction in order to maintain flexibility and breadth in the curriculum, and to keep costs under control.
"UC lecturers are among the best compensated in the country," said Gayle Cleszkiewicz, executive director of UC labor relations, in a statement after the recent strike. "We're offering the best proposals that state funding and our academic needs permit."
Frederick Choate, a lecturer in the Russian department at UC Davis, was one of the six who lost his job when he was on the cusp of winning a three-year contract. He says he's concerned that Russian majors will not get good third-year training (his specialty), because only three faculty members remain in the department.
"After two years of Russian, you have basic grammar and 4,000 words of vocabulary. How are you supposed to skip third year and start reading Pushkin? It's like asking a fifth-grader to read Byron," he says.
One of the key concerns of organizers nationwide is pay. Part-time faculty make an average of $11,533 from their primary institution compared with $59,141 for tenured professors, the ACE report says.
Carol Dine, a "master lecturer" in the English Department at Suffolk University in Boston for 13 years, is paid about $3,700 per course $18,000 a year. So she also teaches at a private high school. Her mother pays her health insurance. And beyond the pay issue, she says, she wishes her status would allow her to advise students in addition to teaching them.
At Emerson College, also in Boston, the part-time faculty union is negotiating a new contract. "The administration's attitude is: 'We wish you weren't here, but since you are we'll deal with you,' but I also see some positive signs," says union president David Daniel, a poetry and literature teacher.
The full-time faculty union has begun to include Mr. Daniel and other part-time union officers in its activities. And the college president has remarked publicly on the value of part-time faculty, Daniel says.
"Emerson College was officially opposed to the unionization of part-time faculty," says David Rosen, a spokesman for the college. "We realize there are real issues to address. We don't think the most effective way is through union representation. But that's what they've chosen and that's the way we're going."
For the first time this year, the school put out a poster with the names of all the part-time faculty. To Daniel, the poster represents a tiny but promising change.
"It was the first time I've seen recognition of the part-time faculty in 13 years," he says. "There is something happening. We'll have to see how deep it really goes."