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By Dick Meister

Fully one-third of college and university courses nationwide are now being taught by highly exploited "part-time" instructors -- underpaid, the lot of them, overworked and generally denied fringe benefits and basic employment rights.

The consequences have been as serious for students as they've been for the teachers, whose classes usually are so large they have little opportunity for the one-on-one instruction that's essential to good teaching. Most don't even have offices in which to meet with students individually.

Many of the teachers must rush from one overcrowded class to another, sometimes from classes in one school to those elsewhere, teaching as many classes as they can in order to make enough money to survive.

They have precious little time for lesson preparation, no chance to develop ties to a school's students or full-time faculty, and no right to determine what should be taught and under what conditions.

Although they're called "part-time," a recent U.S. Department of Education study showed that the teachers actually work an average of nearly 37 hours a week.

They are more accurately described as non-tenured -- meaning they are hired under conditions set unilaterally by school administrators and can be fired at any time. They have no right to academic freedom. And though they do the same work as tenured faculty members, they are paid less and rarely have any of the benefits granted those with tenure.

That's why colleges and universities have been hiring growing numbers of "part-time" instructors at the same time they've been cutting back dramatically on the hiring of tenured "full-time" instructors, who have the right to decent pay and conditions. At the same time, the number of relatively high paid administrators has been rising steeply, siphoning off funds that otherwise would be allocated to instructors.

And that's why the American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association, American Association of University Professors and other faculty representatives, student and parent groups, local government officials and others have been holding teach-ins, rallies and other events in more than two dozen states to protest the exploitation of "part-time" instructors. They're demanding that they be guaranteed treatment equal to that of tenured faculty members.

The message is clear. As Lawrence Gold, who heads the Federation of Teachers' Higher Education Department says, "Erosion of full-time, tenure-track faculty positions and their replacement by a growing, and exploited, army of part-time and other non-tenure-track faculty is the most dangerous trend in higher education today."

Given the steady slowdown in the economy, the situation is likely to worsen. Schools undoubtedly will be even more eager to hire lower-paid non-tenured instructors.

Yes, the part-timers usually are so busy attempting to deal with too many classes and too many students in too little time that they're lucky to provide more than a bare minimum of instruction. But they're a school administrator's dream.

They dare not complain, lest they be replaced by others eager to get a start in teaching. They're easy to hire, easy to control, easy to fire. No need to bargain with them, no need to pay them much, no need to provide them expensive fringe benefits.

A very good deal for administrators, a very bad deal for the rest of us.

Copyright 2001 Dick Meister, a veteran labor journalist who has taught at San Francisco State University.

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