In many ways, Anne Winkler-Morey loves being a professor. It's the job she always wanted, teaching history at Metro State University.

Except for one thing. She has no benefits, no job security or even a desk to call her own. This year, she says, she'll earn just $17,000.

It's a far cry from the academic career she dreamed of while earning her doctorate at the University of Minnesota. She's discovered the hard way that faculty jobs with a steady paycheck and a modicum of dignity are a shrinking minority in college classrooms.

For the first time, half of all college instructors are like Winkler-Morey: part-time adjunct professors who, critics say, are often trapped in a cycle of jobs that barely pay the rent.

"I spent 12 years training for this," said Winkler-Morey, 55, of Minneapolis, who started teaching 20 years ago. "I was making more on unemployment than I am now."

Now, adjuncts across the country are starting to join forces to demand better treatment.

"There's a perception that college faculty have the easiest jobs and are very well paid," said Maria Maisto, founder of the New Faculty Majority, a national advocacy group for adjuncts. "People are generally shocked, I think, when they discover what the conditions are."

As an adjunct, Winkler-Morey says she has no problem getting teaching offers — but they're almost always part time, temporary and a fraction of the pay that staff instructors get for the same classes.

It is, administrators admit, one way they've tried to fill gaps in the teaching ranks without locking themselves into long-term commitments.

"Yeah, it is a way to save money; I don't see any way to get around that," said Mike Reynolds, associate provost at Hamline University in St. Paul, where adjuncts now outnumber full-time professors.

For those on the front lines, the trend has been demoralizing.

"You certainly don't go into becoming a professor thinking you're going to be making poverty wages," said SooJin Pate, who has a Ph.D. in American studies and made $15,000 as an adjunct at Macalester College last year.

Surveys show that adjunct professors make $18,000 to $30,000 for the equivalent of full-time work; compared to "tenure track" professors who earn $68,000 to $116,000 (plus benefits), according to the American Association of University Professors.

Meanwhile, the percentage of professors in those coveted tenure jobs has been steadily dropping: only three in 10 today, down from six in 10 in the 1970s.

In the past few months, frustrations over the plight of adjuncts have boiled over in congressional hearings, online petitions (Better Pay for Adjuncts) and a two-day walkout at the University of Illinois at Chicago last month.

And there are growing signs of unrest in Minnesota. In January, Adjunct Action, an offshoot of the Service Employees International Union, started contacting thousands of adjunct instructors in the Twin Cities to gauge interest in forming a union. In February, Winkler-Morey launched a group called United Minnesota Adjunct Professors on Facebook, inviting adjuncts to share their concerns "so we can move toward a list of demands."

The concern goes beyond self-interest, activists say. They argue that the growing reliance on academic temp workers is shortchanging students.

"Adjunct faculty are running out the door because they have to teach as many classes as they can to make a living," said Maisto. That leaves little time for students who may need extra help.

"It's very hard to be a mentor," said Winkler-Morey. "They need people with office hours. They need people who can give them letters of recommendation. ... That's not there with people who are in the equivalent of temp jobs. You can't give that kind of attention, [though] we try like crazy."

A day as an adjunct

Three hours before class time, Winkler-Morey peeks into her classroom at Metro State's Minneapolis campus on a Wednesday afternoon. She's anxious to get in to do some prep work, but the room is in use. Frustrated, she retreats down the hall, hauling her backpack and winter coat, to wait it out in a student lounge.

The fact that she has no place to hang her coat, much less an office of her own, bothers her. "It's a little thing, but it's sort of symbolic," she said.

Winkler-Morey started teaching history at Metro State seven years ago — one of half a dozen Minnesota colleges and universities where she's spent her adjunct career. This one, she says, is her favorite, with its diverse and older student body. Her evening class, Race and Public Policy, is full, mostly with working adults. It's one of three classes she's teaching this semester — for some tenured faculty, a full-time course load.

Typically, adjuncts are paid by the class — an average of $2,700 for a typical three-credit course — though Minnesota is slightly higher, according to a 2012 survey by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce. There's no extra pay for prep time, grading papers or student conferences, and she often dips into her own pocket to pay for guest speakers and incidentals.

When her classroom finally clears out at 4 p.m., she swoops in to cue up video clips for tonight's discussion: civil rights and oppression. Then she dashes to a nearby Lunds to wolf down a quick dinner, sushi and tea, before rushing back a full hour before class. "I want to be there when they arrive," she said. She calls this time her "unofficial office hours." If anyone wants to chat, it's either here or in a coffee shop on her own time.

As an undergraduate in the 1980s, Winkler-Morey remembers meeting with one of her favorite professors, surrounded by books in a cramped U office, and suddenly blurting out: "I want to be you." The idea of immersing herself in a subject — in this case, history — and doing research and teaching for a living seemed irresistible.

But by the time she started looking for jobs in 1994, the pickings were slim. She taught classes at the U, St. Cloud State, Macalester, Augsburg, even the prison system, hoping a full-time job would emerge. Often, the ones that did proved to be mirages. More than once, she said, a school would post a full-time position with benefits, only to have a change of heart. "What they didn't tell us is that they were going to take real jobs and tear them to pieces and create adjunct positions," she said.

Now, like many adjuncts, she'll get a call days before the semester begins, telling her a class is available. What she realized, she said, is that she had been typecast as someone willing to take low-paying jobs.

"It's like a catch-22," she said.

'Foot-in-door disease'

Maisto, of the New Faculty Majority, is often asked why highly educated professionals would settle for adjunct work. "It's 'foot-in-door' disease," she said. "People really believe that if they get their foot in the door by working as an adjunct for a while, they'll be able to prove themselves."

Maisto, an adjunct herself in Ohio, said that was once true, but the landscape changed. In the past, she said, adjuncts were mainly people with jobs in other fields, who would moonlight teaching a class. But over time, she said, colleges discovered that they were a cheap way to fill teaching slots; and by limiting instructors to one or two classes, they could save on benefits. "[I] liken it to an addiction," she said. "It grew and grew, and all of a sudden, it's completely out of control and we're the majority of the faculty." A 2011 government study found that part-timers outnumbered tenure-track instructors by 762,000 to 445,000.

At the U, tenured faculty are still in the majority with 56 percent. But the number of temporary faculty members, which includes adjuncts, has climbed from 37 percent to 44 percent since 2005.

Arlene Carney, vice provost for faculty and academic affairs, said the university is not trying to shift to a temporary workforce. But realistically, she said, adjuncts fill a niche. "If we hired only tenured and tenure-track faculty members, then we would have a budget crisis on our hands very quickly," she said.

At the seven Minnesota state universities, meanwhile, the number of adjuncts has nearly tripled since 1999, from 569 to 1,532, according to the faculty union, and now represent 38 percent of classroom instructors.

Doug Anderson, the system spokesman, said that schools often hire adjuncts "to accommodate increases in student demand that may not be permanent." He noted that enrollment surged in the past few years during the recession, when many people went back to school after losing their jobs. "Now with the recovery, we're seeing the use of adjunct instructors decrease," he said.

At Hamline University, one of the many private schools that use adjuncts, temporary instructors now outnumber full-timers 195 to 184, according to school officials. Reynolds, the associate provost, notes that full-time professors still teach most of the courses and have more contact with students. But he admits he's troubled by the trend.

"I really am incredibly sympathetic," said Reynolds, who was once an adjunct himself. "There are many adjuncts who are quite exceptional teachers," he added. "If there weren't a surplus of labor, you couldn't pay so weakly for it."

Yet he predicts it will be difficult to change course. With colleges under pressure to restrain costs, "trying to improve the conditions for part-time employees is not going to be at the top of the list."

Todd Ricker, a union organizer for Adjunct Action, dismisses the idea that colleges can't afford to treat adjuncts better. "As professors are paid less and less, has tuition gone down?" he said. "No, it's gotten higher and higher." He and others say it's a matter of priorities.

"People aren't asking for astronomical salaries," Maisto said. "They're asking for fair wages to do work that they think and they hope is valued by society."

Even now, many adjuncts are too frightened to speak out for fear they'll lose their jobs, Winkler-Morey said. But she said she's hoping that will change.

A few weeks ago, one of Winkler-Morey's students confided that she was thinking about becoming a professor, she said. As her teacher, she admits, she was pained by her own reaction.

"I can't recommend it to my students," she said. "I can't advise this working-class person to be me. She needs a real job."

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384