She gave 25 years and her life

October 2, 2013

Leighton Christiansen recounts how the death of an adjunct professor in Pittsburgh has created a stir on other campuses because other adjuncts face similar conditions.

MARGARET MARY Vojtko began teaching French at Pittsburgh's Duquesne University as an adjunct professor in 1988. On September 1, she passed away at the age of 83, still an adjunct. She was buried in a cardboard coffin.

Margaret Mary was, in the words of Prof. Gary Rhodes, part of a new segment of America's working poor: adjunct professors at colleges and universities. When she was hired 25 years ago, Vojtko may as well have taken a vow of poverty--and this poverty undoubtedly hastened her death.

Like the rest of the working poor, adjuncts work part-time or full-time for low pay, are routinely denied access to health care and/or affordable health insurance, and have little or no money left after paying the bills to invest in a retirement plan, if one is even available.

Margaret Mary suffered a massive heart attack on August 16, 2013, likely brought on by a number of stresses connected to her poverty and her health. She was again undergoing radiation treatment because cancer had returned. She faced certain homelessness--the house she had lived in since her birth was falling in on itself, and she could not afford repairs. Finally, Adult Protective Services had contacted her, and it looked like Votjko would be losing her independence as well. And 25 years of poverty wages from Duquesne University left her with few resources to consider other options.

Margaret Mary Vojtko
Margaret Mary Vojtko

Just hours after talking to a lawyer on the phone, she was discovered unconscious on the lawn. Margaret Mary never regained consciousness and died two weeks later.

Margaret Mary had taught previously at Pitt and Indiana University, and she had also worked as a nurse at St. Francis Hospital in Lawrenceville, a neighborhood of Pittsburgh. But after a life of teaching and service, she was destitute.

The revelations of Margaret Mary's final months have resonated with thousands of adjunct university and college faculty across the country. Her battles, and similar tales told by other adjuncts, have been recounted on Twitter and other social media under #IAmMargaretMary.

WHAT MAKES Vojtko's story surprising to so many is that she was a college professor, popularly thought of as a profession that offers a decent standard of living. But in recent decades, college and university employment has changed dramatically.

Since the 1970s, U.S. colleges and universities have become, according to professor and faculty union activist Cary Nelson, corporatized "knowledge factories," adopting big-business employment and organization models; shifting funding out of classrooms; and pouring money into administrators' salaries and corporate profit margins. These practices include eliminating full-time jobs, contracting jobs out to the private sector, cutting benefits--and hiring more part-time instructors, like Margaret Mary.

A report published in 2012 by the University of Southern California-Rossier's Pullias Center for Higher Education quantifies the shift. In 1969, tenured and tenure-track faculty made up more than 78 percent of college and university positions while 21 percent were non-tenure track. By 2009, tenure and tenure-track positions had fallen to 33.5 percent, while non-tenure track positions made up 66.5 percent of academic teaching jobs.

Tenure, as defined by the American Association of University Professors, is "an arrangement whereby faculty members, after successful completion of a period of probationary service, can be dismissed only for adequate cause or other possible circumstances and only after a hearing before a faculty committee." In other words, tenure is a contract that keeps universities and colleges from firing professors at-will.

The attack on tenure at colleges and universities has mirrored the attack on unionized jobs in the United States in general. In 1970, 23.5 percent of U.S. workers were represented by unions, meaning they had contracts that likely had provisions that kept employers from firing them at will. In 2012, U.S. union density had fallen to 11.3 percent.

Of the two-thirds of teaching positions that were non-tenured in 2009, 28 percent were full-time and 72 percent were part-time, according to the American Federation of Teachers' Higher Education Data Center. (And these figures do not reflect the number of graduate student instructors. At the time of the 2009 Graduate Employees Organization strike at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, it was estimated that grad students taught 23 percent of undergraduate course hours.)

By shifting to from tenured to adjunct and largely part-time faculty, institutions of higher education have been able to pay lower wages to classroom instructors and to avoid providing health benefits or retirement plans, mirroring national trends in both the public and private sectors.

FOR THE past 25 years, Duquesne offered Margaret Mary a new adjunct contract each semester, paying her per class taught. In 1988, Margaret Mary was paid $1,200 per course.

In the words of Daniel Kovalik, who serves as general counsel for the United Steelworkers union:

As amazing as it sounds, Margaret Mary, a 25-year professor, was not making ends meet. Even during the best of times, when she was teaching three classes a semester and two during the summer, she was not even clearing $25,000 a year, and she received absolutely no health care benefits.

When university administrators dismissed Vojtko in June 2013, she was being paid just $3,050 per course. "Compare this with the salary of Duquesne's president," Kovalik wrote, "who makes more than $700,000 with full benefits."

Adjunct faculty can never count on a steady paycheck, a regular course load or contract renewal. In the past year, Margaret Mary was cut back to one course per semester, which would mean just over $6,000 annually.

So even though Margaret Mary was still living in the brick house her father had built in Homestead in 1929, the year before her birth, she could not afford its upkeep.

Conditions like these are spurring adjuncts around the country to start organizing. Georgia writing instructor Joshua Boldt created a publically editable spreadsheet in February 2012 so other adjuncts could enter their department, pay, benefits and working conditions. The spreadsheet has now become a crowd-sourced website called The Adjunct Project hosted by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The Adjunct Project Blog is collecting stories of other contingent workers, who, like Margaret Mary, are getting paid too little to live on.

Blogger "M" posted a letter announcing her resignation from working as an adjunct after her 20 years of hard work were not enough to earn a living wage or keep her house from going into foreclosure.

Adjunct instructor Cindy H. reported on how one college she works at refused to cancel classes during a blizzard, forcing her into an impossible choice between a life-threatening drive to campus or non-renewal of her contract in the fall.

MARGARET MARY Vojtko, like many of the underpaid contingents blogging at The Adjunct Project, was crushed under the weight of the private, for-profit health care system as well as the lack of respect for part-time workers by highly paid university administrators.

Kovalik told NPR that Margaret Mary had massive medical bills from paying out of pocket for her cancer treatment. "She didn't want charity," Kovalik said. "She thought that after working 25 years for Duquesne that she was owed a living wage and some sort of retirement and benefits."

But despite years of service and good student evaluations, Duquesne fired Vojtko in June, citing declining performance. But Margaret Mary was certain she was being discriminated against because she "continued to get positive reviews from my students."

In July, with the Kovalik's legal help, Margaret Mary filed a discrimination suit against Duquesne with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In court papers obtained by The Duke, Vojtko said she was fired "without cause and clearly because of my age and disability."

Perhaps the Duquesne administration was embarrassed by the conditions Margaret Mary, a loyal employee, found herself in as she was faced with the pressure of having to work to make ends meet long after she should have been able to enjoy a comfortable retirement.

Because of her low wages and high out-of-pocket medical bills from a local hospital, Margaret Mary could not afford the electricity bills to heat her home in the winter. In her effort to stay warm, Vojtko worked nights at a local all-night restaurant and tried to catch some sleep at her Duquesne office, according to Kovalik. On four different occasions, Margaret Mary was taken to a campus dorm when she was discovered sleeping in the adjunct office. Later, she was given a room at the campus ministry house.

But Duquesne's occasional charity cannot be used to obscure the cold reality that Vojtko was kept on as a temporary employee for 25 years and given no severance pay when terminated.

RESPECT, BETTER wages, health care benefits and retirement packages are just some of the demands of union organizing drives for adjunct faculty across the country.

Last month in Boston, for example, adjuncts at Tufts University voted 128 to 57 to unionize with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Adjunct English professor Rebecca Kaiser Gibson told Radio Boston:

It took me a lot of years to realize that there's got to be a better balance between the loving to do it and the being treated well while doing it...[T]here's still been this sense of...being treated like children or someone who's a supplicant, hoping that you'll get what you got before, and you better just be happy about it.

Bentley University adjuncts will vote on whether to unionize October 4, also part of SEIU's Adjunct Action campaign.

Adjunct Action reports that the national pay average is $2,987 per three-credit course and that 79% of adjuncts do not get health benefits from their employers. Pay per course varies dramatically across the U.S., with adjuncts in California and other areas where tenured faculty are unionized tending to earn more, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

One year before Margaret Mary's death, the 88 adjuncts at Duquesne University voted to unionize, seeking representation by the Adjunct Faculty Association of the United Steelworkers.

But Duquesne administrators, like many employers, are refusing to negotiate with the union. According to Catherine Fisk and Adam Pulver, about "half of all newly certified or recognized unions are not able to persuade the employer to agree to a collective bargaining agreement."

DUQUESNE, A Catholic university, is arguing "that a Labor Board election would be impermissible government intervention in a religious institution," according to Labor Notes.

But Duquesne's hardline stance against the adjunct union amounts to nothing more than callous defiance, given that there are already four unionized employee groups on the campus, not to mention more than 100 years of Catholic precedent in support of workers' right to unionize.

A key tenet of Catholic social teaching is the "dignity of work and workers' rights." As Marvin L. Krier Mich notes in "The Challenge and Spirituality of Catholic Social Teaching," Pope John Paul in 1984 said:

The needs of the poor take priority over the desires of the rich; the rights of workers over the maximization of profits; the preservation of the environment over uncontrolled industrial expansion; and production to meet social needs over production for military purposes.

But Duquesne, like most higher education employers, is seeking any loophole and any excuse to prevent adjuncts from organizing. Religion is less important than being able to expand and contract the part-time teaching workforce at will and to keep health care costs down.

As their stories get told and myths about higher education are shattered, adjuncts are finding allies among tenured professors, graduate students, undergrads and the public. The most popular slogan during the 1997 Teamsters strike at UPS was "Part-time America Won't Work." Today, Wal-Mart workers are organizing--a feat once thought impossible--and fast-food workers across the country are joining the Fight for 15 campaign.

As Kovalik has recounted, Margaret Mary's nephew John reached out to him after his aunt's death, "implor[ing] me to make sure that she didn't die in vain. He said that while there was nothing that could be done for Margaret Mary, we had to help the other adjuncts at Duquesne and other universities who were being treated just as she was, and who could end up just like she did."

Adjuncts deserve our support and solidarity. Those of us who have recently graduated have all been taught by adjuncts and cannot doubt their dedication to teaching. We should begin by calling on Duquesne administrators to begin bargaining in good faith with the adjuncts union--now. And we should stand with unionizing campaigns by adjuncts at other campuses.

The decades-long attack on living standards and working conditions in higher education has gone on long enough. Hiring instructors as part-time contingent workers for 20 years is temp abuse.

And as we take up the fight against part-time higher education, we must inscribe our banners with #IAmMargaretMary.

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