Margaret Mary Vojtko was a professor of French at Duquesne University for 25 years. She died of a heart attack at the age of 83 after struggling with cancer for a number of years.
She was an adjunct professor. Do you know what that means?
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. Compare this with the salary of Duquesne’s president, who makes more than $700,000 with full benefits.
Meanwhile, in the past year, her teaching load had been reduced by the university to one class a semester, which meant she was making well below $10,000 a year. With huge out-of-pocket bills from UPMC Mercy for her cancer treatment, Margaret Mary was left in abject penury. She could no longer keep her electricity on in her home, which became uninhabitable during the winter. She therefore took to working at an Eat’n Park at night and then trying to catch some sleep during the day at her office at Duquesne. When this was discovered by the university, the police were called in to eject her from her office. Still, despite her cancer and her poverty, she never missed a day of class.
What that means is the university hires a highly trained professional for a pittance and strings them along with temporary assignments year after year, giving them no benefits and no retirement funds, and can simply not renew their contract whenever they feel like it. It’s indentured servitude with no job security at all and paying them less than the custodians make.
About half the teaching staff at American colleges are adjuncts. This is a position that initially had some reasonable utility; here at UMM we hire temporary faculty to fill positions when professors go on sabbatical, and sometimes to address temporary surges in the student population, but at many colleges they’ve become a way to stretch their limited funds…at the expense of the very people who fulfill the primary function of the university. It has become a disgraceful practice, much abused, and harms both the quality of the education (not because these are bad teachers, but because the constant shuffling of staff erodes the continuity and consistency of the curriculum), and also represent gross exploitation of those faculty.
Duquesne is a Catholic university, which ought to shame people who claim an exalted moral status, but this isn’t a Catholic problem. It’s going on at most universities. If you’ve got a faculty member who plays such a role that you keep hiring them year after year for 25 years, you have no excuse other than your miserliness for not promoting them to a permanent position. What Duquesne did was simply abusive oppression, taking advantage of someone in particularly desperate straits.
I knew Margaret Mary well. When we learned of problems with her home, she was invited to live with us in the formation community at Laval House on campus, where she resided for several weeks over the past year.
Over the course of Margaret Mary’s illness I, along with other Spiritan priests, visited with her regularly. In addition, the university and the Spiritan priests at Duquesne offered several other types of assistance to her.
Mr. Kovalik’s use of an unfortunate death to serve an alternative agenda is sadly exploitive and is made worse because his description of the circumstances bears no resemblance to reality.
No, the reality is very familiar — I’ve known many people who have been taken advantage of by the adjunct system. I’m wondering what “other types of assistance” a gang of priests offered her that could possibly compensate for the fact that they starved her with degrading wages for 25 years? I reckon that if they paid her $25K for 25 years when a more reasonable professorial salary is closer to $50K, offering her an envelope with $625,000 in it might have been fair. I suspect that what they offered Margaret Mary Vojtko, who was apparently quite devout, was a little hand-holding and prayer…nothing helpful, in other words.
What was sadly exploitive is Duquesne’s short-sighted abuse of adjunct faculty.