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Death of an Adjunct

On Sept. 1, Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct professor who had taught French at Duquesne University for 25 years, passed away at the age of 83. She died as the result of a massive heart attack she suffered two weeks before. As it turned out, I may have been the last person she talked to.

On Aug. 16, I received a call from a very upset Margaret Mary. She told me that she was under an incredible amount of stress. She was receiving radiation therapy for the cancer that had just returned to her, she was living nearly homeless because she could not afford the upkeep on her home, which was literally falling in on itself, and now, she explained, she had received another indignity — a letter from Adult Protective Services telling her that someone had referred her case to them saying that she needed assistance in taking care of herself. The letter said that if she did not meet with the caseworker the following Monday, her case would be turned over to Orphans’ Court.

For a proud professional like Margaret Mary, this was the last straw; she was mortified. She begged me to call Adult Protective Services and tell them to leave her alone, that she could take care of herself and did not need their help. I agreed to. Sadly, a couple of hours later, she was found on her front lawn, unconscious from a heart attack. She never regained consciousness.

Meanwhile, I called Adult Protective Services right after talking to Margaret Mary, and I explained the situation. I said that she had just been let go from her job as a professor at Duquesne, that she was given no severance or retirement benefits, and that the reason she was having trouble taking care of herself was because she was living in extreme poverty. The caseworker paused and asked with incredulity, “She was a professor?” I said yes. The caseworker was shocked; this was not the usual type of person for whom she was called in to help.

Of course, what the caseworker didn’t understand was that Margaret Mary was an adjunct professor, meaning that, unlike a well-paid tenured professor, Margaret Mary worked on a contract basis from semester to semester, with no job security, no benefits and with a salary of between $3,000 and just over $3,500 per three-credit course. Adjuncts now make up well over 50 percent of the faculty at colleges and universities.

While adjuncts at Duquesne overwhelmingly voted to join the United Steelworkers union a year ago, Duquesne has fought unionization, claiming that it should have a religious exemption. Duquesne has claimed that the unionization of adjuncts like Margaret Mary would somehow interfere with its mission to inculcate Catholic values among its students.

This would be news to Georgetown University — one of only two Catholic universities to make U.S. News & World Report’s list of top 25 universities — which just recognized its adjunct professors’ union, citing the Catholic Church’s social justice teachings, which favor labor unions.

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.

Finally, in the spring, she was let go by the university, which told her she was no longer effective as an instructor — despite many glowing evaluations from students. She came to me to seek legal help to try to save her job. She said that all she wanted was money to pay her medical bills because Duquesne, which never paid her much to begin with, gave her nothing on her way out the door.

Duquesne knew all about Margaret Mary’s plight, for I apprised them of it in two letters. I never received a reply, and Margaret Mary was forced to die saddened, penniless and on the verge of being turned over to Orphan’s Court.

The funeral Mass for Margaret Mary, a devout Catholic, was held at Epiphany Church, only a few blocks from Duquesne. The priest who said Mass was from the University of Dayton, another Catholic university and my alma mater. Margaret Mary was laid out in a simple, cardboard casket devoid of any handles for pallbearers — a sad sight, but an honest symbol of what she had been reduced to by her ostensibly Catholic employer.

Her nephew, who had contacted me about her passing, implored 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. I believe that writing this story is the first step in doing just that.

Daniel Kovalik is senior associate general counsel of the United Steelworkers union (DKovalik@usw.org).

This essay originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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Daniel Kovalik teaches International Human Rights at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

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