Margaret Mary Vojtko was a longtime adjunct professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Earlier this month, she died penniless. She may have an even greater effect in death than in life.
Yesterday, Daniel Kovalik, a union official and friend of Vojtko, wrote an op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette relating the circumstances of the end of Vojtko's life. In short: she was afflicted with cancer, and living in poverty, in a crumbling home, in conditions so poor that a neighbor had called Adult Protective Services to help her. As a "proud professional," she didn't want help, and asked Kovalik to help get APS off her back. That same day, she fell dead of a heart attack.
A sad story. But the reason that Kovalik's tale of Vojtko's end has garnered so much attention is because it contrasts her poverty-stricken lifestyle with her quarter-century-long career as an adjunct professor at a major university:
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.
[A Duquesne campus chaplain disputes Kovalik's account.]
Duquesne, like many other schools, fought against the efforts of its adjunct professors to unionize. Adjunct professors often find it hard to get any public sympathy for their working conditions, either; after all, they're professors, right? Everyone wants that job, right? But the case of Margaret Mary Vojtko highlights just how outrageous the salaries and economic conditions are for many of those who teach in some of our nation's most highly touted universities.
Her case has already spawned a Twitter hashtag. Perhaps it can also shame some schools into treating adjunct professors like the professionals they are.