An Adjunct's Death Becomes a Rallying Cry for Many in Academe

September 19, 2013

An op-ed column about the death of a former longtime adjunct faculty member at Duquesne University has drawn new attention to the working conditions of instructors off the tenure track.

The column, published on Wednesday in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, says that Margaret Mary Vojtko was underpaid and underappreciated during her 25 years of teaching French at the Roman Catholic university, and that she was nearly destitute when she died, on September 1, at the age of 83.

The column's author, Daniel M. Kovalik, is the senior associate general counsel of the United Steelworkers union, which led efforts to unionize adjuncts at Duquesne over the past few years. His column, which also describes the working conditions for adjuncts at Duquesne and the institution's fight against unionization, rippled through the Pittsburgh campus and attracted attention in academic circles nationwide soon after it appeared online Wednesday morning.

Duquesne officials disputed some details in the column and said that Mr. Kovalik was using Ms. Vojtko's death to further the union's agenda.

In the column, Mr. Kovalik, who is also an adjunct professor at the University of Pittsburgh's law school, writes that the university reduced Ms. Vojtko's course load to one class per semester last fall, decreasing her annual earnings to below $10,000. Ms. Vojtko, a cancer patient, could not afford electricity in her home, he wrote, which was "literally falling in on itself."

Last spring Ms. Vojtko learned that she was not being rehired for this fall's semester, The Duquesne Duke, a student paper, reported earlier this month.

'She Was a Professor?'

Ms. Vojtko suffered a heart attack in August after she heard from Adult Protective Services that the agency would turn her case over to Orphans' Court if she did not meet with a caseworker.

Mr. Kovalik says Ms. Vojtko asked him to intercede with the agency on her behalf. He describes his interaction with the caseworker:

"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."

In an interview with The Chronicle, Robin J. Sowards, an adjunct English instructor at Duquesne, said graduate students, tenured faculty members, and adjunct instructors at the university were "generally distressed" by the column's details about Ms. Vojtko's plight.

"The situation, in the long term, is what a lot of us ultimately face," said Mr. Sowards, who is a member of the Adjunct Faculty Association, the United Steelworkers-affiliated bargaining unit that adjuncts at Duquesne voted to form last September. "When your employer is done with you, you get tossed to the curb."

But Duquesne officials said Mr. Kovalik's column mischaracterized Ms. Vojtko's situation.

A university spokeswoman provided a statement in which Duquesne's chaplain and director of campus ministry, the Rev. Daniel Walsh, says that Ms. Vojtko lived at the university's Laval House, a building for undergraduates studying to enter the priesthood, for several weeks during the past year, at the university's invitation, after Duquesne officials "learned of problems with her home."

He also writes that he and other priests visited her regularly during her illness.

"Mr. Kovalik's use of an unfortunate death to serve an alternative agenda is sadly exploitive," he says, "and is made worse because his description of the circumstances bears no resemblance to reality."

In a separate e-mail, the spokeswoman wrote that the university's office of public affairs heard from several people on the campus familiar with the university's efforts who were outraged that Mr. Kovalik "would use this sad situation to further an agenda."

'Throwaway Citizens'

A national e-mail list of adjunct faculty members circulated and discussed the column on Wednesday, and many have shared the piece on Twitter.

Some used the hashtag #iammargaretmary on their tweets.

"We're thinking that in some ways she can be a rallying figure, not unlike Trayvon Marton, for action, for education," said Maria C. Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, an adjunct advocacy group.

That Mr. Kovalik's article was published in a nonacademic newspaper gives the story a broader impact, Ms. Maisto said.

Ms. Maisto said she hoped that the story would spur further organizing among adjuncts at Duquesne.

"We have a responsibility to remember people," she said.

Mr. Kovalik, too, said he hoped his column would inspire action. "I hope it will spur the adjuncts on to organize and defend themselves from this kind of activity, to support each other," he said.

In the column, Mr. Kovalik says that Ms. Vojtko's nephew wanted his aunt's death not to have been 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."

Mr. Sowards said he had urged Ms. Vojtko to share her story last April, when the university notified her that it was not rehiring her for the fall. He said he had hoped that news-media attention would force the university to re-evaluate that decision.

"It's a sad situation, and sadder still if nobody hears about it," he said on Wednesday.

Debra Leigh Scott, an adjunct instructor of humanities courses who is helping produce a documentary film called Junct: The Trashing of Higher Ed. in America, said she hoped Ms. Vojtko's story would inspire adjuncts to approach legislators for broader change, including a workers' bill of rights. Each union, she said, applies to only a small group of people and takes years to put in place.

"We're becoming throwaway humans, and it's not just in academia," she said. "Our citizens are becoming throwaway citizens."

Seeking Union Recognition

In the summer of 2011, Duquesne adjuncts began to organize to form a union, aiming to increase pay, improve job security, and receive health-care benefits, Mr. Sowards said.

Last fall instructors voted, 50 to 9, to unionize through the United Steelworkers, but their bargaining unit has yet to receive the university's recognition or certification. Duquesne has appealed the unionization vote to the National Labor Relations Board, arguing that, as a religious institution, it should be exempt from the board's oversight. The university is still awaiting a decision from the national board.

Mr. Kovalik said he hoped his column would lead to union recognition by the institution. He noted that Georgetown University, a Jesuit institution, had recognized its adjunct union.

At Duquesne adjuncts earn $3,500 per three-credit course, according to the university's office of communications. Mr. Sowards said adjunct instructors can teach a maximum of two courses per semester.

The first generation of "career adjuncts," instructors who have taught throughout their lives without tenure, are now approaching old age, Ms. Scott said.

"That's an enormous amount of people who will face poverty, if they aren't now," she said. "That's a federal problem."

Correction (9/19/2013, 10:15 a.m.): This article originally cited an incorrect figure for adjuncts' pay at Duquesne. They earn $3,500 per course, not $2,500. The text has been corrected.

Correction (9/20/2013, 8:10 a.m.): This article originally said that Daniel Kovalik had written that Margaret Mary Vojtko worked a night job at a restaurant. In fact, Mr. Kovalik had meant that she had done her grading and other paperwork at the restaurant; she did not have a job there. The text has been corrected.