A loyal reader sent me a link to a post from the often excellent blog Gin and Tacos, “Adjunctification,” which reflects on a story I had been meaning to post here, about the sad demise and death of Margaret Mary Vojtko at the age of 83. She had been an adjunct French instructor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh up until her death; she worked there for 25 years and she died penniless and with cancer. A fellow adjunct and lawyer for the United Steeelworkers union (the union was trying to organize adjuncts at Duquesne, a move the Catholic university has strongly resisted) named Daniel Kovalik wrote this op-ed for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and the story got into the higher education press, was the topic of other blog posts (here’s a good one from Phil Nels), got picked up by NPR and many many more places.
This is a story with many many angles to it.
One angle is clearly about the problem of adjuncts– both to the exploited adjuncts themselves and the overuse of adjuncts in higher education. Most readers of EMUTalk.org already know this, but civilians outside of higher education don’t realize that somewhere between 50% and 75% of all college “professors” are actually part-timers who are making around minimum wage or less (depending on how you count the hours spent) with no or few benefits. So stories like Vojtko’s shock the general public especially since the mainstream media has come to believe that all college professors are pretty much the same and are living the easy life.
It’s also clearly a story about unionizing academic labor. Kovalik– the guy who wrote the op-ed piece that first brought attention to this story– has been accused by Duquesne and union opponents of exploiting Vojtko’s unfortunate end in the name of getting the adjunct union off the ground. On the other hand, Duquesne has been resisting unionization and considering it’s a Catholic university that I assume favors social justice and the like, this is a very VERY problematic position indeed.
As an aside, this is one thing that I think EMU does “more right” than most other colleges and universities in this country. We’re far from perfect, but I think our system of unionized lecturers and adjuncts means there is at least some protection and (especially for full-time lecturers) some version of a decent job. Of course, one of the current problems is EMU is working aggressively to limit the amount of teaching part-timers are doing to make sure that the stay part-time so EMU won’t have to give these full-time/part-timers health insurance.
But I also think another important angle on this story is about care for the elderly. The semi-anonymous “Ed” at Gin and Tacos (who is himself an academic) raises two important concerns:
First, the implication that the university should have continued to employ her is dubious. I can count on zero fingers the number of people who teach effectively at age 83 in my career. A small percentage of professors teach well into their late seventies and beyond, but they are outnumbered by the ones who should have hung up their spurs years ago. In Vojtko’s case I can’t imagine that an 80+ year old with cancer – a person who probably belongs in an assisted living facility – was effective in the classroom. I don’t know her. She may have been a good teacher. There is reason to be skeptical, though.
Second, where are Medicare and Social Security in this story? As far as I understand these programs, an 83 year old should have been more than a decade into her eligibility for both. Social Security certainly doesn’t provide for a luxurious lifestyle, but it’s enough to keep the power on. Medicare might not be the finest insurance plan on the planet, but certainly it should have given her access to hospital care and prescription drugs. How was this woman completely uninsured?
In other words, where is the “safety net” that I am assuming is protecting all 80-somethings from this sort of situation? I am well aware that there are many elderly people living in poverty in this country, but like Ed, I kind of assumed that the social security and medicare would have made situations unusual to say the least. Is that a naive assumption on my part?
Also, a lot has been made that Vojtko had been adjunct for 25 years before being “tossed aside” when Duquesne no longer wanted to employ her. But given that she was 83 years old when she died, that meant that she must have been doing something else for a good part of her adult life before becoming an adjunct. What was it? I’m not trying to accuse her of anything; I’m just wondering why or what happened for her to take up adjunct teaching work in her late 50s.
Finally, stories like this one always reminds me of a couple of other things I knew well before I had heard of Margaret Mary Vojtko and that I will continue to remember long after she is forgotten. First, being a part-time adjunct is a terrible way to try to make a living. The sad reality is higher education is a “buyer’s market”– especially in the humanities– and the main reason why colleges pay and treat part-timers so poorly is because they can. Making matters worse are the number of people with advanced degrees in fields like French, Literature, Creative Writing, and so forth who are clamoring to take these low-paying adjunct positions.
My advice to anyone who asks me (and I do get grad students asking me this once in a while) is being a part-time adjunct for a few years is a great way to get some experience and stay active in academia while being employed doing something else and/or being in an economic/life position where you don’t need to worry about doing something else– e.g., a life partner who makes most of the money and has the benefits. Working long-term as a full-time part-timer (and the worse example of this is of adjuncts working part=time at multiple institutions) is not a sustainable life or career choice. Almost everyone who does that would be better off working full-time at almost any other job and teaching one class a semester on the side.
Second is a piece of wisdom that came from my father years ago: you can love your job, but your job will never love you. My dad spent most of his career as a manager-type at Deere and Company, which is about as far away from academia as you can get, but I think the rules that apply there apply in higher education, too. And that’s especially true for folks not on the tenure-track.