Universities as businesses: Death of an adjunct

Margaret Mary Votjko, an 83-year-old college teacher of French at Duquense University in Pittsburgh, was found dead of a heart attack recently.  She was living in poverty, unable to pay her medical or utility bills.   Her situation was an example of what happens when the for-profit corporation becomes the model for all institutions of society, including universities.

Daniel Kovalik, of the United Steelworkers, told her story to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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. 


Seal_of_Duquesne_University.svgAs 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.

via Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Her economic situation is not that unusual, and her pay, based on what I’ve been told by friends who are adjunct college teachers, was fairly standard.  The original idea of adjunct faculty was to have successful lawyers, scientists and other professionals come in and lecture about their fields of expertise.  They were intended as adjuncts to the regular faculty, not substitutes.

The great Russian novelist, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, once wrote that what matters is not the political or economic system, but the moral foundations of society.   The present system of higher education would work just fine if it was operated by people whose priority was a love of learning and teaching.  Colleges and other non-profit organizations are given special privileges on the assumption that they have a higher aim than maximizing wealth.

When administrators recognize no values except monetary values, then their employees have no choice but to organize to protect their interests.   Teachers on any level don’t like to strike, but the strike—the power to withhold one’s labor—is the workers’ only means of self-defense.

Click on Death of an adjunct for Daniel Kovalik’s full article.  Hat tip for the link to Daniel Brandt.

Click on the The Adjunct Blog | Adjunct Project for more.

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