Joyce Carol Oates
Shocking that so many universities exploit their most vulnerable staff, adjuncts. Professors’ salaries scarcely rise—administrators’ soar.
A year’s tuition at Duquesne University, a private college, may carry a $31,385 price tag, but a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette column claims that 25 years of teaching at the college left Margaret Mary Vojtko too poor to survive. She taught French at Duquesne as an adjunct for $3,500 per class without benefits. Her class schedule was reduced to 10 hours a week as she faced enormous cancer treatment bills.
Daniel Kovalik, a senior associate general counsel of the United Steelworkers union, and a legal adviser to Vojtko, wrote:
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 to the salary of Duquesne’s president, who makes more than $700,000 with full benefits.
After a long battle with ovarian cancer, friends and colleages said, Vojtko couldn’t afford to fix a broken furnace at home. She spent nights working at an Eat n’ Park restaurant and slept at her office until campus security escorted her out, they said.
On Sept. 1, Vojtko died of a heart attack. She was 83.
Votjko was abruptly terminated with no severance after two decades, which “devastated her,” said Votjko’s colleague Joshua Zelesnick. After filing a lawsuit against the university, Votjko was able to regain tutoring positions for what Zelesnick estimates to be $10 an hour for 10 hours of work per week.
The university disputes Zelesnick and Kovalik’s accounts, however.
“There are those with no direct knowledge of the actual circumstances,” Duquesne Vice President John Plante told BuzzFeed. “They expressed outrage, using social media to attack Duquesne based on their acceptance of Mr. Kovalik’s published mischaracterizations.”
Duquesne University Chaplain Rev. Daniel Walsh said that he and other friends visited Vojtko often and urged her to stay on campus housing. He decried Kovalik’s “sadly exploitive” use of a death for an “alternative agenda.” Kovalik says the university “doesn’t dispute my account at all.”
“They simply claim that, in lieu of a living wage and benefits, they offered her intermittent charity and prayers as a salve to her impoverishment,” Kovalik told Duquesne’s campus newspaper.
Regardless of Duquesne’s complicity or innocence, The National Education Association reports that more than half of U.S. college courses are taught by adjuncts (compared to 20% in the 1970s), who are paid a meager median of $2,700 per full course in a semester.
“It’s typical for adjuncts to get side jobs in a Starbucks,” says Kovalik, himself an adjunct professor of law.
Zelesnick, who teaches writing at Duquesne, says he also worked more than 20 hours a week at Trader Joe’s to stay financially afloat. It was through Trader Joe’s employee benefits that Zelesnick was able to secure health care. “A colleague of mine tends bar part-time in addition to teaching. Another colleague used to work the phones at a nonprofit on the days he wasn’t teaching.”
Meanwhile, college tuition has increased more than 500% since 1982.