Should part-time college professors be paid more?
That's what some fellow educators in Pittsburgh and around the country are asking, after an 83-year-old adjunct French professor at Duquesne University died earlier this month with no health insurance, no heat in her home and, for the first time in 25 years, no job.
Last spring, Duquesne told Margaret Mary Vojtko that it would not renew her teaching contract that paid her about $10,000 a year. Vojtko, who was battling cancer, had very high medical bills, could not afford to keep heating her home and had been sleeping in her office at the school. In August, Vojtko contacted Daniel Kovalik, senior associate general counsel of United Steelworkers, the union that has been attempting to unionize the school's 88 adjunct professors.
"She told me that she was under an incredible amount of stress," Kovalik wrote in a scathing op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette following her death. "She was receiving radiation therapy for the cancer that had just returned to her, she was living nearly homeless because she could not afford the upkeep on her home, which was literally falling in on itself, and now, she explained, she had received another indignity — a letter from Adult Protective Services telling her that someone had referred her case to them saying that she needed assistance in taking care of herself. The letter said that if she did not meet with the caseworker the following Monday, her case would be turned over to Orphans' Court.
"For a proud professional like Margaret Mary, this was the last straw," Kovalik continued. "She was mortified. She begged me to call Adult Protective Services and tell them to leave her alone, that she could take care of herself and did not need their help. I agreed to. Sadly, a couple of hours later, she was found on her front lawn, unconscious from a heart attack. She never regained consciousness."
The op-ed went viral, receiving thousands of comments and hundreds of thousands of page views. The school, though, refuted claims that it did not offer Vojtko aid, and accused Kovalik of exploiting her death.
"Despite the assertions made in the op-ed piece, individuals across the University community attempted to help Margaret Mary through her last trying days," John Plante, university vice president for advancement, wrote in a letter to Duquesne staffers. "Spiritan priests, support staff, and University and McAnulty College administrators reached out to assist Margaret Mary with the challenges she faced."
"I knew Margaret Mary well," Rev. Daniel Walsh, director of the Duquesne campus ministry, wrote in an op-ed of his own. "When we learned of problems with her home, she was invited to live with us in the formation community at Laval House on campus, where she resided for several weeks over the past year. Over the course of Margaret Mary's illness I, along with other Spiritan priests, visited with her regularly. In addition, the university and the Spiritan priests at Duquesne offered several other types of assistance to her."
Duquesne officials also argued they pay part-time teachers more than most other schools do, though they did not dispute the notion that adjunct professors are underpaid in general.
"The least that an adjunct professor could be paid is $3,500 for a course, $7,000 for a given semester," Duquesne Provost Tim Austin told NPR. "Whether those are appropriate in a yet larger context is ... a matter that the academic world has not yet found a decisive answer."
Many readers, though, believe that adjunct professors — who make up about 60 percent of the Duquesne faculty and about 75 percent around the country — should be better compensated.
"So much for Christian values," Dawn Fels wrote. "There are hundreds of dedicated individuals just like Margaret Mary across the country trying to make ends meet as professors. They're adjuncts, contingent workers who make a fraction of what they need to survive. It's truly sickening."
"I hope everyone understands that adjuncts are the backbone of university education," Dana Trusso wrote. "In fact, Madame Vojtko was my French teacher in GRADUATE SCHOOL at Duquesne. [Adjuncts] are even teaching Ph.D. students! And this is how we compensate them for their dedication to education? The higher educational system is broken.
Others say that given the amount of money universities pay to college coaches, the low wages given to teachers like Vojtko are borderline criminal.
"So you pay a coach $150,000 to 500,000 and a teacher $20,000 to 40,000?" Patrick James wrote. "These are not universities they are pre-professional sports arenas."