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Death Of Adjunct Professor Re-Opens Labor Debate

part time employeeMargaret Mary Vojtko taught French for Duquesne University in Pittsburgh for more than 25 years. Last spring, at the age of 83, she was terminated by the university and then died shortly afterward, completely broke and on the verge of homelessness. In the months that have followed, he story has triggered a renewed debate over the treatment of part-time faculty in universities and colleges across the U.S.

Today, these “adjunct” professors make up a stunning 75% of all college instructors; and the average part-time instructor earns only $20,000 to $25,000 annually. And Margaret Vojtko, who had been teaching students at Duquesne for well over two decades, was only earning about $10,000 a year. As a part-time professor, she had no health insurance and did not qualify for other work-related injury benefits.

To a large extent, the story of Margaret Vojtko’s poverty and death got a lot of traction among labor attorneys and other workers’ advocates simply because the issue of benefits, compensation and treatment of adjunct professors has been smoldering since the early 1970s, when colleges started shifting to a part-time workforce.  Just like large corporations, including Walmart and fast-food franchises, universities see this as a way to save money by withholding benefits and higher wages from their employees.

Now that story of the part-time professor’s mistreatment is gaining national attention. Last year before her death, Vojtko attended a meeting between part-time Duquesne instructors and the union activists who had been working to organize them. The professors want to create a union affiliated with the United Steelworkers.

Daniel Kovalik, senior official with the Steelworkers remembers how distraught Vojtko was. “She had cancer; she had very high medical bills,” Kovalik stated. “She didn’t want charity. She just thought that after working 25 years for Duquesne she was owed a living wage and some sort of retirement and benefits.”

Vojtko passed away from a heart attack in September at the age of 83, destitute and on the brink of homelessness.

In the days after her funeral, Kovalik published a scathing op-ed piece in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, criticizing Duquesne University for its treatment of employees like Vojtko. Almost immediately, a wider debate emerged on Facebook, Twitter and many listervs.

The move to using adjunct instructors has saved educational institutions a lot of money. But Tim Austin, Provost of Duquesne, claims that it’s not appropriate to portray his University as “heartless and greedy.” “First of all, I don’t accept that the arrangements that we make with part-timers are dictated by cost savings,” Austin says.  Second, says Austin, Duquesne pays part time professors more than many institutions.

Yet the real solution is obvious, according to Maria Maisto, head of New Faculty Majority, which advocates for adjunct professors: reduce the huge salaries that college presidents and coaches earn, and pay better wages to part-time professors.

“If education is really at the heart of what we do, then there’s absolutely no excuse for not putting the bulk of the resources into what happens in the classroom,” Maisto says. “In fact, here in Ohio, I have colleagues who have recently had to sell their plasma in order to buy groceries,” she says.

Labor advocates, employment attorneys and educators across the US hope that colleges like Duquesne will be shamed into allowing its professors to unionize.

“If Margaret Mary can help in that way, she would be very proud,” Kovalik says.

In a press release circulated last week, Duquesne officials stated that they had no plans on the horizon to let adjunct professors to unionize, even though the instructors themselves just voted in favor of the measure.

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