Margaret Mary Vojtko spent her life “reaching” people. She spent 25 years teaching French at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pa., and most of her students had only good things to say about her.
On Sept. 1, 2013 she passed away from complications resulting from an earlier massive heart attack, although she was also battling cancer. It would be nice if I could say that Margaret Mary spent her last days relaxing in retirement and reflecting on a life lived in the service of education and language. But I can’t.
Despite her two and a half decades teaching at the same school, Professor* Vojtko was “adjunct faculty,” which means that unlike tenured professors — who enjoy job security, livable wages, and benefits — they are paid a pittance and have no job security.
In an editorial in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Daniel Kovalik, a general counsel for the United Steelworkers Union and friend of Professor Vojtko painted a picture of what her last few weeks were like.
Her story, while heartbreaking in the particulars, is not exactly unique to the plight of the adjunct instructor. According to a survey by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, almost three-quarters of educators on the collegiate level are adjunct faculty. They are paid per course, the average being $2,700 over three or so months for part-timers. They do no less work for each class than a tenure-track professor might, and usually must teach many more courses per semester in order to make ends meet.
At the time of her death, Professor Vojtko was teaching no courses for the university and had actually been referred to Adult Protective Services. She spent her last days working to ensure that after 25 years of instructing students at one of the costliest universities in Pennsylvania, her fate wouldn’t be in the hands of Orphans’ Court.
Duquesne University released a statement following the editorial, saying that they offered her on-campus accomodations. However, they do not refute Mr. Kovalik’s assertions that she was dismissed from the university nor that she was removed from her office by campus police for sleeping at her desk because her home was unlivable.
Pittsburgh, Penn., is a town with working-class sensibilities. After the steel industry moved overseas, an entire generation of workers was left with no options. They didn’t want charity, but instead wanted simply to work, earning the money they needed to provide for the families.
Professor Vojtko shared that same sensibility. She didn’t want the university’s charity, but instead wanted to continue her life’s work — teaching — and all she asked for in return was a wage that would allow her to fix her home or pay her steep medical bills for cancer treatment.
I reentered college a decade after my first attempt at a degree was interrupted because of military service, and only a few weeks into my first semester at the University of Pittsburgh I wanted to teach at the collegiate level. After years of bouncing from one sales and service job to the next, there was something that made teaching seem almost magical. Pittsburgh is a town with a deep working-class history and one that is supremely aware of how one’s entire livelihood can vanish because of changing economic conditions. But, I thought, we’ll always need teachers.
I took a work-study job in the English Department and got to know many of the professors who I hoped to one day emulate — illuminating students to the power of a well-written, well-crafted story that sticks with a person long after he or she puts down the book or magazine. One of my best professors taught a class called “Forms of Prose,” which looked at the evolution of nonfiction writing since the beginnings of written language. Her harsh teaching style left a few students annoyed or unhappy – mostly because she abhorred bluster and would insist students be substantive in their classwork. Most of them pushed themselves to produce the best work possible because of her high standards. One day almost an entire class was taken up by an argument between the professor and myself about the particular merits of an essay. She didn’t change my mind about it, but she did force me to clarify my points of contention beyond simply “I didn’t like it.” Regardless of what anyone ever thought about her teaching style, no one could deny that they learned in her class.
Working in the English Department, I got to know her outside of the classroom and her personality couldn’t have been more different from her teaching persona. Her tough certainty behind the podium was absent, because she worried both that she wasn’t being an effective educator and that she may not be given a class the following semester. Teaching two or three classes, she still had to take an evening job at a local grocery store. She even worked alongside some of her students. When we look at the diminishing returns of a college education nowadays, one must factor in the reality that professors have to work the same night-time, low-paying jobs to pay their expenses that the students work to help pay for the ever-increasing price of college tuition.
Anyone who has railed against teachers’ unions as greedy organizations looking to prop up lazy and ineffective educators need only look at the plight of the adjunct professor to see what might happen were the unions to vanish. A number of non-academic unions, including United Steelworkers and SEIU, have made efforts to organize for adjunct faculty but have met with opposition from Universities. They have also faced some reluctance from adjunct faculty themselves who, despite their low wages, fear the loss of the tiny paycheck that they could not live without.
Even in death Professor Vojtko is educating people, only instead of teaching the delights of the French language, she is revealing the realities of higher education in America. In fact, Duquesne University recently rejected an attempt at unionization by their adjunct faculty, claiming religious exemption. However, union advocates reject that claim as merely a way in which to keep their easy access to talented educators at bargain rates.
Republicans and Democrats both agree that access to education is important for their constituents, but rarely do we consider that the high costs of learning does not benefit the person on the other side of the desk. College costs are increasing and that money certainly has to be going somewhere, but the way in which to address this issue is to not make teaching the classes a job only fit for moonlighting from one’s “real job.” It won’t just affect the professors themselves, but all graduates in all fields for generations to come.
*”Professor” is a very specific title at Universities and there is a chance that Ms. Vojtko was not “officially” a professor. A spokesperson for Duquesne University’s public affairs office did not return my call to confirm her rank. I am opting to use this term despite not knowing her official title as a measure of respect and because I recognize that there is sometimes a difference between what a word actually means versus what it should mean.