An Adjunct Faculty Member’s Death Raises National Alarm!

Dear Commons Community,

An op-ed piece in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in which the last days of a Duquesne University adjunct instructor were described as emblematic of the plight of part-time contract faculty, is receiving attention in much of the media.  Daniel Kovalik, senior associate general counsel for the United Steelworkers union, wrote in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette column that he was likely the last person to speak to Margaret Mary Vojtko prior to her death. Although Vojtko had taught at Duquesne for more than 20 years, Kovalik said that she only earned around $3,500 per three-credit course at the private Catholic university. Vojtko was not making enough to get by — less than $25,000 annually, with no health care benefits — and her class-load was reduced while she was battling cancer. Then the university let her go in the spring.  More specifically, Kovalik wrote:

“On Aug. 16, I received a call from a very upset Margaret Mary. She told me that she was under an incredible amount of stress. 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.  Vojtko died at age 83 on Sept. 1, two weeks after a heart attack.”

Duquesne University officials have denied Kovlik’s side of this story claiming that the support it provided and offered to Margaret Mary Vojtko was broad, involving the Spiritan community, student housing, EAP, campus police, facilities management, and her faculty and staff colleagues. It was wholly unrelated to her employment status or classification, or to any issues of adjunct unionization.

However, Kovalik responded saying that Vojtko needed a real salary and benefits, not just “intermittent charity and prayers.”

Robin J. Sowards, an adjunct instructor at Duquesne, told The Chronicle of Higher Education that Kovalik’s account of Vojtko’s situation rings true for many non-tenured part-time faculty.

The story of Margaret Mary Vojtko is playing out on campuses all over the country.  Adjunct professors are paid pitifully low wages without health benefits and if they have a serious medical situation frequently face financial disaster.



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