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Ear to the Ground

Death of an Adjunct Professor

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Posted on Sep 29, 2013
Duquesne University

An adjunct 83-year-old professor of French and cancer patient recently dismissed from her 25-year post—without severance pay or retirement benefits—at Catholic Duquesne University in Pittsburgh was found dead on her lawn last month. She died “saddened, penniless and on the verge of being turned over to Orphans’ Court,” according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Margaret Mary Vojtko’s story appeared in the newspaper as told by Daniel Kovalik, senior associate general counsel for the United Steelworkers union, which Duquesne adjuncts had voted to join a year ago. Kovalik believes he may have been the last person Vojtko spoke to. She called him, he writes, after Vojtko received notice from Adult Protective Services that someone had referred her to its care. She asked for his help.

Kovalik agreed. “I called Adult Protective Services right after talking to Margaret Mary, and I explained the situation,” he writes. “I said that she had just been let go from her job as a professor at Duquesne, that she was given no severance or retirement benefits, and that the reason she was having trouble taking care of herself was because she was living in extreme poverty.”

A few hours later, Vojtko was discovered unconscious on her front lawn after suffering a heart attack.

Kovalik explains how Vojtko was pushed into her misfortune. “Margaret Mary was an adjunct professor, meaning that, unlike a well-paid tenured professor, Margaret Mary worked on a contract basis from semester to semester, with no job security, no benefits and with a salary of between $3,000 and just over $3,500 per three-credit course,” he writes. “Adjuncts now make up well over 50 percent of the faculty at colleges and universities.

“While adjuncts at Duquesne overwhelmingly voted to join the United Steelworkers union a year ago, Duquesne has fought unionization, claiming that it should have a religious exemption. Duquesne has claimed that the unionization of adjuncts like Margaret Mary would somehow interfere with its mission to inculcate Catholic values among its students.

“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 with the salary of Duquesne’s president, who makes more than $700,000 with full benefits.

“Meanwhile, in the past year, her teaching load had been reduced by the university to one class a semester, which meant she was making well below $10,000 a year. With huge out-of-pocket bills from UPMC Mercy for her cancer treatment, Margaret Mary was left in abject penury. She could no longer keep her electricity on in her home, which became uninhabitable during the winter. She therefore took to working at an Eat’n Park at night and then trying to catch some sleep during the day at her office at Duquesne. When this was discovered by the university, the police were called in to eject her from her office. Still, despite her cancer and her poverty, she never missed a day of class.”

Vojtko was let go in the spring when she was told she was no longer effective as an instructor. This was said despite many glowing reviews from students, Kovalik notes.

—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

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