Adjunct Professor's Death Puts Spotlight on Academic Pay, Benefits

By Dan Shewan
Posted September 27, 2013 11:00 AM

Adjunct professor's death puts spotlight on academic pay, benefits.
Adjunct professor's death puts spotlight on academic pay, benefits.

The sudden death of Margaret Mary Vojtko, an 83-year-old adjunct professor of French who worked at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, has galvanized the academic community. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Vojtko's passing has sparked a nationwide debate on working conditions, pay and benefits for adjunct professors working in colleges and universities across the country.

Myriad Circumstances

Daniel Kovalik, a personal friend of Vojtko's and senior counsel to the city's Steelworkers union, wrote in a column for the Post-Gazette that there were several contributing factors in her death. Vojtko was struggling to keep up with the maintenance of her home, which was in a considerable state of disrepair, and was faced with the prospect of losing the house due to her inability to keep up with her mortgage payments. She had also recently begun a series of radiation treatments for recurrent cancer, and had been informed by Pittsburgh's department of Adult Protective Services that someone had referred her case to them stating she was no longer capable of taking care of herself.

Vojtko called Kovalik on the day she died, imploring him to intervene. She was later found unconscious on her front lawn following a heart attack, and never regained consciousness.

A National Catalyst

As an adjunct professor, Vojtko enjoyed none of the benefits that tenured faculty members do. She had little job security, often earned little more than $10,000 per year, and lacked health insurance coverage, according to NPR.

Adjuncts make up approximately 75% of the nation's academic workforce, NPR reported. Although the debate over pay and benefits for adjuncts has polarized the academic community since the early 1970s, when hiring trends began to shift in favor of part-time, non-tenured faculty, Vojtko's death has raised several questions about the working conditions faced by adjunct professors across the country. Some instructors believe college presidents and sports coaches should be paid less, and teaching staff - particularly part-time professors - should be paid more.

"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," Maria Maisto, head of New Faculty Majority, an educational advocacy organization that campaigns for the rights of adjunct professors, told NPR. "In fact, here in Ohio, I have colleagues who have recently had to sell their plasma in order to buy groceries."

Whether Vojtko's death, and the circumstances surrounding it, will effect lasting change in working conditions for adjunct professors remains to be seen. However, in light of recent data that suggests students achieve better learning outcomes when taught by non-tenured faculty members, the debate could reach a boiling point in the near future. 

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