Margaret Mary Vojtko, a languages professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh for more than a quarter of a century, was not widely known. However, her recent death at the age of 83 has thrust her into the public eye in a way that her long academic career never did.
Many people were shocked and angered to hear about the pay and conditions she had received over decades as an adjunct professor and to learn that she died in extreme poverty.
This was revealed by Daniel Kovalik, adjunct professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh and senior associate general counsel of the United Steelworkers union. In an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette he painted a picture of a woman who lived her final days “underpaid and underappreciated”.
He related that he had got a call from Professor Vojtko, who said she was under an “incredible amount of stress”. She was receiving radiation treatment for cancer, was struggling to pay her bills and had just discovered that someone had referred her to social services because she needed “assistance in taking care of herself”.
“She was mortified. She begged me to call Adult Protective Services and tell them to leave her alone…I agreed to. Sadly, a couple of hours later, she was found on her front lawn, unconscious from a heart attack. She never regained consciousness,” Professor Kovalik wrote.
As she had asked, he had called social services to explain that she was living in dire poverty, he continued. “The caseworker paused and asked with incredulity, ‘She was a professor?’ I said yes. The caseworker was shocked; this was not the usual type of person for whom she was called in to help.”
As an adjunct, Professor Vojtko was contracted to work from term to term. She had no job security and no benefits. For each course she taught she was paid from $3,000 (£1,870) up to just over $3,500. In her best years, she did not earn more than $25,000 annually, Professor Kovalik wrote.
Despite glowing reviews from her students on the ratemyprofessors.com website, Professor Vojtko was no longer teaching at Duquesne. Her struggle to make ends meet meant she “was forced to die saddened, penniless and on the verge of being turned over to Orphans’ Court”.
On Twitter, people expressed their sadness and anger about Professor Vojtko’s death under the hashtag #iammargaretmary, voicing sympathy and sharing stories about part-time lecturers.
“I have many friends who are just like #iammargaretmary. As a #catholic institution, @duqedu should be ashamed,” wrote Cara Ptonk (@CPtonk). “I teach six classes and care about my students, but I don’t have health care,” noted @GracieG, while Danielle Wheeler (@danceanielle), who teaches at an institution in the southern US, tweeted: “I teach four classes. I often can’t afford to take the bus to campus.”
Lee Skallerup Bessette, instructor of English at Morehead State University, summed up this tragic story in a post titled “What we willfully unsee in highered” on her College Ready Writing blog for Inside Higher Ed. “Tell me that this isn’t a case of the university ‘unseeing’ her, that the entire system is set up to ‘unsee’ adjuncts and the injustice and hypocrisy of it all.”
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