The exploitation of—and over-reliance on—part-time college instructors has been highlighted after a tragic event led to an opinion piece that went viral and eventually made headlines. Margaret Mary Vojtko taught French for 25 years at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. She scraped by on about $10,000 a year with no health insurance until, after two and half decades of service, the university chose not to renew her contract. Battling cancer and huge medical bills, she died of a heart attack, practically homeless and penniless, on September 1.
Vojtko had been part of an effort to unionize Duquesne’s adjunct faculty in association with the United Steelworkers, an effort resisted by the university’s administration. She had reached out to Daniel Kovalik, the union’s senior counsel, shortly before her death. In response to the tragic circumstances of her death, Kovalik published an elucidating op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. This piece has made the rounds amongst my Facebook friends recently, with good reason. NPR also picked up the story and attempted to include the university’s side. Duquesne Provost Tim Austin is quoted as saying, “First of all, I don’t accept that the arrangements that we make with part-timers are dictated by cost savings.” WHAT??? Then, why? Why would you pay poverty wages to such highly educated and dedicated individuals if not to save money? He goes on to point out that Duquesne pays adjuncts more than average. That’s a sorry excuse. That’s like saying that your shirtwaist factory has fewer child employee deaths than average. Anyway, the conversation around this story is a very good thing—as most people have no idea about the working conditions of college instructors—and it has hit close to home. I would like to add my experience to the dialogue.
The people I have admired most in my life have been my teachers. They put their sanity on the line to try to improve the minds and lives of young people, often sacrificing the potential of higher pay for this noble cause. I had no illusions that teaching would be easy or make me rich, but it seemed like a perfectly viable career field and one that would make me happy. In college, I fell in love with art history and decided that I would be best suited to sharing complex concepts with a more mature audience. I saw myself as a college professor rather than a K-12 art teacher and knew that I would be willing—even happy—to put in the hard work necessary to seek advanced degrees. Immediately after completing my Master’s exam, I was offered the opportunity to teach a class at my alma mater. I was so overjoyed that I barely noticed the meager pay ($3,000). It was all about building my resume.
After a year and a half, it didn’t seem so exciting and glamorous anymore. I dreaded the question “What do you do?” People couldn’t understand why I worked three jobs. Whenever somebody seemed impressed that I was a “professor,” I just felt like a phony. I skipped social events for lack of energy and funds. I had waking nightmares about hypothetical illnesses and car accidents I could not afford. I felt deflated. I had always been so goal-oriented and so successful in my endeavors, but suddenly I saw no future in my chosen path. After learning that adjuncts now teach more than 75% of college courses…after seeing friends land tenure-track positions only to not have their contracts renewed four years later…after finding out that adjuncts at my school had not had a raise in over 30 years (although tuition and enrollment increase annually)…I decided to cut my losses and pursue other career options. I was lucky that I didn’t get all the way through a PhD before seeing these realities. If you’re reading these recent op eds and wondering why somebody so well educated would get sucked into a career with poverty pay, no benefits, no job security whatsoever, and high stress on top of it all…just imagine how hard it would be to walk away from your passion after spending 10 years or more of your adult life (and potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars) studying for it.
I’ve been very lucky. I had mentors who helped me gain a lot of perspective fairly early. I never got seriously ill in the years I was uninsured. I was always able to find multiple jobs to make ends meet—and those jobs were in my field, helping me to build my resume (as well as a pretty rad toolbox of life skills). The best part is that I now have a full-time job that I enjoy, but I still have the flexibility to teach one class as an adjunct in the evenings. I love teaching and wouldn’t want to give it up completely. And that’s exactly why adjunct positions were created: to provide opportunities for professionals or retirees or graduate students to share their expertise. However, the sad reality is that most adjuncts are struggling to build careers and support families.
Academia has got to come together to do the right thing: reduce the inflated salaries of university presidents and coaches in order to provide a reasonable standard of life for those who actually educate. Instructors are not able to do their best work when they have to worry about having sustenance, shelter, and healthcare. It’s not fair to them, and it’s not fair to the students who pay so much money for the opportunity to learn and build better lives for themselves.