The recent death of a long-time, part-time professor in Pennsylvania is gathering the attention of instructors nationwide. The trend of relying on part-time faculty has been increasing for a long time, and Margaret Mary Vojtko's story is seen by some as the tragic consequence of current policies.
Margaret Mary Vojtko had taught French for the past 25 years at Duquesne University when the university decided not to renew her contract. As a part-time professor, she had been earning about $10,000 a year, and had no health insurance.
Then she got cancer.
On Sept. 1, Margaret Mary was found unconscious on her front lawn and later died from a heart attack. She was 83, destitute, and nearly homeless.
Some may think that teachers are immune from financial crisis, but unbelievable as it sounds, Margaret Mary, a college 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. Margaret Mary was an adjunct professor, meaning that, unlike a well-paid tenured professor, she 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. Anyone would be challenged to have financial security with this kind of income.
Meanwhile, during 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 poverty. 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.
This tragic story illustrates the sad plight of the adjunct professor in American colleges and universities. There are countless other Margaret Mary’s throughout the country right now who struggle against insurmountable odds. Poverty is the price to pursue the noble profession of educating our youth.
There is a higher-education bubble that is much like the housing bubble of recent days. Even with an increasing supply of colleges and of undergraduate slots, there is a lower demand for those slots. The cost of tuition has spiraled upward causing students to take out ever increasing debt loads to pay for it while their prospects for decent jobs after graduation(or any job at all) have plummeted, putting their loans “under water.” All of it propped by government promises and guarantees on the faulty premise that everyone should have a college education. A recipe for disaster.
Our priories priorities are all screwed up, and higher education has become an unmanageable beast, gobbling up incredible amounts of resources–not just the tuition itself but the billions of dollars of interest paid on those loans to (yes, you guessed right-big banks), but also devouring the hundreds of thousands of liberal arts majors and others who dreamed of becoming a tweed-jacketed tenured professor on some ivy-bedecked campus who spends his days regaling bright-eyed undergrads, mentoring aspiring grad students, and engaging in fulfilling and important research, but instead ended up shuttling from community college campus to public college, stringing together an impossible course load – don’t forget the papers and grading!–in order to eke out a living.
I know the challenges first hand because one of my sons does exactly that, and if it were not for his wife's insurance plan and 2nd income, there would be no way he could ever hope to earn enough to survive not to mention pay a mortgage, cover childcare expenses, or address unexpected expenses!
For those few unfamiliar with the challenge, it’s not hard to describe. Research on adjunct working conditions paints a picture of inequality between them and their tenure-track counterparts. A 2010 survey of non-tenure-track faculty members by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce showed low median compensation rates for adjunct faculty, at $2,700 per three-credit course, with little, if any, compensation based on credentials and minimal support for work or professional development outside the classroom. (At four courses per semester, that's $21,600 annually, compared to starting tenure-track salaries that average $66,000, according to data from the American Association of University Professors.)
But adjunct faculty now make up the majority of the higher education work force. As recently as 1969, 78 percent of instructional staff comprised tenured or tenure-track professors, with adjunct faculty making up the rest, according to information from the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California. By 2009, the figures had nearly flipped, with a third of faculty tenured or on the tenure track and two-thirds ineligible for tenure. Of those non-tenure-track positions, just 19 percent were full-time. Read more: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/01/09/adjunct-leaders-consider-strategies-force-change#ixzz2fjyuQMmv Inside Higher Ed
Seeking a better way to get its message across, the New Faculty Majority has designated 2013 as “the year of the student,” said Maisto. Although it won’t abandon its ongoing efforts to connect adjuncts with other adjuncts on individual campuses and across the country, she said, “We know when students get involved, administrations listen.” It is a shame that the voice of reason and a working conscience are not enough to mitigate the challenges involved. Like all things, those with the checkbook (or credit cards these days) are the ones with the loudest voices that are validated.
Ethan Miller, a senior at American University who helped advocate for adjuncts’ successful unionization last year, said many students “don’t have a clue” about the differences between tenure-track and non-tenure-track professors. But once informed, they can be powerful agents of change who are sympathetic to the quality-of-life issues that haven’t resonated with higher education over all.
It is time for America to examine the flaws in higher education and find solutions that are equitable for all. Students deserve a quality education, and teachers deserve adequate compensation for providing it. In a world that seems increasingly ignorant and proud of it, it is imperative that we repair the things that are broken in our educational system. There are so many grave concerns that require educated problem solvers, but we are unwilling to do move in the direction that will make that come to fruition.
So for Margaret Mary, my son John, and all the other adjunct professors who are victims of a flawed system, the reward for your dedication to students will only be intrinsic. The world we live in simply does not get the point. Educators are the torchbearers who illuminate the future and inspire future generations to achieve excellence. We should all be ashamed for not acting on this truth.