Paul L. Caron

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Death of an Adjunct


Inside Higher Ed, #iammargaretmary:

A column in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about Mary Margaret Vojtko, an adjunct instructor of French at Duquesne University who died sick, alone and penniless this month, went viral Tuesday, as adjuncts across the country reported seeing something tragically familiar in her story.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Death of an Adjunct:

On Sept. 1, Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct professor who had taught French at Duquesne University for 25 years, passed away at the age of 83. She died as the result of a massive heart attack she suffered two weeks before. As it turned out, I may have been the last person she talked to.

On Aug. 16, I received a call from a very upset Margaret Mary. She told me that she was under an incredible amount of stress. She was receiving radiation therapy for the cancer that had just returned to her, she was living nearly homeless because she could not afford the upkeep on her home, which was literally falling in on itself, and now, she explained, she had received another indignity -- a letter from Adult Protective Services telling her that someone had referred her case to them saying that she needed assistance in taking care of herself. The letter said that if she did not meet with the caseworker the following Monday, her case would be turned over to Orphans' Court.

For a proud professional like Margaret Mary, this was the last straw; she was mortified. She begged me to call Adult Protective Services and tell them to leave her alone, that she could take care of herself and did not need their help. 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.

Meanwhile, I called Adult Protective Services right after talking to Margaret Mary, and I explained the situation. 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. 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.

Of course, what the caseworker didn't understand was that 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. Adjuncts now make up well over 50 percent of the faculty at colleges and universities. ...

Duquesne knew all about Margaret Mary's plight, for I apprised them of it in two letters. I never received a reply, and Margaret Mary was forced to die saddened, penniless and on the verge of being turned over to Orphan's Court. ...

Her nephew, who had contacted me about her passing, implored me to make sure that she didn't die in vain. He said that while there was nothing that could be done for Margaret Mary, we had to help the other adjuncts at Duquesne and other universities who were being treated just as she was, and who could end up just like she did. I believe that writing this story is the first step in doing just that.

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So old people dying penniless and alone matters when it's "a proud professional?" How about when it's not?

Posted by: Jobs | Sep 19, 2013 9:31:44 AM

Jobs, that's not what I think the professor is saying. It always matters when people die penniless and alone, but the import rises to a higher level when the deceased is a friend and colleague, as well as when the context is egregious, as it appears to be in this instance.

My condolences to her family and to the professor as well. We need more advocates and fewer detractors and the professor stepped up to the plate in a noble pro bono effort.

Posted by: Frank | Sep 19, 2013 11:48:54 PM