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 Wednesday, as adjuncts across the country reported seeing something tragically familiar in her story.
The piece , written by Daniel Kovalik, senior associate general counsel for the United Steelworkers union, describes a telephone conversation he had with Vojtko, 83, a few hours before she suffered a massive heart attack on her front lawn.
Vojtko, who’d worked at Duquesne for 25 years, was undergoing radiation for cancer. Someone had contacted the county's Adult Protective Services, reporting that she couldn’t take care of herself. She begged Kovalik – whose union has worked on Duquesne’s adjuncts’ protracted fight for unionization  against the Roman Catholic institution’s claims of religious exemption from federal labor regulations – to intervene. (Adjuncts voted overwhelmingly in 2012 to organize under the steelworkers' banner but have been blocked from doing so by the legal fight over the religious issue.)
Kovalik describes Vojtko – a “proud professional” who he said had just been fired from Duquesne – as “mortified.”
He called Adult Protective Services on her behalf.
“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,” Kovalik wrote. “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.”
The next paragraph rang particularly true with adjuncts throughout the day, as they shared the story on listservs and social media, including Facebook and Twitter – many with the marker #iammargaretmary :
“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 acknowledged that its part-time instructors receive no benefits, and it did not dispute the details of Vojtko's employment. But the university said that its priests did reach out to offer help, and it released a statement from Rev. Daniel Walsh, university chaplain and director of campus ministry, who said he was "incredulous" after reading Kovalik's piece.
“I knew Margaret Mary well," Walsh said. "When we learned of problems with her home she was invited to live with us in the formation community at Laval House on campus, where she resided for several weeks over the past year. Over the course of Margaret Mary’s illness I, along with other Spiritan priests, visited with her regularly. In addition, the university and the Spiritan priests at Duquesne offered several other types of assistance to her. Mr. Kovalik’s use of an unfortunate death to serve an alternative agenda is sadly exploitive, and is made worse because his description of the circumstances bears no resemblance to reality.”
In an interview, Kovalik said Vojtko needed and deserved a "living wage," not just "intermittent charity and prayers." He added: "They're not really disputing my account at all."
Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a national adjunct advocacy organization, said in an e-mail: “Personally, I found this to be a devastating, damning story. As a Catholic and as someone who has family roots in Pittsburgh, I am ashamed of the Catholic administration and I'm in sorrow for her community in Pittsburgh.”
Maisto said Vojtko’s story should be a “rallying cry” for all faculty – not just adjuncts.
“It exposes so many of the layers of exploitation, but especially the ones related to age and gender discrimination, lack of access to healthcare and retirement,” she said.
Keith Hoeller, an adjunct instructor of philosophy in the Seattle area and co-founder of the Washington Part-Time Faculty Association, said in an e-mail that the story illustrates the "meanness" of a two-track faculty system, which is particularly vicious late in an adjunct's career. Instead of retiring with benefits and pension like tenured colleagues, he said, adjuncts end up with neither and, in all likelihood, little to no savings. In other words, in poverty.
In his piece, Kovalik says: “As amazing as it sounds, Margaret Mary, a 25-year 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 to the salary of Duquesne's president, who makes more than $700,000 with full benefits.”
In the last year, he says, Vojtko was reduced to “abject penury,” following a course load reduction – she was teaching one class, making $10,000 annually – with huge medical bills stemming from her cancer treatment. She could no longer afford heating, so she worked at an Eat n’ Park restaurant at night to stay warm. She tried to sleep during the day at Duquesne, when she wasn’t teaching.
“When this was discovered by the university, the police were called in to eject her from her office,” Kovalik says. “Finally, in the spring, she was let go by the university, which told her she was no longer effective as an instructor -- despite many glowing evaluations from students.”
Vojtko came to Kovalik for help, to ask Duquesne to help pay her medical bills. He appealed to them twice on her behalf, he wrote, to no avail.
She was buried, Kovalik wrote, “in a simple, cardboard casket devoid of any handles for pallbearers -- a sad sight, but an honest symbol of what she had been reduced to by her ostensibly Catholic employer.”
Kovalik said he was inspired to write the piece after attending Vojtko’s recent funeral, which was “more than one could bear.”
Asked how many more potential “Mary Margarets” there are in academe, Kovalik said “literally thousands. [Three-fourths] of higher education is now being taught by adjuncts with low wages, no job security and no health care. It is truly appalling.”
Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, said in an e-mail that Vojtko's story was "very sad."
"This faculty member experienced poverty wages, marginalization, and overall poor working conditions, and as she became ill, she still managed to keep her commitment to her students," Feal said. "If the institution for which she worked were following MLA guidelines, she would have received around $7,000 per three-credit course along with access to benefits. Perhaps cases like this one will force institutions to realize that those hired to teach college-level courses deserve to be treated as the professionals they are."
Kovalik said he hoped his piece would inspire universities, including Duquesne, “to reflect on how they treat their adjuncts, and all of their employees, and decide to treat them with the dignity they deserve. For Duquesne, the saying, ‘charity begins at home,’ should be ringing in their ears.”
He noted that although Duquesne and several other Catholic institutions have claimed they should be exempt from federal labor laws, as unionization of faculty could interfere with the school’s values, another Catholic institution – Georgetown University – has not protested its adjuncts' unionization  process.
Robin J. Sowards, an adjunct instructor of English at Duquesne and labor organizer there, said he hoped Vojtko’s story would reinvigorate unionization efforts.
"The concerns we hear most often, and that Margaret Mary's situation tragically illustrates, are the low pay, the lack of job security, and the lack of health care and retirement benefits," he said in an e-mail. Minimum pay per course has increased by $1,000, to $3,500 since organization efforts began in 2011, he said, but that's still less than the MLA's prescribed pay. And because adjuncts at Duquesne -- like so many at other institutions nationwide -- have seen their course loads limited (to two per semester) ahead of Affordable Care Act's so-called employer mandate taking effect in 2015, as universities attempt to limit their number of full-time employees eligible for coverage under the law, "that amounts to $14,000 per year -- a poverty wage by any standard."