Much attention has been focused lately on the tragic death of Margaret Mary Vojtko,  an adjunct professor who had taught French at Duquesne University for 25 years. She died in extreme poverty September 1st at the age of 83, following a massive heart attack she had suffered two weeks previously. Despite good teaching evaluations from her students, Vojtko had recently been laid off, a possibility faced by hundreds of thousands of other non-tenure-track faculty members.
Unfortunately, there will be many more tragedies like Vojtko’s in the years to come. Contingent faculty members today make up three-quarters of the workforce in higher education. They are not on any tenure track leading to permanent employment. Underpaid and typically without benefits, they lack the academic freedom that comes with job security. They lead precarious lives, never more than one small step away from disaster for themselves and their families.
Contingent faculty, whether part-time adjuncts or full-time lecturers, can usually be non-renewed for any reason or no reason at all. Even if they are union members, they are generally not afforded any due process in a non-renewal, such as would be the norm when laying off a janitor, a secretary or similar union worker. As is typical with most adjuncts, Mary Margaret Vojtko received no severance pay or retirement benefits.
“Duquesne has claimed that the unionization of adjuncts like Margaret Mary would somehow interfere with its mission to inculcate Roman Catholic values among its students,” according to an article  in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by Daniel Kovalik, senior associate general counsel of the United Steelworkers union. Kovalik twice wrote to Duquesne to inform the university of Vojtko’s plight, but never received a reply. Duquesne’s president, Charles J. Dougherty, makes over $700,000 with full benefits. So much for Catholic values at that institution, whose website describes Dougherty as “a nationally recognized scholar and expert in health care ethics.”
Unfortunately, this situation is not limited to Catholic or even to private institutions. Things are just as bad at public institutions of higher education. Take the State University of New York, for example. Its top academic officer, David Lavallee, recently stepped down from his position as executive vice chancellor for academic affairs and provost. Lavallee is currently on a six-month “study leave” while continuing to receive his full salary of $316,000 per year.  Despite repeated Freedom of Information Law requests, SUNY has been unable to produce a single document detailing the purpose of this “study leave.”
Lavallee, age 66, will return next spring to his former campus at SUNY New Paltz and receive ten-twelfths of the $199,000 salary he had previously received when he was provost at that college. As the second-highest-paid employee on campus, Lavallee won’t be working either as a teacher or as an administrator. Instead, he’ll be conducting a few leadership workshops, mentoring one lecturer and “building candidate lists for senior leadership positions.” This is one example of the extremely generous packages that many senior system administrators arrange to take with them when they return to their home campuses.
After the New York State comptroller announced he is commencing an audit  into SUNY Upstate Medical University, where President David R. Smith and some of his top aides received hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra pay from companies doing business with the institution,  the SUNY Board of Trustees belatedly passed a resolution  on November 15 to make the compensation of campus presidents more transparent.
Meanwhile, thousands of adjuncts within SUNY, who deliver a substantial portion of our educational mission, continue to work for near-poverty wages. Adjuncts are the only employees for whom there are no minimum salaries  in the contract between New York State and United University Professions (UUP), the nation’s largest higher education union with over 35,000 members. My research shows that when adjusted for inflation, adjunct wages at New Paltz have plummeted  by some 49 percent between 1970 and 2008.
The union pushed hard for a salary minimum that would have benefited thousands of part-time faculty throughout the system. However, top SUNY officials adamantly refused to accept any salary minimum whatsoever. At a recent meeting in New Paltz where SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher was confronted by demonstrators  demanding a $5,000 minimum starting salary for adjuncts, she went so far as to publicly deny that SUNY had even been present at the negotiating table.
When asked about SUNY’s refusal to increase wages for adjuncts while doling out hundreds of thousands of dollars to a former provost who is still on the payroll, a SUNY spokesman said that “they’re completely unrelated.”  Actually, nothing could be further from the truth: they are indeed very much related, and the sooner we acknowledge this relationship, the sooner we can begin to fix the staffing crisis in higher education.
We absolutely must find a way to pay the majority of college teachers a living wage and stop squandering resources on overpaid college executives, expensive facilities, extravagant athletic programs and lavish services that do little to advance the true educational needs of our students. The quality of education will be enhanced by focusing our limited resources on instruction.
Our UUP chapter at SUNY New Paltz launched a $5K campaign  in May to raise the minimum starting salary for a standard three-credit course to $5,000, about twice the current national average, but considerably less  than the $7,090 recommended by the Modern Language Association. This campaign has been endorsed by a growing list of unions and organizations around the country, including UUP and New Faculty Majority, the only national organization advocating exclusively for contingent faculty. The $5K Campaign was one focus of Campus Equity Week during the last week of October and should become part of every union’s legislative program next year.
Class warfare in the academy is unlikely to end any time soon. Meanwhile, we urgently need to connect the dots, to stop underfunding and privatizing public higher education. At the same time, we need to put an end to wasteful spending and overly generous perks that top administrators dole out to themselves. Saddling our students with backbreaking tuition loan debt is simply unsustainable. They, their parents, taxpayers and legislators deserve to know where their hard-
earned tuition and tax dollars are going. The quality of their education and thus the future of our country depend on providing a living wage, job security and benefits to those actually teaching in our classrooms.
Peter D.G. Brown is a Distinguished Service Professor of German Emeritus at the State University of New York at New Paltz. In addition to being a founding member of the board of directors of New Faculty Majority: The National Coalition for Adjunct and Contingent Equity (NFM), he is president of the New Paltz chapter of United University Professions.