(Creative Commons)

The proletarianization of higher education, according to the associate general counsel of the United Steel Workers Union, has now claimed a life. In a moving op-ed published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Daniel Kovalik, wrote this week of Margaret Mary Vojtko, a French teacher at Pittsburgh’s Dusquesne University whose tenure there—though it was, of course, a tenure without tenure—lasted twenty-five years, who just died at the age of 83. Receiving radiation therapy for cancer, living in a house that was nearly collapsing in on itself, and in receipt of a humiliating letter from Adult Protective Services informing her she had been referred to them as not being able to take care of herself, she turned to her union for help, because that is what unions do. Kovalik helped, despite the fact that the Steel Workers did not, officially, represent her: Dusquesne adjuncts had voted overwhelmingly for the USW to represent them a year ago, but the Catholic university has fought the certification of the election tooth and nail ever since, claiming its school’s religious beliefs should exempt it from federal labor laws. “This would be news to Georgetown University—one of only two Catholic universities to make U.S. News & World Report’s list of top twenty-five university—which just recognized its adjunct professors’ union, citing the Catholic Church’s social justice teachings, which favor labor unions.”

She called Kovalik in a panic about the letter from Adult Protective Services, and he tried to connect her with a caseworker. “I said that she had just been let go from her job as a professor at Dusquesne, that she was given no severance or retirement benefits”—after twenty-five years of loyal service; something for today’s adjuncts to look forward to, should they decide to stay in the grueling game—“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.”

I predict in the future caseworkers won’t be so shocked at all. Notes Kovalik, “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…. 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.” So, soon, if you’re a graduate student and you’re reading this, might you.

“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. She came to me to seek legal help to try to save her job. She said that all she wanted was money to pay her medical bills, because Duquesne, which never paid her much to begin with, gave her nothing on her way out the door.”

Compare that, Kovalik says, to Duquesne’s president, whose pay package adds up to upwards of $700,000—you know, the guy with the pauperization of a dead 83-year-old on his conscience. “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.”

I’m still collecting adjuncts’ stories. Here is one I’ve recently received from a psychology teacher in New Jersey. She told me what she loves:

“I get to stay informed about research, go to conferences, and have access to academic materials….

“I LOOOOOVE teaching my students.

“I experience a tremendous feeling of accomplishment when they come to me rather than their advisors because they trust me, not that I want to usurp the advisor.

“I jump for joy along with them when they get into a Ph.D program, law school, or just get the job they applied for. I cry with them when they don’t.

“I love that three years later when my students run into me in some random place in NYC they remember me and are happy to see me. I love when they tell me how much my class meant to them.

“That my class is safe enough for a young man to ‘come out’ and for a young girl to talk about a sexual assault and my students show compassion to them.

“That when I get a ton of email most of them are just saying ‘thank you’ for something I said in class or a response to a previous email sent earlier in the day.”

And here is what she doesn’t: “I don’t love that my salary is less than what most welfare recipients receive and I am permitted to teach only two classes…. I also don’t have office hours. Yet I make myself available to my students, I help them wherever they need help, and though this is my choice I know that I am doing more than many tenured professors at my university.”

The only wrong note in the Pittsburgh piece is that he says adjuncts make up “well over 50 percent of the faculty at colleges and universities.” It’s well, well, well over 50 percent, in fact—more like 66–75 percent. Expect more cases like that of Margaret Mary Vojtko. Social service agencies, be prepared.

David Kirp discusses the impact of massive open online courses on higher education.