Woman Who Taught At College For Decades Dies Making Reportedly Less Than $25,000 A Year
Daniel Kovalik, senior associate general counsel for the United Steelworkers union, wrote in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette column that he was likely the last person to speak to Vojtko prior to her death. Although Vojtko had taught at Duquesne for more than 20 years, Kovalik said that she only earned around $3,500 per three-credit course at the private Catholic university.
As Kovalik describes it, Vojtko was not making enough to get by -- less than $25,000 annually, with no health care benefits -- and her class-load was reduced while she was battling cancer. Then the university let her go in the spring.
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.Vojtko died at age 83 on Sept. 1, two weeks after a heart attack, Kovalik wrote.
"I was incredulous after reading Daniel Kovalik's op-ed piece about Margaret Mary Vojtko," said Rev. Daniel Walsh, the Duquesne chaplain and director of campus ministry, in a statement. "I knew Margaret Mary well. 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."
But Walsh also criticized Kovalik's version of the article, adding that his "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."
John Plante, vice president for university advancement, emailed the campus disputing the article, and insisted that school officials tried to help Vojtko in her "last trying days." Plante said individuals familiar with the situation "recognized this op-ed as a reckless attempt to use Margaret Mary Vojtko's death as a means to further the self-interest of Mr. Kovalik's external organization."
Plante said in his email:
These individuals have expressed both outrage and sadness that Margaret Mary has been used in this way. Then there are those with no direct knowledge of the actual circumstances. They have also expressed outrage, using social media to attack Duquesne based on their acceptance of Mr. Kovalik's published mischaracterizations. Our defense is the truth. Mr. Kovalik has tried to frame this as an issue of human resources policy, but he is wrong. The support provided and offered to Margaret Mary Vojtko was broad, involving the Spiritan community, student housing, EAP, campus police, facilities management, and her faculty and staff colleagues. It was wholly unrelated to her employment status or classification, or to any issues of adjunct unionization.Kovalik's union has worked to unionize adjuncts at Duquesne, but he said the university "fought unionization, claiming that it should have a religious exemption. Duquesne has claimed that the unionization of adjuncts like Margaret Mary would somehow interfere with its mission to inculcate Catholic values among its students."
Adjunct instructors make up the majority of faculty nationwide, in a trend away from the dominance tenured professors claimed 30 years ago. Most adjuncts are not unionized and few receive benefits. Colleges nationwide are increasingly curtailing adjunct hour workloads to avoid providing health care as required under the Affordable Care Act, a shift that has added heat to the debate over part-time professor pay and unionization.
The portion of Kovalik's story highlighting low adjunct pay has struck a chord with other instructors online, who Inside Higher Ed writes began sharing the story on listservs and social media with the hashtag #iammargaretmary.
Kovalik pushed back on the response from Duquesne officials, telling Inside Higher Ed that Vojtko needed a real salary, not just "intermittent charity and prayers," and that the university is "not really disputing my account at all."
Robin J. Sowards, an adjunct instructor at Duquesne, told the Chronicle of Higher Education that Kovalik's account of Vojtko's situation rings true for many non-tenured part-time faculty. (The Chronicle notes that Sowards is a member of the United Steelworkers-affiliated bargaining unit the Adjunct Faculty Association, which Duquesne's adjuncts voted to form a year ago.)
"The situation, in the long term, is what a lot of us ultimately face," Sowards said. "When your employer is done with you, you get tossed to the curb."
Death of An Adjunct, Or Why We (Still) Need Unions
Margaret Mary Vojtko, 83, died a few weeks ago. Almost destitute, she had been struggling to live on under $10,000 a year, undergoing cancer treatment without health insurance, working a night shift at Eat 'n Park as a second job, sometimes sleeping in an office because she couldn't afford to fix her furnace or pay for her electricity, distraught when her regular job's hours were cut with no severance or retirement and, finally, ignobly, buried in a cardboard casket without handles - that, despite having taught French for 25 years at Pittsburgh's Duquesne University, a Catholic school whose mission is to "serve God by serving students...through commitment to excellence in education...profound concern for moral and spiritual values and service to the Church (and) the community. Duquesne is also one of three Catholic schools now fighting a union battle - in its case, appealing last year's 50-9 vote by adjunct professors to join an Adjunct Faculty Association of the United Steelworkers.
Adjunct - non-tenured and often part-time - professors make up over half of all university faculty nationwide. Those million or so "throwaway citizens," making Mcwages that equal about a third of their tenured colleagues, get no health care or other benefits, have no job security and often take second jobs - for one, stacking shelves at Trader Joe's - to make ends meet. Increasingly, they are looking to unionize, and being fought every step of the way by well-paid administrators of lush colleges charging inflated tuitions. Although Duquesne had initially agreed to abide by the results of their union election, they later appealed to the NLRB, arguing its status as a "religious" school should exempt it - thus arguing, notes one critic, that it's too Catholic for government rules but not Catholic enough to follow its own teachings.
After Vojtko died, responding to criticism of how the school had treated her, Duquesne's Chaplain said that the school had invited her to live in one of their communities, and priests regularly visited and prayed with her. In other words, notes a union lawyer who wrote an impassioned op-ed about her life and death, “In lieu of a living wage and benefits, they offered her intermittent charity and prayers as a salve to her impoverishment.”
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels... For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink...I was a stranger and you did not invite me in...Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ - Matthew 25:31-46