The symbolism of one adjunct professor's death

Margaret Mary Vojtko's died last summer at age 83 – and her death has turned her name into an emotional rallying cry for adjunct college teachers who're seeking justice from their schools.

Margaret Mary Vojtko’s died last summer at age 83 – and her death has turned her name into an emotional rallying cry for adjunct college teachers who’re seeking justice from their schools.

Vojko taught French classes for 25 years at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, earning high marks from her students. Their praise helped make up for Duquesne’s poor pay. Like most teachers there, Margaret Mary was part of the adjunct faculty – a group with few rights, so schools like Duquesne can take advantage of them. And, they do.

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As with other adjuncts, Professor Vojtko was unsalaried, instead paid a low rate for each course she taught. This provided no reliable annual income, for she was never told until just before a semester began whether she’d be teaching three classes, one… or none. Even in good years with full teaching loads, her pay was below $25,000 – with zero benefits.

Margret Mary’s last year was certainly not a good one. Duquesne had cut her to one class per semester, reducing her income to under $10,000. Also, her cancer returned, piling huge medical bills on her back. With no savings or university pension, she’d become so pauperized that she couldn’t pay her electric bill, effectively making her homeless that winter. Her stress level was off the charts, yet she never missed a day of class. Until last spring, that is, when Duquesne fired her.

In August Margaret Mary Vojtko was found sprawled on her front yard, having suffered a massive heart attack. This proud professional educator died penniless, jobless… and literally heartbroken, having been thrown away by the university that had used her for 25 years.

To Duquesne officials, Margaret Mary was “just an adjunct.” But to adjuncts everywhere, she’s become an emblem – both of their plight and of their fight for labor rights.

“Death of an adjunct,” www.post-gazette.com, September 18, 2014.

“Letter from United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard to Pope Francis,” December 19, 2013.

“Fighting For Union Recognition,” United Steelworkers At Work, Volume 9/1, Winter 2014.

“Battling the bastards is about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on.”

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