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By Stephen Herzenberg, Third and State

Appearing earlier this month on a radio program in Pittsburgh with labor historian Charles McCollester, I heard for the first time the story of Margaret Mary Vojtko, a 25-year adjunct faculty member at Duquesne University who died recently in poverty at the age of 83.

Two and a half years ago, the Keystone Research Center released the most comprehensive state report in the United States on the rising use of adjunct faculty at colleges and universities. The numbers were sobering. Even if they cobbled together a full-time (10 courses per year) load at multiple institutions, adjunct community college faculty in Pennsylvania earned only about $25,000 annually. Contingent faculty members and instructors taught 42% of the courses at all public colleges and universities in Pennsylvania (versus 49% nationally). Most part-time/adjunct faculty members in Pennsylvania public higher education received no health or pension benefits.

Given cuts in state funding for higher education since we wrote our report, the situation is surely worse today in Pennsylvania.

How do we avoid a future in which a majority of higher education faculty earn less than a "quality" wage — a wage sufficient to give teachers time to prepare lessons, establish office hours, and provide feedback that increases student learning?

It would help if we honored the rights of part-time/contingent faculty to join a union — starting, for example, at Margaret Mary's Duquesne. One game-changing option would give all part-time and contingent faculty at publicly funded Pennsylvania higher education institutions the freedom to form a single statewide local union. This would enable part-time and contingent faculty to negotiate statewide wage and benefit standards and working conditions consistent with teaching excellence. (This type of geographically based union that lifts up low wages and benefits in service industries that can't relocate — because they have to be near their "customers" — is exactly what is needed to rebuild the middle class generally in Pennsylvania and the United States. See my earlier posts on fast food workers and on the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream Speech.")

State lawmakers also need to develop — and fund — a long-term plan for paying all higher education teachers a "quality wage." In a world both moral and rational, this could be part of a broader plan that also makes post-secondary education affordable again for students, and marries online and in-person education to lower costs while maintaining quality.

This approach starts with values — the outcomes we want for students, faculty, and taxpayers — and then uses technology, collective problem-solving, and social negotiation to create a world that honors those values. Imagine the possibilities.

The story of Margaret Mary is a sad reminder that all public policy discussion should start from values — the world we want to create and, unfortunately, the world we want to avoid.

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Comment Preferences

  •  we're turning college faculty (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    elfling, Rich in PA, Stwriley

    into McDonald's workers, except that they have to accumulate a mountain of debt before they even qualify for the job, and we're definitely not providing a 'dollar menu' education for the next generation of students.

    You offer some excellent suggestions for alleviating the problem, but I'm not sure the states have any incentive to do the right thing.  In this 'right-to-get-shafted' labor environment, we're all expendable, no matter how many letters come after our names.

    There is no snooze button on a cat who wants breakfast.

    by puzzled on Mon Oct 28, 2013 at 07:10:35 AM PDT

    •  Nobody should accumulate debt... (0+ / 0-)

      ...in a PhD program.  If you can't get accepted with a full ride, that is a clear sign that shouldn't do a PhD program.  

      You know, I sometimes think if I could see, I'd be kicking a lot of ass. -Stevie Wonder at the Glastonbury Festival, 2010

      by Rich in PA on Mon Oct 28, 2013 at 08:32:14 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  but to get there (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Chrislove

        You've got tuition for undergrad and masters degrees.  Not an insignificant amount of debt to accumulate to qualify for a crappy part-time job with no benefits.  

        There is no snooze button on a cat who wants breakfast.

        by puzzled on Mon Oct 28, 2013 at 09:05:46 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  This comes back to whether people who take... (0+ / 0-)

          ...that crappy part-time job with no benefits are taking the best available employment, or the best available employment that puts them in a university teaching setting.  If the latter, they should consider getting out of that setting.  It's always touch to give up on a dream but we shouldn't privilege this dream over the dream of being a pro athlete or published-and-comfortable author or any number of other dreams that many or most people fall short of every day.  

          You know, I sometimes think if I could see, I'd be kicking a lot of ass. -Stevie Wonder at the Glastonbury Festival, 2010

          by Rich in PA on Mon Oct 28, 2013 at 10:05:38 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

      •  Not a realistic suggestion... (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        tardis10, Chrislove, Evolution

        given just how much the budgets of most colleges and universities (except those relative few private ones that still have large endowments to support them) have been cut during the same period. Very few graduate students get a full ride anymore, with partial support being most common. It's actually something else colleges and universities now do with financial aid at all levels; they "leverage" it by spreading it out, thus actually increasing the amount that students pay in while not turning them away by refusing any aid or scholarship funding. Most graduate students have to go into debt to some extent these days, even the ones who are good and lucky enough (it takes both, especially the latter) to get a tenure-track job afterwards. To throw this suggestion out in the current climate is essentially the same as saying "if you're not one of the elite few or backed by family wealth, you don't deserve to enter academia." I know that's not what you meant, but it's the certain effect of what you're saying.

        I did just this, many years ago when I first entered my doctoral program on a partial scholarship. I spent ten years as an adjunct at several private, state-supported, and state system schools here in PA, but with tenure-track jobs in my field disappearing and no hope of making a real career out of teaching without one, I gave it up and returned for a M.Ed. and a career teaching high school, where my abilities as a teacher are actually valued (or at least were, until the current crop of education "reformers" set out to destroy the teaching profession.) Adjuncts are the wage-slaves of academia, used and discarded by the very system that they support and enable to exist. It's about time they were treated like the highly educated and dedicated academics that they are, not like replaceable cogs in the machinery of higher education.

        Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory, tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat. Sun Tzu The Art of War

        by Stwriley on Mon Oct 28, 2013 at 09:23:31 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Those budgets were cut in large part because... (0+ / 0-)

          ...the market for PhDs is down.  Your chance of getting tenure-line academic employment, if you are not competitive for the full-ride packages available at the institutions that offer them, is not good.  People need to accept what the market is telling them, rather than going against that signaling (as the economists call it) and hoping for the best.  

          You know, I sometimes think if I could see, I'd be kicking a lot of ass. -Stevie Wonder at the Glastonbury Festival, 2010

          by Rich in PA on Mon Oct 28, 2013 at 10:02:09 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  "The market"... (0+ / 0-)

            isn't telling them anything like that. The reason opportunities for Ph.D.s is down is that the use of adjuncts has been rising for years, all in the name of saving money as states cut the budgets of public universities. These were not cut because demand for their services decreased, since the exact opposite is what occurred. As budgets shrank, we devolved to our current situation. What you've outlined above is mistaking effect for cause; it is the loss of funding and the effects that spread outward from that fact that have led to the loss of tenure-track jobs, the increased use of adjuncts, and the increasing indebtedness of graduate students as they try to do what their older peers did but without the support or opportunities. If your advice was followed, there would be an even further collapse of higher education and even fewer opportunities for everyone.

            Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory, tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat. Sun Tzu The Art of War

            by Stwriley on Mon Oct 28, 2013 at 02:44:43 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

      •  That's simply not realistic in many cases (0+ / 0-)

        I have a "full ride" in my Ph.D. program in that my tuition is completely covered. I do, however, have to pay hundreds of dollars per semester in uncovered fees. I also TA for a modest stipend. But in my city, it is quite simply not enough to make rent and eat (not to mention buy books and gas), so I am forced to go into a certain amount of debt to make up the difference. I know several people in my program in the exact same boat. The people who do not have to go into debt are people who are married to a person with a good full-time job or people who can turn to their parents for support. I'm simply not that privileged.

        Not to mention, of course, the amount of debt one needs to go into to get a master's degree.

        I don't mind if you're straight. Just don't flaunt it in public.

        by Chrislove on Mon Oct 28, 2013 at 10:20:45 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  One of my friends (0+ / 0-)

    just dropped out of an advance graduate program for this very reason -- no future in having an advance degree.  You accumulate a ton of student load debt, devote  years of effort to getting the degree, and then you live like a gypsy floating from adjunct job to adjunct job, with no job security as class schedules change from school year to school year, competing with all the others in a similar position for one the relative handful of full-time positions that come open from time to time.

  •  Original article well worth the read (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    elfling, Stwriley

    For any teacher, or student thinking of teaching, this is your future unless unions like the AFT or the NEA are empowered as they were before 2000.

    In private schools, and public and private colleges, this has been the way of the world for twenty or more years.

    I'm from Johnson City.

    by Al Fondy on Mon Oct 28, 2013 at 07:24:04 AM PDT

  •  I did not realize her age (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Rich in PA

    and now I am wondering about this.

    Not about the fact that we need to do better for the adjunct faculty ... that is a given. However most of the adjunct faculty that I know, have full time jobs and teach as on side for various reasons and realistically, adjunct positions are not set up to be a primary source of income. I worked as substitute in the local schools for 6 years when I could not find a regular job. I might blame them for not hiring me as a regular aide, but I cannot blame them for having the position of substitute teacher.

    I wonder about using Mary Margaret Vojtko as a poster child for this issue. If she was 83, why did she not have health care through Medicare and income through Social Security? The only reasons I can think of are that either she had been a nun and opted out of SS or that she immigrated from some other country and never paid into SS.

    The story also states that Adult Protective services tried to help her but she was too proud want the help. So, why are we working so hard to tell Congress not to cut SS and Medicare and then applauding someone for not using them?  (BTW, I do know how it feels to accept help from government programs ... I was on SNAP for a year.) Ms. Vojtko owned her own home even if it needed work and she had family that knew of her plight ... did she ask them for help?

    She was 83 and had cancer ... I would hope that she realized that there are others who could teach as well as she if not better. I do not mean to be sexist her, only realistic. I am 65 and lost my job when I was 58 ... so I know how tough it is to not work. I also know that at a certain time in our lives, it is right to step back and let others have at it.

    I realized a long time ago that the world can function just fine without me and that I need to use the resources available to me. This is why we fight for social programs and other ways to help people.

    "I want to live in a world where George Zimmerman offered Trayvon Martin a ride home to get him out of the rain that night." Greg Martin, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida

    by CorinaR on Mon Oct 28, 2013 at 08:25:01 AM PDT

    •  A further issue is that there are two kinds... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      CorinaR, annieli

      ...of adjuncts on another axis as well, in other words besides the axis of those with regular non-teaching jobs vs. those who actually survive on being an adjunct.  That axis is people who could plausibly be employed as tenure-track (or even non-tenure-track but continuing) faculty vs. those who couldn't.  People who have the credentials commensurate with steady academic employment should get it (while respecting the institution's genuine need for flexibility, since students and what they want to study vary over time), but there are a lot of adjuncts who have no business teaching at colleges or universities at all and I would rather cut them off entirely than elevate them to full time employment.

      You know, I sometimes think if I could see, I'd be kicking a lot of ass. -Stevie Wonder at the Glastonbury Festival, 2010

      by Rich in PA on Mon Oct 28, 2013 at 08:30:40 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  thats a tricky distinction to make (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Rich in PA, CorinaR

        My dad was not a dead-beat dad at all. But when my parents divorced, my mom still had to work. She always worked and it was their incomes together that bought us our nice house in Bergen county NJ in 1973. In the 70s she also went to night school and eventually earned a master's in english lit. She didnt begin her full time job teaching HS english until she was in her late 30s in the 1980s, but prior to that she did quite a bit of work as an ESL teacher along with a short stint or two teaching english in catholic HS's.

        She worked as an adjunct while she maintained her HS jobs for several years after their divorce. We needed the $, even though she was fully employed and so was my dad. But thats the 80s into the mid90s.

        Now she is retired. She gets her teacher's pension. Her husband (they married when i was in my 20s, i like him but I dont consider him a "step father") earns just fine. They dont need the money per se, but she is adjuncting again doing ESL work. Its something she is very good at with decades of experience. Shes essentially helping to train younger and far less experienced ESL teachers. She wouldnt take a full time position if it were offered because my sister has two year old twins and is expecting in the spring...and on the other side of the country.

        Knowing my mom, she probably does more work than anyone would expect from an adjunct. She's an incredible bargain for this school. And she is taking a slot from someone who is a recent PhD and has loans to pay back. Because of mentoring inclinations and the real value of her experience, you'ld probably suggest that they turn her into full time faculty and pay her properly rather than eliminate her...but she can't do that, Shes 69 years old and has grand children to prioritize!

        OK maybe shes an anomaly. Perhaps you mean the dude who is a social studies HS teacher and does a course in poli sci at the local community college because he enjoys it? and it keeps his knowledge of the subject up to speed? Heck, I started adjuncting at a good school while still in grad school with a lot of support from that school partially because I was their first undergraduate in anthropology to go to grad school in over a decade.

        The problem is big. These are the people--HS teachers, retirees, and grad students--who are SUPPOSED  to be the adjuncts. Its a kin to the notion that McDonalds is SUPPOSED to be a shitty 1st job for 16 year olds. MDonalds is not a job for 35 year old and adjuncting is not a job for a PhD in their prime.

        I cant tell if its a West End musical or Marxism in action.

        by Evolution on Mon Oct 28, 2013 at 10:20:06 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  It's a distinction between clinical and egghead :) (0+ / 0-)

          I think there's a space for non-PhD people to teach the practice-oriented courses in everything from business to education to whatever.  That basically leaves the arts and sciences, more or less traditionally defined.  We shouldn't have the social studies teacher scenario you describe; I know it's a fine line to fetishizing the terminal degree, but if we don't keep some credential daylight between the people teaching and the people learning, we're harming the people we owe something to (students) to favor the people we don't owe anything to (would-be adjuncts).  

          You know, I sometimes think if I could see, I'd be kicking a lot of ass. -Stevie Wonder at the Glastonbury Festival, 2010

          by Rich in PA on Mon Oct 28, 2013 at 10:33:41 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  its near impossible to manage (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Stwriley, tardis10, Rich in PA

    Im lucky. I teach for a good school who pay me relatively well for my classes...comparably speaking. But this is inconsistent.

    This semester Im lucky. The university (in NJ) that pays decently ($5k and change per class) has given me three classes for this semester. Last year at this time, they gave me one class and I was also teaching at a SUNY school. 3 classes at the one university pays slightly more than teaching FIVE classes at the SUNY school. Thus semester Im making as much as i did last fall, but teaching less and spending much less time in my car driving to work. FYI: The CUNY system pays more than the SUNY system, but not as much as my main university.

    Now...factor in the notion that a course can be cancelled up to about two weeks before the classes start. There is no pay for a cancelled class. And if one has perhaps set up a schedule where they are teaching 3 or 4 classes at a variety of universitites...losing one class can greatly disrupt your pay, and youve likely signed contracts committing to all of the classes. You cant really get a second job (usually) due to the times of the classes you are still teaching. ANd you cant really "quit" the classes that youve agreed to do because youve signed a contract and if you did force the issue, you'ld likely not get hired again.

    Plus...lets say a student has legitimate issues...like an real illness at the end of the semester. They dont finish the course, they get an incomplete, and its all above board because the student is legitimately ill and hospitalized. The following semester they are healthy. THey want to erase their incompletes. But you dont work for the school that semester. Is one supposed to tell the student to F off? of course not. But some universities WILL NOT handle a grade change unless you go in person. So...without being paid for your work (because you did your job well the previous semester but the school just doesnt have any classes they can give you) you have to grade the student's back work and travel to their college to change their grade. This could mean a few hours of travel...which must be done during business hours and you may not have a ton of time to make a special trip during business hours because you are committed to other schools who ARE paying you that semester.

    Last fall, since it was my first semester at the SUNY school, i was forced to come in on one of the last days of the semester to hear a talk about "quality control." THere were several days available for this, and every single one save one date were while I was on campus and supposed to be teaching. So I had to come in on an extra day. It took an hour and 20 minutes to get there every morning and for this meeting I had to come in and be there by 8:30 am...which meant the drive was longer due to traffic. It lasted a half an hour and was rather useless for me. The following day i was told they had no classes for me for the spring semester. We all need to deal with pointless bureaucracy at our jobs...but this was just cruel as I had a feeling i wasnt coming back which proved true the following day. It cost me alot of time and some money to sit there and be told we cant put in purchase orders for laptops or take home video equipment. When i suggested that as an adjunct (who wasnt sure if he was coming back the following semester) i had no access to purchase orders nor did i have keys to the closets where video equipment was kept, I was ignored and the gentleman doing the presentation just continued on.

    IN their defense...the SUNY schools give adjuncts health insurance provided you teach a 3 classes that semester. And i do believe the ruling was if you taught 2 the following semester you would continue to get the insurance. CUNY does not do this. The various state schools in NJ do not either.

    The American Anthropological Association has drafted a statement of support for adjuncts which I dont think has been released for the public yet. Our annual meeting are in three weeks and I think it gets announced then. But I dont know what sort of good it is going to do.

    I am lucky. I play the piano very well and have at times supported myself solely from performing music. I perform most weekends in part to supplement my income. Many others do not have a second skill set from which they can earn at hours that dont conflict with potential teaching opportunities. But lately I cant help but think about the ominous words a sociologist told me when I was accepted into grad schools and trying to decide which one I would attend. He looked at me with a straight face and said the opposite of what everyone told me in high school when folks tried to dissuade me from going to music school: "at least you have music to fall back on"

    ya...im lucky to earn @ $40k a year with a PhD and no healthcare. Im lucky that @ 25% comes from performing music. IF IM really lucky, $40k will entitle me to subsidized ACA health care...but I doubt it. And gov humpty dumpty here in NJ hasnt made it easy to find out about ACA info. Yes, Im lucky...and its really f'ed up that my situation is "lucky".

    I cant tell if its a West End musical or Marxism in action.

    by Evolution on Mon Oct 28, 2013 at 09:09:55 AM PDT

    •  If adjuncts are converted to full-timers.... (0+ / 0-)

      ...there will be far fewer adjuncts.  So let's go into this with our eyes open.  Some would be happy under this dispensation (they'd become lecturers/instructors), while others would be cut loose entirely.  Personally I think that is a fine idea, and I'd like to think that you would end up on the happy side of the divide, but there are no guarantees.

      You know, I sometimes think if I could see, I'd be kicking a lot of ass. -Stevie Wonder at the Glastonbury Festival, 2010

      by Rich in PA on Mon Oct 28, 2013 at 10:09:16 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  This was diaried multiple times weeks ago (0+ / 0-)

    As an adjunct, I had huge questions about the initial story, and continue to have them. Supposedly the claim was that because she was only an adjunct and not eligible for health insurance, she got sick and died. But she was 83 years old, so had presumably been on Medicare for almost 20 years -- and most employer plans won't cover people eligible for Medicare. And since she'd been teaching for decades, presumably she also received Social Security on top of whatever she earned. Most 83-year-olds don't have a job at all, and certainly have no guarantee of staying employed.

    Adjuncts do have the right to organize unions; the question is whether it's better to be in the same union as full-time faculty (as I am), or in a separate bargaining unit. There are good arguments both ways.

    Even a union contract does not guarantee that every person will be given as many courses as they'd ideally like to teach -- the nature of adjuncts is that our workload expands or contracts depending on the university's needs (and our own).

    So it's an important issue, and one that's being discussed thoroughly in the Chronicle of Higher Education and elsewhere. But this elderly woman's death is a very poor poster child for the broader issues.

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