An op-ed went viral Wednesday, in which the last days of Duquesne University adjunct instructor Margaret Mary Vojtko were described as emblematic of the plight of part-time contract faculty. But the college where she taught says that depiction is far from the truth.
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."