Margaret Mary Vojtka, an adjunct professor of French at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania dropped dead on her front yard earlier this month. This reminds me of that tree falling in the forest question…did she make a sound when she died? Did anyone really care if some part-time educator died due to university/corporate profit margins and sheer neglect? Guess not much, if at all. She wasn’t worth health insurance, one of the advantages of employing adjuncts to teach everything from 101 classes to PhD courses. Her $10,000 per year “job” didn’t afford her enough excess moneys to pay for heat, and in Pittsburgh during the winter, no heat can kill.
Ms. Vojtka had other problems inconvenient to Duquesne also….she had been battling cancer. She had been a bit of an embarrassment, sleeping in her office for the heat, and they felt firing her would be the best answer to the situation. That’s what had happened before she dropped dead on her lawn of a heart attack.
Duquesne officials argued their side of the story, or course, insisting they pay adjuncts more than most schools do, but admitting those same adjuncts are underpaid. (“The least that an adjunct professor could be paid is $3,500 per course, or $7,000 for a given semester,” Duquesne Provost Tim Austen told NPR Radio. “Whether those are appropriate in a larger context is…a matter that the academic world has not yet found a decisive answer”). I loved that quote…the Provost is a major part of the academic machine, and exactly what is the “larger” context?
The new corporate/educational model of America is to hire part-time employees….don’t have to pay prevailing wages, or offer medical insurance, or any respect. It’s kind of like being a tenant farmer. The school owns the field, the adjunct works it for next to nothing, and the school reaps huge rewards. The school may award another year, if the professor was tame enough, and the professor is eager to work, knowing there’s not much call in the real world for many of the subjects they teach…except in a well-rounded education. Adjuncts make up 60 percent of the Duquesne faculty, and about 75 percent around the country. I was one once.
Cleveland State University kept me, among many others, at one teaching credit below the level where they would have to pay us as full-tiime employees with benefits. They were very good at this process, creating one or two credit classes to milk the most out of us while keeping us that one credit below the dividing line. They never seem to quibble about paying athletics coaches $200,000 or 500,000 a year, or building multi-million dollar stadiums, but pay a teacher a living wage?
Before I left the “profession” the president of CSU was Michael J. Schwartz. He had been the president of Kent State U. for a bit, and spent three years at CSU. During that time he initiated a grandiose building binge that had the university tied up in warning tape and re-routes for the entire three years, spending millions and millions and millions of dollars. I knew his secretary…we’d meet outside every now and again, where we adjuncts exchanged info on where to get low-cost medical care at teaching hospitals, or free coffee and donuts at homeless institutions set up for indigents. We would see Schwartz leaving work in the early afternoon hours, dragging his fat ass out of his comfy president’s chair and waddling off to his status symbol of a car. He always had a queer smile on his fat face.
Around this time I was using the financial angle to encourage a student to apply herself to her work a bit more diligently. I asked her if she really felt her work was earning her an education worth around $750 a class, which is what most tuition had been when I was attending the same university. She looked at me quizzically, then told me she was paying over $1,100 a class. It seems tuition had been going up a bit.
When Schwartzy retired the same year I left, I found out he had gotten a $600,000 golden parachute. One check, more than all the adjuncts at the university made for the whole year. Then I understood why he had that smile, like the proverbial cat that ate the canary.
I was one of those canaries.
Now I have escaped a country where teachers are not worth a good point guard on the basketball team, or a president who sits in his tower office, in a chair that costs more than a student’s tuition for a semester-long class. Imagine that…give me my Third World country. Every time I think about my experience teaching the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave I want to puke…and I can’t believe any human being would not want to puke after hearing the story of Ms. Vojtka. Thomas Hobbes, that great capitalist thinker who proposed that if we just ignore the poor, the non-winners in this great crap shoot of lucre, proposed that if we don’t feed or care for the poor they will just die off, then…the problem of poverty would be solved.
It seems to have worked for Duquesne University.