Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Curious Case of Margaret Mary Vojtko

So a friend of my shared an article on Facebook, "Death of an adjunct; Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct professor of French for 25 years, died underpaid and underappreciated at age 83", which apparently has been making the rounds, placing her as a poster child for the plight of adjunct professors.

The story goes like this:  Vojtko had been teaching French at Duquesne University for 25 years as an adjunct, earning up to $25,000 per year when she had a full schedule of 3 classes per semester, less when her course load was cut, as was the case for the past year, when she had only one class.  She struggled to make ends meet, especially when she was diagnosed with cancer and could barely pay the bills, without health insurance from the university.  She couldn't keep up the house, and the electricity was shut off, so she couldn't keep her home heated in the winter and took to spending most of her time on campus, but despite everything, never missed a class.  Even so, the university fired her for poor performance, and Adult Protective Services wanted to intervene, but before they could pursue her case, she had a massive heart attack and died.

Google her and you'll find that this story has been linked to everywhere, from Huffington Post to Patheos to any number of sites lamenting the ill treatment of adjuncts, and especially the viciousness of Duquesne, leaving her out in the cold after twenty-five years of service.

But all is not as it seems.

She was 83 years old -- which means that she surely had Social Security and Medicare.  She should also have had access to all sorts of social assistance, from Medicaid for non-covered medical costs to heating assistance, assuming she wasn't one of those cases of falling through the cracks by having too high an income on paper.  But that's not the university's fault.

She also taught part-time -- meaning that, in the world in with universities hired instructional staff on a full-time basis instead of paying adjuncts on a per-course basis, a teaching load would have been more like 5 courses per semester, and she would have been competing for such a position against recent Ph.D.s, and likely wouldn't have been able to work full-time, anyway.  (Her Rate My Professor reviews are mixed:  some praised her, another said, "stay away if you would like to learn and pass French. in her own world most of the time.")

What's more, she came to Duquesne when she was 58, which got my Facebook friends and me wondering what she was up to before then.  She's mentioned in some old conference programs, from 1979 and 1985, as being at Catholic University of America.  She's also thanked in acknowledgements in a scholarly article in 1979, and that year also shows up in a directory of translators, according to Google Books.  She's also thanked for "technical assistance" for an article in 1967.  Was she teaching?  Did she earn a pension?  She wasn't a housewife -- she never married or had children.

But in 1988 (or thereabouts, that is, 25 years ago), she returned to her hometown , Homestead, Pennsylvania -- and not only that, but according to 1940 census records (on familysearch.org) and current property records, she returned to live in her childhood home, at 1110 Sylvan, Homestead.

And, odder yet, she didn't live alone, but with her sister Anne T. Vojtko, who's listed as age 97 according to one of the people search sites (which matches the age given in the 1940 census).  Anne isn't listed in Margaret's obituary; this just says she's surived by nieces and nephews.  But I can't find an obituary for Anne, or a listing in the Social Security Death Index (as shown on familysearch.org). 

So I strongly suspect that there's more to this story.  A blogger at Patheos suspects that she was struggling with mental illness, possibly hoarding.  Or was she just caring for her aging sister?  (Unless Anne's buried in the backyard? . . .)

As to the "plight" of adjuncts -- part-time teaching at universities was never meant to be something one does full-time, indefinitely, but only either temporarily, between grad school and a first permanent job, or as a second job, moonlighting, more for the enjoyment of teaching than earning a real wage.  Only because of the large excess supply of Ph.Ds, especially in the humanities, did universities discover a cheap labor source and turn to them to fill their lecterns. 

26 comments:

  1. Please do not excuse exploitation!!! If you simply do the math, and calculate the high cost of tuition at Duquesne University with the formula (number of students / hours taught) then you can acknowledge that this lady was horribly exploited, much to the shock of a social service employee. Take a good look at all these French adjuncts Duquesne University has hired in the Modern Languages Department http://www.duq.edu/academics/schools/liberal-arts/undergraduate-college/programs/modern-languages-and-literatures/faculty with no health benefits and still claim that they do not exploit these teachers. You will note that only one in her field is full-time, associate prof. Agin who teaches BOTH Italian and French! In the modern lang. dept. generally there are 24 adjuncts w/o benefits and just 10 full-time (tenured or tenure-track) professors. (This shows mere tokenism in full-time professors). There are too many like Margaret Mary Vojtko at Duquesne University, and it is shameful.

    Your blog offers half-baked background checking through googling, and questions the quality of her 25 years of teaching French there. If she was a bad teacher, why was she rehired with new contracts for 2 and a half decades from this university? Consider the DU advertising about their teachers:

    While studying at Duquesne, you’ll enjoy a low (14:1) student-to-faculty ratio, and in small classes, you get the personal attention needed to achieve your best. Most importantly, our faculty exemplify the ideal of the teacher-scholar. This means your professors are committed to providing an exceptional learning experience. They are top-notch teachers, but they also value and participate in scholarship and research, making important contributions to their fields. http://www.duq.edu/academics

    Margaret Mary Vojtko should be mourned. Instead, you spread through obnoxious inunendo suspicions of her as a rational person and downplay her work as a teacher. Please acknowledge exploitation when you see it - of hers and of other adjuncts' plight - which you cynically put in parentheses.

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    1. I totally agree with Anonymous. There will always be people who blame women by saying that they bring it on themselves because they make less money than men for doing the same work, or who insist that gay people deserve to be oppressed because they don't follow the social "norm." Now we unload on adjuncts, blaming them for their part-time status even though they did exactly what American culture has taught to do since they were born: pursuing a higher education, after much hard work and sacrifice, because it was instilled in them that more education means higher pay and a better overall life. But what's perhaps most distressing about the above comments are its utter ignorance of Catholic Social Teaching -- a long tradition that is not only premised on the Gospels (e.g. The Beatitudes to name but one) but rooted in church teaching from Thomas Aquinas to Pope Leo XIII to the Second Vatican Council -- all of which unambiguously make clear that the dignity of labor is central to human life. This is especially the case in which the head of the university makes more than $700,000 per year yet claims that there is "no money" for supporting the 50% of his staff who are "part time" (which might in fact mean they are working double the amount of classes as "full time" staff teach). We have only have to look at St. Luke's story of the rich man and Lazarus to see how Jesus feels about it when the wealthy aren't bothered to treat the poor or deprived with the least amount of compassion; let's just say it doesn't end well for Mr. Rich Man. Let's me clear about this: this president has blood directly on his hands, whether or not he is in tune with his conscience. If he ran a university whose aim and mission was to promote Third World, Darwinian-style, casino capitalism world in which business is a "war" whereby I profit only at your expense, I would say the guy was exactly at the right place. But as the head of a Catholic institution? He is a perversion of 2,000 years of Christian teaching, and the fact that he holds this position should be ample warning that no Catholic parent should even entertain the idea of sending a son or daughter for a moral education at Duquesne.

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    2. Yes, yes. One thousand times yes.

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    3. I agree there is more to the story. My hunch is that she may have been a nun.

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    4. Not a nun. Read my comments below. I was a neighbor and knew Margaret, her sister Ann, who has been deceased for many years, and her brother Ed - also deceased. There is nothing worse than assuming something about someone when they don't know the facts. Just because one doesn't marry, it doesn't make them a nun - or a priest for that matter. They just chose to devote their life to something other than another human being. What is so odd or strange about that? Maybe she just couldn't find someone who shared the same interests as her. Maybe she didn't want someone to stop her from educating herself. Nothing wrong with that as far as I can tell. I just jumped on the bandwagon because I just found out that she passed. Just wanted to share "THE FACTS" that I know about Ms. Vojtko. Clearing up assumptions of a sister being buried in the backyard or hunches of her being a nun is the least I can do for an old neighbor who died such a sad lonely death. It doesn't matter to Margaret anymore who treated her badly. She is at peace now with her brothers and sisters, as she deserves to be.

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  2. To the Anonymous Commenters,

    You really didn't address the most important issue raised- the woman's age made her eligible for SS and Medicare, and the supposed poverty likely made her eligible for Medicaid. She surely wasn't depending solely, or even mostly, on her job as an adjunct to pay the bills.

    In any case, $25,000 for three courses is actually pretty generous for an adjunct.

    Not blaming the woman, but the people who have been writing these essays using her as an example haven't even done the most basic research to tell us about her receipt of entitlement benefits.

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    1. She wasn't earning $25,000 for three courses - the story above is misleading and if you'd read the original you would have read that it was $25,000 when she taught three courses per regular term *plus* an additional two in the summer.

      The article also states that she taught one course last year and earned $10,000. She was paid approximately $3000/course so in order to get up to $10,000 then SS and Medicare must be factored in.

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    2. She wasn't earning $25,000 for three courses - the story above is misleading and if you'd read the original you would have read that it was $25,000 when she taught three courses per regular term *plus* an additional two in the summer.

      The article also states that she taught one course last year and earned $10,000. She was paid approximately $3000/course so in order to get up to $10,000 then SS and Medicare must be factored in.

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    3. I did read it, you misinterpreted what I wrote. $25,000/yr is generous for 3 courses/semester.

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  3. Social Security is based on your income. So if she didn't earn much in her earlier years, she wouldn't have received much in her later years.

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    1. But that's the issue -- what was she doing up to age 58? Social Security is very progressive in its formula, so that it doesn't take much to earn a basic level of benefit. Also, for the truly lifetime low earners, there's also SSI.

      If she worked as a greeter at Wal-Mart and couldn't keep her electricity on, we wouldn't be spending our time talking about underpaid Wal-Mart greeters so much as the failure of social services to meet the needs of the elderly. The point is, this is not the story around which to build a case for adjunct faculty unionization.

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    2. I did the calculation, using the worksheet provided by SS. If she never worked another day in her life other than at DU, assuming she made $20,000/year and $10,000 her last year, her SS benefit would have been ~$1009/month. NOTE: this is assuming that she never worked another day at any other place before she started at DU. SS is calculated over 35 years.

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  4. Vojtko certainly did not accumulate much in Social Security while working as an adjunct for 25 years for a couple of grand per class. If Vojtko began adjuncting at Duquesne with a graduate degree in hand, especially a PhD, that means the years she spent in school were also years with little to no income and little to no Social Security collected.

    It took me 12 years to earn my MA/PhD in history (at a top-10 program according to US News and World Report), which is the typical (and ridiculous) amount of time it takes to complete an MA/PhD in history. I've been a finalist for tenure-track jobs, but I've never gotten an offer. All I've been able to get is adjunct work. In the last 4 years I've never made more than $4000 per year. I am lucky to be able to depend on a live-in boyfriend.

    I cannot find anything outside of academia. Interviewers intimate that I'll just leave the job to become a professor, and they can't fathom that I'm not lying when I say that there are no professor jobs--other than adjuncting--to go to. I'm not going to give up a job that pays $50K/year to be a "professor" for $4000/year, but, like the case worker in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette piece, the interviewers cannot wrap their heads around a professor in poverty or making $4000 per year. Even if Vojtko wanted to leave adjuncting, she might have found it difficult, especially at her age, to do so.

    Between 12 years in grad school and the adjuncting, I have almost nothing in Social Security.

    But unlike Vojtko I've given up adjuncting and I will be married soon. I'll be putting all my education to what I've essentially become: a highly educated homemaker who will be able to access her husband's Social Security. If he dies, I suppose I could become an adjunct again. God help me if I become a widowed adjunct with cancer, but at least I'll have his Social Security.

    I also differ from Vojtko in that I gave up adjuncting to sell stuff on eBay. I buy stuff at Catholic Charities (books, clothing--my PhD comes in handy for recognizing rare books and valuable textbooks, while my middle-class upbringing helps me to know which clothes and brands will sell well online) and sell it at a mark-up. I make more money doing that than I did as a "professor," but there's no Social Security in that.

    You can imagine how pleased my parents are to see their star daughter go from PhD to housewife who sells stuff on eBay for a little pin money.

    It doesn't really matter if there's more to Vojtko's personal story. What matters is that her tragedy has touched a nerve, because she was only a cancer diagnoses removed from the majority of professors in the United States. More than 50% of American college professors (or instructors or whatever you want to call them) are adjuncts. There are thousands and thousands of American adjuncts just one bill or one diagnosis or one break-up away from being Margaret Mary Vojtko.

    All those adjuncts also mean that college students are being ripped off. I estimated that of the $42,000 my students paid in tuition, only $66 per student went to my pay (my pay divided by the number of students in the course). Many of my students were taught by multiple adjuncts. I wished that they would ask themselves why it is that they pay $42,000 in tuition when their instruction often only costs the university in the hundreds of dollars. But they don't ask questions.

    You can say that PhDs should not become adjuncts, and I agree. I am no longer an adjunct; I make more money on eBay! But you might also want to ask why students continue to unthinkingly overpay for their educations and play a role in the kind of poverty that Vojtko and countless adjuncts know.

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    1. I disagree with the approach that it's fine to discuss Vojtko's story in a "fake but accurate" sort of way. She was nearly retirement age when she started adjuncting at Duquesne. He story points to a lot of issues with social services for the aged, and there's likely a lot more to her story (I would love to find out what she did before age 58 -- know anyone at Catholic University?) but it's just not serving the truth to use her to futher the cause of adjuncts.

      There are of course huge problems with universities charging tuition far in excess of their instructional costs, but that's another issue.

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    2. The story is not fake but accurate. What is the truth? I think I made it pretty clear. She was poor, just like most adjuncts are poor. That's what's behind the curtain.

      For that matter, she was an impoverished woman without heat, sleeping in her office, fired from a job that paid her well below what she should have earned, and facing outrageous medical bills. You're grasping at straws if you think knowing what she made in Social Security is going to clear up some big mystery.

      But if you insist on on knowing just how poor Vojkto was and what she did before age 58 (I'm guessing grad school, Sherlock), check with Duquesne, not Catholic University. For someone so hungry for factoids, you should have at least gotten that one right.

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    3. Students paying little for instruction is NOT another issue. As long as students are okay with seeing their $42,000 go to fancy gyms, sushi bars, organic food, rock-climbing walls, and strings of vice-presidents who make six-figure salaries rather than to instruction, they are culpable. Their money pays for the ballooning number of administrators with their ballooning salaries who make the decision to hire adjuncts. It's no accident that the numbers of adjuncts making peanuts and the number of administrators making 6 figures and the cost of tuition have all increased at alarming rates in the past 25 years.

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    4. I guess my inconvenient question is, why would you spent 12 years working towards a degree that resulted in you only netting $4K a year? Did you not consider the opportunity costs of all that time spent not working and earning an income?

      If you had gone to work right out of college in a "conventional" 9-to-5 job, you would likely be in middle management after 12 years of work experience and would have a reasonable salary to go along with it.

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  5. Oh, for the love of god. It's not like she was a serf, bound to the land. She was free to seek out better employment offers elsewhere, but apparently couldn't find them.

    It's sad that she had a heart attack, and it's a shame she couldn't find a better employment offer. But you know who bears the least responsibility of all for her low income? The university that gave her the best offer she could get. Of all the billions of people in the world who wouldn't pay her even $25k per year to teach French, why are you bitching at the only ones who did?

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  6. The article is written by the associate general counsel of the steel workers union. I'm sure there is much more to this story than what he wrote.

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  7. Mr. Berg, I for one (= first ANONYMOUS writing now only for the second time) am "bitching" that this "Catholic" university hires so many adjuncts at unlivable wages and so few full-time, tenure track professors with benefits, and then tells lies to students about the faculty. I am "bitching" about something you and Jane refuse to acknowledge: exploitation. Finally, I am bitching that this blog takes selective student evaluations (only the negative ones, and one can find just as many positive ones too) and gossip-like information to spread negative information about Margaret Mary Vojtko after she has died, including possible hoarding and burying her deceased sister sister in the backyard. This blogger's attitude is shameful.

    (Should anyone care to know, the "bitching" performed herewith is done by a male, a very lucky, full-time tenured faculty member who cares deeply about his colleagues treated hardly any better than serfs by Duquesne University and many other institutions like it.)

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  8. I worked as an adjunct for ten years. After I was hired full-time I became a department chair and hired adjuncts. Where I teach an adjunct can teach 3 courses per semester and makes about $10,000 for that semester's work. Most of the adjuncts who work at my college teach for least one other perhaps two other colleges. $20,000 for each of these three colleges gives the adjunct -- let me see what does that add up to?-- oh, about $60,000 a year. To be fair adjuncting is difficult work and few if any adjuncts make anywhere near $60,000. But teaching a full adjunct load at two college can get you in the middle $30,000 range. For a single person $30,000 a year is not a poverty level income.

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  9. Unionisation is an answer to information asymmetries in the market. Not an ideal answer, but a response. Will adjuncts unionise? Not likely.
    Is there 'more' to her story? There is always more to the story.
    Is everyone exploiting this poor woman? Youbetcha.
    Anon3

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  10. " part-time teaching at universities was never meant to be something one does full-time, indefinitely, but only either temporarily, between grad school and a first permanent job, or as a second job, moonlighting, more for the enjoyment of teaching than earning a real wage."

    Jane, that may have been true 30 or 40 years ago, but this is no longer true today. The problem is not so much that Adjuncts are paid impecunious wages, but that Adjuncts are not availed the support, facilities, and resources which academe has long insisted are indispensable to the educational process.

    I am an Adjunct (albeit one with my own law practice).

    I have done scholarly writing on the subject of Adjunct faculty [http://writingatqueens.org/files/2011/11/KHR-PTSoldier-Art-1.pdf].

    I have submitted written commentary on the IRS's proposed Obamacare rules, addressing the Adjunct faculty perspective
    [http://www.regulations.gov/contentStreamer?objectId=09000064811dbea2&disposition=attachment&contentType=pdf] and I presented oral testimony at the rulemaking hearing.

    Yes, I personally have too much skin in the game to not applaud Margaret Mary's martyrdom for the cause; nevertheless, your cavalier dismissal/denial of the seriousness of academe's abuses of Adjunct faculty is far attenuated from reality.

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  11. Do any of you realize that adjuncts don't always get their SS withheld? Depending on how the university shuffles the paperwork and classifies the adjunct they may have no withholding for taxes or SS and be expected to make those contributions themselves. I was. Furthermore, have any of you actually done the math on what the SS payouts on her career would be? If you think Medicaid and SS would cover even a fraction of her costs for regular medical, food, home maintenance, transportation, clothes, and utilities, not to mention the cost of a catastrophe like cancer, then you probably need to review your own retirement plans very carefully.

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  12. I grew up a few houses away from the Vojtko family. There was Ann, who, by the way, is not buried in the back yard, but rather a cemetery after she suffered a heart attack and died in their home on a Friday night when I was a little girl, many years ago. I watched the paramedics take her out on the stretcher. Either very late 70's, 81 or 82. Can't remember my age at the time but I am now 46 years old. Margaret continued to live in her childhood home with her brother Ed. She drove a big blue car that she shared with her brother. They were not wealthy back then and he worked in the mill from what I can remember. My grandfather, Paul C. Kazimer was a huge figure in our Homestead community. He was active in a variety of organizations - google his name. Margaret was particularly interested in my grandfather's work with the First Catholic Slovak Union, Jednota and as Chairman of the Displaced Person's Committee. I remember that she would come to my grandparents home just a few doors down and take notes as my grandfather would tell her about his travels and speaking events. That was in the early 70's so I was old enough to remember when she said to me as I was sitting on my grandparent's swing," Reading is one of the most important subjects in school. The one thing that no one can ever take away from you is education. Learn everything you can and read something new every chance you get because that is how you educate yourself." I moved away from the neighborhood in my teens and then moved to the West Coast for a few years before moving home to Pittsburgh. I still attend mass at St. Maximillian Kolbe (the former St. Anne's Church, which my grandfather helped to build) every week. About a year or so ago, I saw Margaret come in during the middle of mass, sit for a few minutes and then leave. I hadn't seen her since and was just informed by an old neighbor of her passing. I was shocked to hear of her living conditions. If I knew, she would have had utilities and food. If her church knew, they would have helped as well. I am not sure of anything else that went on, but I remember her and her brother and sister as being respected citizens in my neighborhood. She was not a nun, she never married and never had kids. She chose learning and education to be her life, just as some choose to have a career over children. Why is that so odd? She was not the norm. My memory of Margaret is that she was eccentric but a strong and intelligent woman who chose to live her life privately. I don't know about her later years as I did not see her. Do you even have any idea what the neighborhood she lived in looks like now? She was probably afraid to be alone there as well. I did not know of her status at Duquesne nor her cancer but find it so sad that she lived as she did. I read that she had a very good friend who was the wife of a retired judge, that arrived at the hospital just ten minutes after she passed. Thank goodness that she was there for Margaret as her soul passed from this world to a world of peace. Rest in peace Ms. Vojtko.

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    1. Thank you for sharing your memories. The "buried in the backyard" was admittedly wild speculation, born of the fact that I couldn't find any record of Ann's death in the usual places online (genealogical sites), and the fact that she's still listed as living in the house according to at least one "public records" type site. But maybe if I'd sprung for the more expensive ancestry.com membership earlier, I would have found her.

      I could tell that the neighborhood was struggling, by looking at some of the property values nearby -- similar to Detroit, you could spend more on a new car.

      As for Margaret's problems -- I'll tell you this: it's not a matter of how much or how little universities pay adjunct professors, but what we can and should do for the elderly and the mentally ill, and how we balance that with their privacy. And I think the #IamMargaretMary campaign misses the point.

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Love comments! It's nice to know that a live person reads this and get a little feedback. (And apologies in advance for only inconsistently replying back in the comments themselves; I'm still new at this blogging project.)

I've set the comments up to allow anonymous users -- but I'd love it if you "signed" your comments (as some of my readers have done) just so you have an identity of sorts.