Death of a Lecturer

Death of a Lecturer

The death this month of an elderly adjunct (Lecturer) at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is incredibly sad and tragic.

It also points directly at the extraordinarily bad working conditions and compensation that she and many thousands of contingent faculty endure on campuses across the United States.

Mary Margaret Vojtko, an 83-year old adjunct instructor of French, died of a heart attack on her front lawn soon after learning she had lost her teaching appointment at Duquesne. She was given no severance or retirement benefits.

Adjuncts at Duquesne work without medical insurance or any other benefits or job security for between $3000 and $3500 per 3-unit course. She had taught at Duquesne for 25 years; she had lived in poverty.

Most Americans are unaware of the two-track hiring system in American higher education with some faculty on a permanent-hire/tenure track and contingent faculty on a radically different, temporary and lower-compensated track.

A union attorney Vojtko contacted for help just before her death called Adult Protective Services about her need. He wrote in a commentary, “The caseworker paused and asked with incredulity, ‘She was a professor?’ I said yes. The caseworker was shocked; this was not the usual type of person for whom she was called in to help.”

Vojtko’s case has gone viral on the internet and evoked wide commentary.

“In some senses, her death was not preventable: she was 83 and fighting cancer,” writes blogger and English professor Daniel Nel. “It’s likely that she would have died sooner rather than later.

“But in other senses, her job killed her. And I’m not speaking figuratively. As Mr. Kovalik notes,

‘In the past year, her teaching load had been reduced by the university to one class a semester, which meant she was making well below $10,000 a year. With huge out-of-pocket bills from UPMC Mercy for her cancer treatment, Margaret Mary was left in abject penury. She could no longer keep her electricity on in her home, which became uninhabitable during the winter. She therefore took to working at an Eat’n Park at night and then trying to catch some sleep during the day at her office at Duquesne. When this was discovered by the university, the police were called in to eject her from her office. Still, despite her cancer and her poverty, she never missed a day of class.’”

Many academic unions including CFA say that unionization is one of the few options faculty have to draw a line on the rapid erosion of academic work. Although there is a long way to go to address two-track hiring, the CFA contract, for example, guarantees many contingent faculty more livable conditions including health insurance, improved pay and other rights as an employee of a university.

If you are ready to speak out, there is an online petition and a Facebook page. It is likely that more online petitions and social media resources will develop.

CAMPUS EQUITY WEEK: Vojtko’s story and those of many other lecturers will be among the issues taken up at Campus Equity Week events across the nation, including by the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education and by CFA chapters at CSU campuses, October 28-November 1. Organizing is underway. If you would like to join in, contact your CFA campus chapter.

To see some of the many online news reports and commentaries, go to

National Public Radio
Inside Higher Education
Chronicle of Higher Education

Twitter  – Search for  #iammargaretmary

Blogs by
Maria Maisto, President of New Faculty Majority
William Lindsey, Catholic theologian