How We Value Dedication
Meanwhile, I called Adult Protective Services right after talking to Margaret Mary, and I explained the situation. I said that she had just been let go from her job as a professor at Duquesne, that she was given no severance or retirement benefits, and that the reason she was having trouble taking care of herself was because she was living in extreme poverty. 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.
Of course, what the caseworker didn't understand was that Margaret Mary was an adjunct professor, meaning that, unlike a well-paid tenured professor, Margaret Mary worked on a contract basis from semester to semester, with no job security, no benefits and with a salary of between $3,000 and just over $3,500 per three-credit course. Adjuncts now make up well over 50 percent of the faculty at colleges and universities.
Margaret Mary Vojtko taught French for 25 years at Duquesne University. She died at the age of 83, penniless, her home crumbling because she could no longer afford the upkeep. At her funeral, she was laid out in a cardboard casket.
Her situation before she was found in her front yard, unconscious from the heart attack that killed her, was so dire that someone had called Adult Protective Services, apparently under the impression that she was mentally incompetent. The writer of this piece in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Union lawyer Daniel Kovalik, had to explain to APS that her problem was not dementia. It was poverty.
Many terrible realities are illuminated by Vojtko's story. It's an example of our increasing reliance on contract work, temps, part-timers, employees who enjoy no benefits and no job security. It's an example of our non-functioning healthcare system, where an 83-year-old woman with cancer is stuck with out-of-pocket bills that force her into destitution. It's an example of the contempt with which we, as a society, view and treat many of our educators.
And, I strongly suspect, it's an example of someone's obvious commitment to her profession being used as a rationale for underpayment and exploitation. Teaching was plainly more than just a job to Margaret Mary Vojtko. It was an avocation. And rather than valuing her for this, the university played her for a sucker because they knew she was unlikely to walk away from doing what she loved.
Duquesne University has responded to Kovalik's piece with a statement from the Duquesne University Chaplain Daniel Walsh, who has pronounced himself "incredulous" and says that they prayed with Vojtko and offered her occasional assistance, letting her stay for a while at the formation community at Laval House on campus. He denounces the piece as "sadly exploitive" -- the usual outraged puffing from employers who've themselves been caught exploiting their workers. I remember hearing similar language from coal mine owners in the wake of a photo expose of the miserable conditions under which their miners lived.
If Duquesne had given a damn about Margaret Vojtko's dignity, they would have paid her enough so that she didn't have to rely on charity at the end of her life. Does Duquesne really believe that priests stopping by to pray and allowing her to live for a few weeks in housing intended for seminarians is an adequate recompense for over two decades of dedicated work?