Universities must pay adjunct lecturers their fair share

By Simon Brown / Columnist

One month ago, Mary Margaret Vojtko would have been the last person anyone would expect to become an online icon. 

But the tragic death of the 83-year-old French professor at Duquesne University has reverberated throughout popular media outlets as an alarm to the disgraceful conditions in which many non-tenured adjunct professors now work within contemporary universities. 

The passing of Votjko after a major heart attack would have gone unnoticed had it not been for an editorial published two weeks ago in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by one of her associates. The author, an attorney representing the United Steelworkers Union, lambasted Duquesne for its alleged mistreatment of Vojtko throughout her career at the institution. 

After paying her under $3,500 per class and providing no health benefits, the university dismissed her — after 25 years of service — with no severance.  

After the story received 65,000 shares on Facebook and nearly 4,000 tweets, it wasn’t just Pittsburgh that shared in this outrage. 

This characterization of the beleaguered professor is not, however, unique to Vojtko or to Duquesne. Though her story proves particularly tragic, it is one not unknown to the non-tenured adjuncts who now compose the majority of university instructors across the country. 

Minimal pay, semester-long contracts, and nonexistent benefits accurately describe the lifestyle of most non-tenured instructors. The $3,500 that Vojtko received actually exceeds the national average for adjuncts at private and public universities, which stagnates around $3,000 per class. 

The tired stereotype of the over-paid and under-worked university professor, reaping the benefits of tenure, no longer applies to the current academic workforce. Only 30 percent of university faculty is considered “tenure-track,” that is, currently holding tenure or a position that will allow them to achieve tenure in the near future. Being in the tenure track is usually characterized by institutional support to conduct research and publish. 

The minority of professors who benefit from this elevated position on the academic hierarchy enjoy disproportionately larger salaries than their non-tenured colleagues. For example, the average tenured professor at Pitt is compensated with a $135,900 salary. Compare that to the average $3,200 that part-time faculty receive for each 3-credit class. 

That means that an adjunct would have to teach 42 classes per year to receive the compensation of his or her tenured colleagues — and that’s not including health or dental benefits. 

Unfortunately, no one is more familiar with these discrepancies than university administrators, who often consider adjunct faculty convenient alternatives to costly professors when financial times get tough. What is more, their brief contracts give departments the flexibility to contract budgets in a climate of uncertain state appropriations and tuition revenue.

The changing demographics of the academic job market will require new organizations to advocate on behalf of not only the marginalized non-tenured population, but also the shortchanged students they teach until they’ve reached the point of exhaustion. 

And just like so many professional groups before them, these faculty, students and administrators must realize the institution best capable of enacting these results: the labor union.

As non-tenured faculty expand their share of the labor force, many are increasingly organizing into their own or existing labor unions, such as the Service Employee Industrial Union, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association. 

In Pittsburgh, the effort has been championed by the United Steelworkers Union, who have been working to organize professors at Duquesne University for several months. In June 2012, the professors in Duquesne’s McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts voted successfully to organize part-time faculty within the United Steelworkers. 

Duquesne, however, disputes the move to unionize among its instructors. It claims that as a religious institution affiliated with the Catholic Church, it ought be exempt from the National Labor Relations Board’s requirement that employers recognize their employees’ right to organize. 

Such an irrelevant claim is an insult not only to the memory of Vojtko, but to the entire U.S. Catholic community, which has historically defended the rights of poor and marginalized workers. 

The adjuncts who rely on their currently meager compensation require better contracts and a level of dignity — not charity  — from their employers. 

By refusing instructors the ability to collectively bargain for more secure contracts and reasonable compensation, institutions like Duquesne do disservice to their employees and their students alike. Beyond denying their instructors the basic right to organize, they also deny their student body the opportunity to develop lasting relationships with committed faculty members in unsecure positions. When adjuncts — who work on brief, unreliable contracts — compose a pronounced majority of instructors, it will only become more difficult for students to develop meaningful relationships with professors. It requires professors who have the security to  invest in a university community to develop such an atmosphere. But first, it will require the universities to invest in the professors. 

Write Simon at [email protected].