This story about Margaret Mary Vojtko, a recently deceased former adjunct faculty member at Duquesne University ($32,000 annual tuition, exclusive of room and board), made the rounds on the internet late last week. Eventually NPR picked up on it, which makes perfect sense. It's a hanging slider in the strike zone of NPR's core demographic, touching on higher education, poverty, and people falling through the cracks of society.
I am glad this story has gotten exposure. The "adjunctification" of higher education has happened rapidly and mostly in the shadows for the past twenty years. Some estimates now suggest that half of all college courses are taught by adjuncts or other non-permanent faculty. For the unaware, adjuncts reside on the bottom of the academic totem pole. They have no formal affiliation at the schools where they teach. They are paid a flat rate per course with no guarantee of future employment and no access to the benefits available to full-time employees. They are essentially migrant workers; they often spend careers wandering from place to place and it is not unusual for adjuncts to make ends meet by teaching at multiple institutions simultaneously. An adjunct who picks up four courses per semester and perhaps another two in the summer might clear $25,000-30,000 before taxes without insurance, retirement plan, or transportation costs.
There are many reasons one becomes an adjunct. Many adjuncts are outstanding teachers who end up adjuncting because of bad luck, bad timing, or family factors (i.e., the need to stay in a city where no jobs are available because of a spouse's job). Others could not finish their Ph.D. and thus are limited in the type of employment they can obtain in higher ed. Some are adjuncts because they're not very good at their job. In other words they are like the workforce in any other industry: some are outstanding, most are average, and some are bad.
From administrators' perspective, adjuncts are great. They have no power, they cost next to nothing, and undergraduates rarely know the difference among the various "classes" of faculty. Hiring adjuncts saves valuable resources that administrators can spend on their own salaries, more administrators, new buildings, and other non-essential, non-academic things. The number of adjuncts is somewhat limited at prestigious institutions, as their presence hurts the school in magazine rankings and overall reputation. But at schools that don't care about prestige and operate on volume (especially the kind that teach non-traditional students (read: grown ups with jobs) adjuncts can make up almost the entire faculty. Words like "extension", "online", "night classes", "branch campus" and any adjective indicating a direction on a compass are a giveaway that few permanent, full-time faculty will be found in classrooms.
In a world in which we have "permanent temps" in the workforce it's not surprising to find quasi-permanent adjuncts as well. Vojtko was at Duquesne for over 30 years. The school was probably glad to have her; she taught essentially a full professor's courseload for 1/3 the total cost. She was probably glad to have, at least informally, regular work in one place. Between the low pay and lack of benefits, it is neither unusual nor surprising to hear that a lifetime adjunct in her eighties died in poverty, especially given that she had cancer. You can read the sad story in the original op-ed piece.
With all that said, two things jump out at me as I read and re-read this story.
First, the implication that the university should have continued to employ her is dubious. I can count on zero fingers the number of people who teach effectively at age 83 in my career. A small percentage of professors teach well into their late seventies and beyond, but they are outnumbered by the ones who should have hung up their spurs years ago. In Vojtko's case I can't imagine that an 80+ year old with cancer – a person who probably belongs in an assisted living facility – was effective in the classroom. I don't know her. She may have been a good teacher. There is reason to be skeptical, though.
Second, where are Medicare and Social Security in this story? As far as I understand these programs, an 83 year old should have been more than a decade into her eligibility for both. Social Security certainly doesn't provide for a luxurious lifestyle, but it's enough to keep the power on. Medicare might not be the finest insurance plan on the planet, but certainly it should have given her access to hospital care and prescription drugs. How was this woman completely uninsured?
A few odd details aside, this is a story that needs to be told. Academia is not different than the rest of the economy, constantly drifting toward the elite utopia where salaries are low, job security is nonexistent, benefits are a dream, and the people at the top are rewarded ever more handsomely for their combination of stinginess and sheer ignorance. It's a world in which the people who do the actual work are treated as disposable and the con men in Management require ever-growing compensation to keep doing the grueling work of cutting costs.
This is the future. We have seen it, and it blows.