Death of an Adjunct

Appearing last week on a radio program in Pittsburgh with labor historian Charles McCollester, I heard for the first time the story of Margaret Mary Vojtko, a 25-year adjunct faculty member at Duquesne University who died recently in poverty at the age of 83.

Two and a half years ago, the Keystone Research Center released the most comprehensive state report in the United States on the rising use of adjunct faculty at colleges and universities. The numbers were sobering. Even if they cobbled together a full-time (10 courses per year) load at multiple institutions, adjunct community college faculty in Pennsylvania earned only about $25,000 annually. Contingent faculty members and instructors taught 42% of the courses at all public colleges and universities in Pennsylvania (versus 49% nationally). Most part-time/adjunct faculty members in Pennsylvania public higher education received no health or pension benefits.

Given cuts in state funding for higher education since we wrote our report, the situation is surely worse today in Pennsylvania.

How do we avoid a future in which a majority of higher education faculty earn less than a "quality" wage — a wage sufficient to give teachers time to prepare lessons, establish office hours, and provide feedback that increases student learning?

It would help if we honored the rights of part-time/contingent faculty to join a union — starting, for example, at Margaret Mary's Duquesne. One game-changing option would give all part-time and contingent faculty at publicly funded Pennsylvania higher education institutions the freedom to form a single statewide local union. This would enable part-time and contingent faculty to negotiate statewide wage and benefit standards and working conditions consistent with teaching excellence. (This type of geographically based union that lifts up low wages and benefits in service industries that can't relocate — because they have to be near their "customers" — is exactly what is needed to rebuild the middle class generally in Pennsylvania and the United States. See my earlier posts on fast food workers and on the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream Speech.")

State lawmakers also need to develop — and fund — a long-term plan for paying all higher education teachers a "quality wage." In a world both moral and rational, this could be part of a broader plan that also makes post-secondary education affordable again for students, and marries online and in-person education to lower costs while maintaining quality.

This approach starts with values — the outcomes we want for students, faculty, and taxpayers — and then uses technology, collective problem-solving, and social negotiation to create a world that honors those values. Imagine the possibilities.

The story of Margaret Mary is a sad reminder that all public policy discussion should start from values — the world we want to create and, unfortunately, the world we want to avoid.

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