When Mary Margaret Vojtko died last September—penniless and virtually homeless and eighty-three years old, having been referred to Adult Protective Services because the effects of living in poverty made it seem to some that she was incapable of caring for herself—it made the news because she was a professor. That a French professor of twenty-five years would be let go from her job without retirement benefits, without even severance, sounded like some tragic mistake. In the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette op-ed that broke the story, Vojtko’s friend and attorney Daniel Kovalik describes an exchange he had with a caseworker from Adult Protective Services: “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.” A professor belongs to the professional class, a professor earns a salary and owns a home, probably with a leafy yard, and has good health insurance and a retirement account. In the American imagination, a professor is perhaps disheveled, but as a product of brainy eccentricity, not of penury. In the American university, this is not the case.
Most university-level instructors are, like Vojtko, contingent employees, working on a contract basis year to year or semester to semester. Some of these contingent employees are full-time lecturers, and many are adjunct instructors: part-time employees, paid per class, often without health insurance or retirement benefits. This is a relatively new phenomenon: in 1969, 78 percent of professors held tenure-track positions. By 2009 this percentage had shrunk to 33.5. The rest of the professors holding jobs—whether part time or full time—do so without any job security. These are the conditions that left Vojtko in such a vulnerable position after twenty-five years at Duquesne University. Vojtko was earning between $3,000 and $3,500 per three-credit course. During years when she taught three courses per semester, and an additional two over the summer, she made less than $25,000, and received no health benefits through her employer. Though many universities limit the number of hours that adjunct professors can work each semester, keeping them nominally “part-time” employees, teaching three three-credit courses is certainly a full-time job. These circumstances are now the norm for university instructors, as the number of tenured and tenure-track positions shrinks and the ranks of contingent laborers swell.
A moment of full disclosure: I am an adjunct. I taught freshman composition at Columbia University for two years as a graduate student, then for a few semesters more as an adjunct after I finished my degree. I now tutor in a writing center in the City University of New York system. Many of my friends do this same kind of work at colleges around New York City, commuting from campus to campus, cobbling together more-than-full-time work out of multiple part-time jobs. We talk a lot about how to make adjuncting livable, comparing pay rates at different writing centers and English departments. We crowdsource answers to questions about how to go to the dentist, for example, since none of us has dental insurance—wait for a Groupon for a cleaning, or go to the student dentists at NYU for anything urgent. I do have health insurance at my current job, though I get an email a few times per year informing me that it may expire soon because negotiations between the union and the university over adjunct health insurance have stalled. This is mostly fine—my coverage has never actually been interrupted—but it is hard to swallow the notion that the university that employs me is constantly trying to get out of providing health insurance to teachers, particularly when it announces that it is giving our new chancellor an $18,000/month apartment for free.