So if you are an academic and connected to the internet, you have likely read this story. If you haven’t, go do so. I’ll wait.
OK, welcome back. Pretty shitty, right? There’s plenty of outrage to go around, and I can’t hope to address it all in due time. But let’s start here.
First, let’s note the following: “A university spokeswoman provided a statement in which Duquesne’s chaplain and director of campus ministry, the Rev. Daniel Walsh, says that Ms. Vojtko lived at the university’s Laval House, a building for undergraduates studying to enter the priesthood, for several weeks during the past year, at the university’s invitation, after Duquesne officials ‘learned of problems with her home’.” In short, what this means is, the university knew that they were not paying her a living wage, and decided that the best way to handle the situation was to offer her temporary housing. Sure, in a very short-sighted nature, a nice gesture. But it’s little more than that, a gesture. The more important thing to note is that the university was aware of the problem. This was a woman who devoted 25 years to Duquesne University. Her commitment to the university cannot be questioned. But what of the university’s commitment to her?
One answer is that the university has a mission. According to the university’s webpage, they announce the importance of “Service to the Church, the community, the nation and the world.” So my first question is, where does Margaret Mary Vojtko fall into that mission? Is she part of the community? As a 25-year veteran of the university, this seems to be a no-brainer. So how exactly did they define their commitment to Prof. Vojtko? It’s very easy to say one has a commitment to the community, but very difficult to embrace those individual members of that community. Our community is those people who live in our neighborhood, who work by our side, whose lives are woven into our own. Clearly, Prof. Vojtko was a part of the Duquesne community. So one could reasonably ask, where was the service to her?
Further, the university has a religious affiliation. Again, according to the university’s webpage, they define this mission as “an enterprise of service to God through serving students.” OK, so how does a university serve its students? Primarily, through its faculty. For all the talk about administrators “serving” students with their work – and all the related talk of various departments that provide services for students – it’s the faculty who most directly serve students on a daily basis. It’s the faculty who provide the education the students seek. And just as importantly, perhaps, it’s the faculty who are the first point of contact for many students regardless of what questions those students have. In my experience – 16 years of college-level teaching – faculty are the ones students go to when they need advising, mentoring, counseling, information about campus and community services, etc. We faculty members are the human faces that students associate with the university. And for all the availability of information on the internet, students will almost always go to a trusted faculty member first when they have a question about the university. And universities know this. At my university, faculty are asked to staff recruiting events, call prospective students, and work with other offices whenever students are involved. And to return to Duquesne, this is how they serve God; they serve God by serving students. And students are served first and foremost by the faculty. So again, one could reasonably ask, how did Duquesne think they were serving students when they so horribly mistreated one of their own faculty, one of those people whose primary function at the university was serving students?
A friend of mine earlier tonight noted that it was especially egregious that a religious school would so mistreat one of its own. And my above comments might suggest that I agree. But I don’t. I don’t expect religious institutions to be more moral, more humane, that other human institutions; I don’t hold religious institutions to higher standards. And suggesting that religious institutions have a deeper commitment to humanity, in my mind, ignores that we all have a human obligation to one another. Yes, Prof. Vojtko was a member of the faculty at a religious university. But even if Duquesne were a secular institution, their treatment of her would be just as shameful. Because above everything else, Margaret Mary Vojtko was a human, a person, a woman who walked with and lived among others in her community. And she was a person who needed help. Religion or not, when you know someone who needs help, and you are in a position to help them, the human thing is to help.
And so we return to this: “He also writes that he and other priests visited her regularly during her illness.” The members of the university knew of her problems. The priests cared enough to visit her home. A nice, even human gesture. But again, just a gesture. Because what she needed – what the university knew she needed – was assistance paying her bills. I have no idea what these priests from the university were doing other than visiting her. I hope they were lobbying the university to treat their adjuncts better. I hope they went to administration to call them out for exploiting faculty. I hope they are using their position to initiate change. If they did, they were not successful, as first “the university reduced Ms. Vojtko’s course load to one class per semester last fall, decreasing her annual earnings to below $10,000,” and then “Ms. Vojtko learned that she was not being rehired for this fall’s semester.”
In other words, after learning of her difficulties and making gestures toward her, the university’s official response was to cut back her work and then unemploy her.
This, as many of you should well know, is the position of the adjunct. Adjuncts are contingent faculty, and do not have the same job security enjoyed by tenure-stream faculty and administrators. Adjuncts are employed at the whim of the university. This was a lesson I learned when I was adjuncting (for 2 years between my MA and PhD programs, and again for 6 years while working on my PhD). On more than one occasion, I lost a course when a tenure-stream faculty member decided to poach it.* And when adjuncts are prevented from unionizing, their length of service becomes irrelevant. This means that an adjunct is no more valuable to the university after 25 years than after 1 year. Of course, long-serving adjuncts are very valuable to the students, to their colleagues, and to the various members of the university community. But as a paid employee who is eligible for benefits, raises, and other employment perks afforded to full-time, tenure-stream employees, the adjunct does not enjoy any job security. And this is why I use the word “unemploy” above, to highlight the fact that the university did not fire Prof. Vojtko. They didn’t have to; they just didn’t renew her contract. But this is still an overt act; they caused her unemployment.**
You’re on the internet, so I have no doubt you can find all sorts of information about the plight of adjuncts, so feel free to do so now. I’ll wait.***
OK, now that we are all on the same page, what do we do? How, in other words, do we attempt to solve the problem?
First, we have to recognize that it’s a problem. Many university administrators, like Barbara Altmann, vice provost for academic affairs at the University of Oregon, would have us believe that “In order to handle that huge rise of students that we’ve experienced in the last five years, we’ve had to add adjuncts […] We have more non-tenure track faculty than is ideal. Now we’re at the point where we have to start righting that ratio a little bit.” No, you did not have to add adjuncts. You had to add faculty, but there was no need for those faculty to be contingent. That was a business decision, and one that helped to fuel the staggering demand to raise administrative salaries at the expense of hiring full-time, tenure-stream faculty. (I’d like to as Barbara Altmann how many of the administrators hired to handle the rising student population were part-time. There’s a reason why you have never heard of an “adjunct administrator.”)
Don’t believe me? Here is the salary information for the State University of New York system. For the six years I’ve been here, we faculty have been told that the university cannot afford to hire tenure-stream faculty, and so regularly set hiring freezes for full-time employees, although they do allow the hiring of adjuncts in order to cover our instructional needs. (My department hired three new tenure-stream faculty for this year, which we are very happy about. Especially as the university was told this year that, due to budget constraints, no tenure lines will be approved.) Anyway, with that link, you can see the salaries for all SUNY administrators.^ What this information should make clear is that universities can, in fact, hire full-time faculty. They simply don’t want to. They would much rather pay administrators massive salaries than hire new full-time faculty.
But awareness is only the first step. Awareness without action is nothing more than posting a Facebook status and hoping that you will change the world.^^ What can we do? What actions can we take? Here are some suggestions, and please feel free to post others in the comments:
1. Organize. As a former union member, I always suggest this as my go-to solution. And as someone who has been on strike in the past (as a Teamster, and let me tell you the Teamsters know how to organize and strike), I can tell you that work-stoppages can be very effective. If you are tenure-stream, tenured, or an administrator, stand up with your contingent colleagues and demand better treatment, better pay, better benefits. Let them know that you have their backs. Especially when the revolution comes.
2. Become part of your university’s leadership structure and ensure that contingent faculty are not left out of the decision-making process or treated officially as second-class colleagues. To give a local example, last year some of my tenured colleagues suggested (as a faculty senate action) that all tenure-stream faculty be given access to records for all students, and not just those students they advise. The argument was that such information could be useful to faculty in writing letter of recommendation, providing informal mentorship, etc. When I asked why this access was being limited to tenure-stream faculty and not to all faculty regardless of contract status, I was told that giving this access to adjuncts would be “inappropriate.” I asked for clarification, and was told that because adjuncts are by definition part-time, they don’t have the same investment in the university or its students as do the tenure-stream faculty. In short, he was essentially arguing that part-time faculty are undeserving of the rights of full-time faculty because they are part-time; the contract status imposed on them by the university is then used by the university as proof that they are lesser colleagues.
3. Refuse to participate in the subtle but very real common indecencies that enforce the second-class situation of contingent faculty. To give another local example, last year one of my tenured colleagues sent a scathing email to my department, insisting that we stop using the title “Prof.” when referring to adjunct faculty (and that we use the “more appropriate”^^^ “Mr.” and “Ms.”). Her reasoning was that the title “Prof.” is something that is conferred to people with doctorates who are part of the tenure stream. I have two problems with this reasoning. First, it ignores the large (and growing) number of adjuncts who hold PhDs (or similar terminal degrees). Second, it insists that we should treat colleagues based on their contract status; that their contract status should determine who they are and how they should be referred to. Oh, and what made this a really shitty move? She sent this to the entire department, including all the adjuncts.
This brings us back to Prof. Vojtko and her position at Duquesne. Duquesne treated Prof. Vojtko the way they treat adjuncts, and not the way they treat other members of their professional community. For instance, the university recently celebrated the professional accomplishments of Professor Emeritus Dr. Joseph Willcox, on the occasion of his 85th birthday. For those of you who don’t know, “emeritus” is the term used for retired faculty. In other words, the same year that Duquesne University celebrated a retired faculty member,^^^^ they chose to ignore the plight of another long-term faculty member. And as I noted above, this was a plight they were absolutely conscious of. They knew that she was in trouble, and their response was to make sure she wasn’t employed.
Oh, and in the event you suspect this is apples-to-oranges? Dr. Willcox was celebrating his 85th birthday. When she died, Prof. Vojtko was 83. And had been working part-time at Duquesne – teaching the same student population as Dr. Willcox – for 25 years.
So if you’ve made it this far, thanks. And now I have but one request for you: do something. This is a problem. If you are in academia, you know this to be a problem. And if you are tenured or serve in an administrative role, stand up and do something. Lots of people online have been complaining about Duquesne. There has been, as the article I linked to above noted, quite a bit of outrage. And for those of you who are outraged, go do something. Stand up and do what’s right. Because if you are not trying to change things in your own backyard, you don’t get to complain about Duquesne. You are Duquesne.
*In one case, the professor’s course was unenrolled, so he canceled his and took mine. That was $2,500 I didn’t make that semester. In another case, the professor was angry to learn I had been given an upper-division course (in my area of specialization, but not his); he insisted that I teach his Freshman Composition course and he take my Modern Novel course, because it was inappropriate that an adjunct teach such courses. (I will use that word again later in this post.)
**Seriously, think on this. You have worked for your employer for 25 years. And you still have to be rehired for your job regularly. It’s one thing to require regular performance reviews. It’s quite another to have to be rehired for your job, for the same job you have been doing for 25 years. What other fields ask their employees to spend 25 years being regularly rehired for their own job, a job that the university clearly needs to fill long-term?
***You could start with my earlier post regarding adjuncts, or this recent story, which should help you realize that many of the people who adjunct are cobbling together a variety of other part-time jobs to make ends meet.
^Sadly, it is not up-to-date. However, it’s still pretty astounding to learn, for instance, that my university provost earned over $150,000/year in 2008. And this does not include her expense and travel accounts. This was just salary.
^^^It’s astonishing how often this word – appropriate – gets used in discussions that work to keep this system in place.
^^^^One who did continue to teach part time over the summers in his retirement. But note that he was retired. He was not made unemployed by university fiat.