Who Was Mary Margaret Vojtko? Why Should We Care?

Mary Margaret Vojtko was an 83 year old professor at Duquesne University who, after 25 years of service, succumbed to cancer. Delirious, virtually homeless, the French professor passed away on the front lawn of a house that she was too destitute to keep up and was delivered unto God in a cardboard coffin.

Mary Margaret Vojtko was making $10,000 a year and, like many in her position, she was glad to get it. At the end of her time on earth, she did not have health insurance. Neither did she have job security. On the eve of her death, she suffered the disgrace of finding out that she was terminated after 25 years of service.

Her death has become a symbol to a special class of professors -- adjunct professors -- who have not the glamor of a mall shooting nor the spectacle of a gas attack to make their cause known to the general public but who, nonetheless, every day die, inch by inch, in a system that, ironically, elevates their labor with that vaunted title "professor" even as it extinguishes their hopes and fortunes and bodies.

What are adjunct professors? They are not "real" professors -- professors who enjoy job security and benefits and dignity. An adjunct professor is the grunt worker of the university system. Often euphemistically termed "contingent faculty," adjunct professors are second tier citizens -- expendable figures who teach class by class, term by term.

Originally, adjuncts took up the slack when departments came to be over-enrolled and needed a pinch hitter. But the key word here is this: originally.

This is no longer the case. Seventy five percent of courses at the University are taught by adjunct faculty. If you had a professor in college in the past decade, the rumpled human that stood before you was in all likelihood not a professor but simply a lowly adjunct. No doubt, you might have addressed her as "professor" but she enjoyed none of the privileges of regular faculty.

Such figures now are the bulk of the intellectual labor force -- paid wages that often force them to resort to selling their blood plasma or subsisting on food stamps -- and, yes, their numbers continue to climb. These people are by no means less qualified than their colleagues who enjoy stability and status and legitimacy. Adjuncts are fiercely dedicated, often armed with doctorates and publications.

A Doonesbury Cartoon from over a decade ago depicts the plight of the adjunct as that of a day laborer in a crowded hall, competing for a job. At one time, this might have been an exaggeration but now it has become truth. Universities, nowadays, purposefully dole out a meager ration of jobs so that adjuncts will never achieve a full time status and it is to their benefit to manage labor in this inhumane way in order to puff up the paychecks of football coaches and administrators.

Adjuncts toil under a system that is unnecessarily cruel and exploitative, demeaning and ruinous. If we cannot call upon ourselves to reform this system because it is morally right to do so, if we cannot see that it is our human responsibility to treat our best and our brightest better, than perhaps we can call upon ourselves to reform it because of this one key fact: it is in our own best interest to do so. After all, what kind of education can you wring out of someone who is on the edge of being exhausted, depleted, doomed?