Skip to main content

Adjunct professors are the new working poor

By Gary Rhoades, Special to CNN
September 25, 2013 -- Updated 2008 GMT (0408 HKT)
American higher education can and should do better for adjunct faculty, Gary Rhoades writes.
American higher education can and should do better for adjunct faculty, Gary Rhoades writes.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Margaret Mary Vojtko, who taught at a university for 25 years, died in poverty
  • Gary Rhoades: Adjunct professors are paid very little and have no benefits
  • He says the dirty secret in higher education is that adjuncts are used a lot
  • Rhoades: Adjunct faculty do not deserve to be the new working poor in society

Editor's note: Gary Rhoades is a professor and director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona.

(CNN) -- "She was a professor?"

That's what an astonished caseworker at Adult Protective Services asked about Margaret Mary Vojtko when informed of the 83-year-old woman's destitute situation, according to an op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Vojtko died September 1 of a massive heart attack.

Yes, she was a professor. An adjunct professor of French at Duquesne University. Until she was not renewed this year, with neither due process nor severance pay.

Gary Rhoades
Gary Rhoades

She taught students for 25 years, with no health benefits, no retirement benefits, and low wages.

The minimum pay for adjunct faculty at Duquesne used to be $2500 per course. After an ongoing effort by the United Steelworkers to unionize adjuncts there, the university paid $3,500 per course.

Vojtko's situation was not unusual for adjuncts in academia. That is why many have taken the hashtag #iamMargaretMary to tweet their indignation at her working conditions, lack of support and lack of respect.

The dirty little secret is that higher education is staffed with an insufficiently resourced, egregiously exploited, contingent "new faculty majority." In addition to the 49.3% of faculty in part-time positions (70% in community colleges), another 19% are full-time, nontenure-track. (These numbers do not include graduate assistants or postdocs.)

Adjunct professors, like many hard-working Americans, are the working poor. They are one step away from "We don't need your services anymore" or one medical emergency away from being destitute, like Vojtko.

If Vojtko was good enough to be entrusted with teaching Duquesne undergraduates, how can the university justify not providing her (and her adjunct colleagues) with health care and other basic benefits?

If American higher education says to students and society that a college education is the path to the middle class, how can we justify such treatment of these professionals, with advanced degrees, who are teaching the students?

We are living a lie that cheats these professors and the students they teach, particularly in access universities and community colleges where adjunct faculty numbers, like percentages of lower-income students, are highest and instructional spending per student is lowest.

The story is not just about Duquesne. Certainly, the institution's wealth ($171 million endowment, tuition over $28,000) and Catholic status (Catholic social doctrine supports collective bargaining rights) make the situation -- and Duquesne's refusal to recognize a union that adjunct faculty voted for overwhelmingly -- particularly indefensible.

Duquesne University's administration has provided a response to the situation, suggesting that there were caring responses by people within the institution to Vojtko's circumstances. However, acts of charity are not conditions-of-employment justice for hard-working adjunct professors.

The larger issues are not about individual responsibility or culpability for actions toward Vojtko, but rather, about collective responsibility for the structural conditions of work that contributed to her circumstances, and that leave significant segments of the academic workforce with no benefits and low pay.

So Duquesne should recognize the adjunct union, bargain in good faith, grant benefits and set up a professional development fund in Vojtko's name. But this story speaks more broadly about a horrible reality in higher education.

Adjunct professors, as part of a growing army of working poor, are at the center of the academic labor movement, just as fast-food workers are now at the center of the larger labor movement. We are in the midst of deciding the extent to which we are an inclusive society that will live up to our nation's promise that hard work pays off.

The question is: How will we treat working people? Will we, the richest nation on earth, continue to structure employment in ways that reduce large segments of society to near Dickensian conditions of existence? Or can we muster the collective will to appropriately remunerate and honor the work of all working Americans?

In academia, that means tenure stream faculty, staff, students, administrators, and communities must recognize in Vojtko's fate the ugly and diminished future of higher education and choose, in big ways and small ways, a more equitable path.

Adjunct professors have taken initiatives to change the status quo. Some have joined advocacy groups, such as the New Faculty Majority. Some are involved with caucuses within unions and professional associations where they gather data about pay and working conditions, define best practices, and work to ensure that adjunct faculty are not discriminated against.

Adjuncts are organizing for benefits, a living wage, and conditions that will benefit their students and their schools. In Pittsburgh, as in Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Washington, there are union campaigns for adjunct unions in private (often wealthy) universities. There is also much organizing in public institutions, and in units that combine adjunct with full-time and tenure track faculty.

No one deserves the treatment and fate experienced by Margaret Mary Vojtko, who escaped the 21st century equivalent of Victorian poorhouses in a cardboard casket. American higher education can and should do better for those who teach our students.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gary Rhoades.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT