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
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1626 GMT (0026 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT