This post offers Part 2 of our conversation with Pennsylvania State Senator, Daylin Leach.
It has been many years now since faculty voices within academia have been speaking out against adjunct hiring, which is the low-wage semester-by-semester hiring of university professors that has replaced full-time status for approximately 75% our country’s college educators. Gradually, awareness of the situation has grown, with concern about the many ways these hiring practices negatively impact not only the role of our scholars in higher education, but the quality of education our students are receiving. It wasn’t until the death of adjunct professor Margaret Mary Vojtko, and the outcry created by a series of articles, the first written by Daniel Kovalik for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, that the cold-hearted cruelty, the social injustice of such practices really became part of the public conversation.
Talking about the late Professor, our Pennsylvania State Senator, Daylin Leach, discusses the plight of the adjunct professors across the country.
As the Senator says, Vojtko’s earnings, which barely reached $25,000 a year,
“… is poverty, and that is just a salary. There are no benefits, no healthcare, no support system. It is really an impoverished life.”
Senator Leach points out that the perception people have too often is that adjuncts are teaching as a side activity, and are people with full-time jobs elsewhere. This is largely a false perception, intentionally perpetuated by the universities themselves. The truth is that the majority of university educators are living in poverty because university teaching IS their profession – and a profession for which they trained on average, with ten years of graduate work, research and study. Often, those years of study also mean years of student loan debt, now crippling these professors who are earning so little that they often qualify for food stamps and other forms of public welfare.
The argument has been made against companies like Walmart or McDonald’s, which pay such low wages that our social welfare system, paid for by our citizen’s taxes, is supplementing their workers’ needs. The same argument must be made against universities who also “game” the public welfare system by so severely underpaying their faculty that the same supports are necessary. Why should taxes be used to supplement these organizations which refuse to take responsibility for paying a living wage? Why, especially, when these same organizations, universities included, have seen an explosion of administrative jobs and salaries? As our legislators beat the drum against food stamps, talking about the need for “austerity”, there is no honest evaluation of the largest beneficiaries of that welfare – the corporations and universities, as a recent article in Truthout has discussed.
Far too often, the rhetoric about people on food stamps or other welfare supports is that they are lazy, that they “don’t want to work”, that they prefer to sit at home and let the state pay for their lack of responsibility. Nothing could be further from the truth. Too many of those receiving these benefits are working many hours at jobs in companies and universities which manage to shirk their responsibilities, succeeding in paying wages that are despicably low, not living wages at all.
“These are not lazy people…..(but) people who are very smart…leaders in their field sometimes. It speaks an indifference which I find both ironic and troubling on the part of universities. Because, frankly, there is this image of universities as bastions of liberalism….but in terms of how they treat their employees, suddenly all that goes out the window. You’ll have universities which teach great courses on the American Labor Movement, and….you’ll have universities with courses on poverty studies….but they don’t see the irony in the person teaching that not being able to heat their home because they won’t pay them. At the same time, we’ve seen here in Pennsylvania, administrative salaries go well into the 7 figures. So….this is a reflection of what is happening in society as a whole….”
Senator Leach is right. Universities should be a “bastion against that,” he says. But they are not. “They are deliberately doing this,” he says. Deliberately taking and exploiting the labor of hard-working, well-educated, dedicated faculty and driving them into poverty.
Margaret Mary Vojtko has become the symbol for this suffering. She was 83 years old when she died, over a year and a half ago, collapsing on the lawn of a home she couldn’t afford to heat or repair, a home she could no longer live in because of its condition, and the freezing temperatures inside. She died sick, without healthcare or savings. As Kovalik writes, “As amazing as it sounds, Margaret Mary, a 25-year professor, was not making ends meet. Even during the best of times, when she was teaching three classes a semester and two during the summer, she was not even clearing $25,000 a year, and she received absolutely no health care benefits. Compare this with the salary of Duquesne’s president, who makes more than $700,000 with full benefits.”
Dr. Vojtko’s poverty was so desperate by the end of her life that she was buried in a cardboard box. A national outcry against her suffering rose, and the disrespect of those at Duquesne University who were not only aware of her plight, but who caused it, was exposed. Her fate could well be the fate of many of the over 1.5 million university professors now working on adjunct contracts. The first generation of “career adjuncts” is well into retirement age, with no retirement savings or benefits, no healthcare, nowhere to turn.
Isn’t time to ask: what sort of world is this, where such desperation is intentionally created? What sort of economic system creates and perpetuates this kind of suffering? What has happened to our American university system that the values and morality have become so warped that those upon whom the entire educational endeavor depends are left to suffer poverty, illness and degradation while the ever-growing number of administrators are living lives of comfort and well-being, and in many cases, wealth? What kind of country has America become?
To see the clip of part 2 of our interview with Senator Leach, click here.