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September 19, 2013

The Sad and Lonely Death of Margaret Mary Vojtko, Adjunct

A story has been circulating academic newsletters and forums this week, a column called “The Death of an Adjunct” by Daniel Kovalik. It’s terrifying, to me at least, for it tells the true story of 83-year-old adjunct professor of French Margaret Mary Vojtko who died last month in abject poverty.  You can find the story here if you would like all the sad details.

I found the story terrifying because it’s the future I face. Teaching at 83 is not unheard of. I know many people who are working long after retirement age because they can not afford to stop.  In the comments, someone posted, “what about Social Security?”  I was very surprised to learn that there is actually no minimum monthly benefit, but for administrative reasons, the SSA won’t pay less than $1 a month.  And we all know, or should know, that benefits are based on salary. If Prof. Vojtko was an adjunct for 25 years, her yearly salary was low.

Why adjunct? It used to be the domain of grad students or people who wanted to keep their hand in or make a little money. Now I know a number of full time adjuncts, but obviously not all at one school.  I am one, something I’ve bemoaned for a while. I left America (because a Taiwanese school was the only full time job I could get) and was out of the country for well over a decade. Since I’ve come back, nothing full time permanent.

I have glowing reviews from peers and students, and frankly, I am very very good at what I do.

But my income varies and my health coverage is spotty, in spite of my union.  The SSA very helpfully sends me what my social security benefit is currently projected to be when I retire. It’s in the three digits per month still. I have a very very very small IRA because one temp job I had was a year long, so I was part of the Massachusetts Retirement Fund, but when I left I had to roll it to an IRA.  And that’s about it.

I would love to sock away funds for my future, but right now I’m not making enough money for living now. So Prof. Vojtko’s story? This could very well be me in 30 years.

I have hope, of course. Hope of a full time job somewhere in the near future. Or of moving out of America again (which is getting harder and harder to do–everyone’s economy is bad). Or I will finally have time to finish my book and sell it. And then maybe publish another.

I’ve written about the adjunct situation before. Schools have figured out that they can hire “contingent faculty” with little to no benefits, no job security and very little pay. In that way we’re no different from many who work in corporate America. Except most of us have advanced degrees. We’re some of the best educated and least appreciated people in the country. We hear the pundits and the politicians say “We need more educated people in this country.”  But why bother if there will be no jobs?

I didn’t go into this field blindly. When I was deciding between a PhD or law school, I did my research. I talked to people in both fields. I looked at the market research. According to statistics, there would be a 13-20% increase in college teaching jobs. The law field was facing a glut of graduates. Seemed like a wise choice.  And there would have been that uptick in jobs. The hirees of the 60s and 70s were getting ready to retire when I was finishing grad school in the mid-90s. But instead of replacing those who left with other full timers, schools hired two or three adjuncts instead and saved a lot of money.

I can’t totally blame not-for-profit schools, especially the public schools, whose budgets are being slashed. But quality is hurt.

But here I am, living one paycheck away from poverty. I can’t afford to be ill or hurt because I’m allowed one paid sick day per term.  And anything that would entail a few weeks of healing time? They’d get someone to replace me. I get it. Students can’t miss the class time.

Something in this country has got to change. Our colleges and universities were some of the best in the world, but running schools with a majority of adjunct labor is not a sustainable situation. Students suffer; education suffers; America suffers; and the adjuncts suffer.

I cried for Prof. Vojtko when I read the article. She died in miserable conditions, in spite of working hard all of her life. She died alone, stressed, and frightened. I would cry for anyone in that situation. But quite literally, there but for the Grace of God go I.

To anyone thinking of an academic career in America, I have one piece of advice: don’t do it. I love teaching. I don’t teach; I am a teacher. But I can’t live a sustainable life and I know many many others who are in the same boat.

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