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
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT