I think this is a story that needs to be told. When we think of the poor, we don’t usually think of people like this.
It comes from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
On Sept. 1, Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct professor who had taught French at Duquesne University for 25 years, passed away at the age of 83. She died as the result of a massive heart attack she suffered two weeks before. As it turned out, I may have been the last person she talked to.
On Aug. 16, I received a call from a very upset Margaret Mary. She told me that she was under an incredible amount of stress. She was receiving radiation therapy for the cancer that had just returned to her, she was living nearly homeless because she could not afford the upkeep on her home, which was literally falling in on itself, and now, she explained, she had received another indignity — a letter from Adult Protective Services telling her that someone had referred her case to them saying that she needed assistance in taking care of herself. The letter said that if she did not meet with the caseworker the following Monday, her case would be turned over to Orphans’ Court.
For a proud professional like Margaret Mary, this was the last straw; she was mortified. She begged me to call Adult Protective Services and tell them to leave her alone, that she could take care of herself and did not need their help. I agreed to. Sadly, a couple of hours later, she was found on her front lawn, unconscious from a heart attack. She never regained consciousness.
Meanwhile, I called Adult Protective Services right after talking to Margaret Mary, and I explained the situation. I said that she had just been let go from her job as a professor at Duquesne, that she was given no severance or retirement benefits, and that the reason she was having trouble taking care of herself was because she was living in extreme poverty. The caseworker paused and asked with incredulity, “She was a professor?” I said yes. The case- worker was shocked; this was not the usual type of person for whom she was called in to help.
Of course, what the case-worker didn’t understand was that Margaret Mary was an adjunct professor, meaning that, unlike a well-paid tenured professor, Margaret Mary worked on a contract basis from semester to semester, with no job security, no benefits and with a salary of between $3,000 and just over $3,500 per three-credit course. Adjuncts now make up well over 50 percent of the faculty at colleges and universities.
While adjuncts at Duquesne overwhelmingly voted to join the United Steelworkers union a year ago, Duquesne has fought unionization, claiming that it should have a religious exemption. Duquesne has claimed that the unionization of adjuncts like Margaret Mary would somehow interfere with its mission to inculcate Catholic values among its students.
UPDATE: From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Friday:
In fact, the campus community reached out to her on multiple occasions, inviting her at one point to live on campus, said John Plante, university vice president for advancement.
“Despite the assertions made in the op-ed piece, individuals across the University community attempted to help Margaret Mary through her last trying days. Spiritan priests, support staff, and University and McAnulty College administrators reached out to assist Margaret Mary with the challenges she faced,” Mr. Plante wrote in a letter Thursday to university employees.
Duquesne officials said they did not know how many responses to the column they received. Mr. Plante said they were of two distinct types.
The first, he said, included “individuals who have been intimately involved and familiar with the situation, and who immediately recognized this op-ed as a reckless attempt to use Margaret Mary Vojtko’s death as a means to further the self-interest of Mr. Kovalik’s external organization.
“These individuals have expressed both outrage and sadness that Margaret Mary has been used in this way,” Mr. Plante said.
“Then there are those with no direct knowledge of the actual circumstances. They have also expressed outrage, using social media to attack Duquesne based on their acceptance of Mr. Kovalik’s published mischaracterizations,” Mr. Plante added.
His message quoted a letter from the Rev. Daniel Walsh, university chaplain and director of campus ministry, who said he was left incredulous by the piece. He said its claims bore no resemblance to reality and accused the author of being “sadly exploitative” for use of an unfortunate death “to serve an alternative agenda.”