Is adjunct academia indeed the devil’s bargain?

Screenshot via Slate.com

All the necessary components were there: 83-year-old woman, beloved and career adjunct professor, cancer patient, devout and traditional Catholic, poor both in spirit and pocketbook, released unceremoniously from Duquesne University after 25 years of semester-to-semester service.

Indeed, this piece from Slate easily could have trended toward the martyrdom of Margaret Mary Vojtko.

The hashtag vigilante would have rejoiced, as many students and proponents of better treatment for contracting professors already had claimed her (#IamMargaretMary) as their social media rallying call.

But readers emerge as the only winners in this piece.

Careful, thorough, even-handed treatment of all entities involved leads us to an understanding of this “brilliant” woman who spoke five languages and the life and career choices she made navigating the world of higher education as it evolved into the business model of today.

Be warned: There is no happy ending. I’d say that’s all the more reason to read and reflect on this story and the larger issue at hand involving adjunct professors at religious universities and whose role it is to provide for the sick and elderly.

The author clearly identifies her objective:

Who was Margaret Mary—the person, not the symbol of victimhood? I went to Pittsburgh to find out more about the life of a woman who’d become famous only for her death. I talked to dozens of her family, friends, acquaintances, neighbors, and colleagues. I visited the campus where she’d taught for 25 years, the restaurant where she’d spent nights after her furnace broke, and the house she’d grown up and grown old in. The story I uncovered was more complicated than the story that went viral. The reasons Vojtko’s life ended in misery had much less to do with her status as an adjunct professor than tweeters using the #IamMargaretMary hashtag might believe.

She did find those individuals by retracing Vojtko’s life steps. The approach sounds so simple in our high-tech reporting culture, but it worked beautifully in this case. Among her sources: a Capuchin friar, a friend who offered to buy her a space heater, the handyman who boarded up windows in her home after vandals tried to break in and various students.

We hear from Duquesne, its faculty and labor representatives as well as Vojtko’s lawyer. Their words are interspersed with Vojtko’s own take on the issues, gleaned from her writings, and show the tension between the teacher and her employer:

Throughout the 25 years she taught at Duquesne, Vojtko’s relationship with the university was uneasy. Though she worked on her dissertation for nearly 40 years, she never finished it, which meant she never became eligible for a tenure track position. As a traditional Catholic, Vojtko felt that the university wasn’t as religious as it should be. Staunchly pro-life, she was indignant when Duquesne held bioethics panels that suggested that contraception and abortion might be morally defensible. She also thought that Duquesne’s mission statement —which includes “Duquesne serves God by serving students”—was sacrilegious. Sébastien Renault, a close friend of Vojtko’s, remembers her saying, “It’s bad theology, because it doesn’t work this way. You don’t instrumentalize God. You serve God first. And the more you know him and love him and serve him, then you will serve the students.”

Never did Vojtko utter the phrase j’en peux plus (I can’t take it anymore) as it related to her living situation, career or cancer. The narrative documents without being sentimental the disrepair of her home and roof and furnace failure, how she pieced together days in a restaurant and nights on a couch in a shared office for warmth. Without implied pity, it is journalistically sound and informative, providing yet more insight into Vojtko:

The founder of the adjunct union, Joshua Zelesnick, and his wife also tried to help. They invited Professor Vojtko to stay with them. A cafeteria worker at Mercy Hospital offered her a place at his family’s house, too. Two financially comfortable friends of Vojtko’s, a retired judge named Francis Caiazza (who later eulogized Vojtko) and his wife Rosalina, offered her money to fix the furnace. Vojtko wouldn’t take it. “She didn’t want to be a burden,” Zelesnick says.

As the story winds through Vojtko’s last days and her death, the question is asked: Could Duquesne have saved her? The relevant social justice and eldercare questions are asked, answered and explored in an expert manner.

In all, this story is a tribute to our craft. The picture is painted deftly and with dignity and depth. It is fair to the university, the union and the Catholic church.

Does that make it any less tragic? No. But it will certainly make you think.

About Tamie Ross

Tamie Ross is a wife, mom, writer and all-around crazy-about-life girl now battling autoimmune disease. Her 20-year journalism career included stints as religion editor for The Oklahoman, online editor for The Christian Chronicle and freelancer for clients ranging from The Associated Press to United Methodist News Service. She has won state and national awards for her personal columns and editorials.

  • MollieZHemingway

    What a fantastic review of a great piece.

  • Kodos

    I’ve been thinking about this story all day. It’s an excellent example of the way journalists can tackle a contemporary social — can I say “moral”? — issue in a balanced, fair, and contemplative manner. Non-fiction stories that are told with this kind of skill can get under your skin and into your heart, nagging your conscience because there’s no easy answer to the complex problem that has been reported… and that’s why I haven’t been able to shake this story off.

    This piece stands in stark and painful contrast to the shallow journalism being done on other complex social issues today.

  • John Pack Lambert

    I would have to say the article still short changes the central issue of the religious freedom angle of Duquesne refusing to recognize the union. The real concern that unions will add another alternate angle to the whole setup of Duquesne is not addressed.
    I was a student at BYU, and I can see that institution fighting tooth and nail to prevent adjunct organizing. Of course, I also think they use adjunct less, and in some cases they have adjuncts who are undergrads (at least one of the dance classes I took there was like that). I did have other adjunct professors who were people who had made a career of it, but two were wives of tenured professors, and the other was an assistant director of the library, but that was 10 years ago, so maybe things have changed. Probably the closest to an exploited adjunct I had was a guy who was finishing up his Ph.D. at Wisconsin, but BYU would let him teach 3 classes a semester. Once he got his Ph.D. BYU hired him on full time, and he is now also the editor-in-chief of the Mormon Studies Review.
    On the other hand BYU actually expects more teaching to be done by professors than some major research institutions.


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