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:

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