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"Death of an Adjunct" controversy

My post today will be uncharacteristically short. I merely wanted to link to this tragic story, and perhaps highlight the response of the Spiritan community at Duquesne. What do you think?

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Robert Geroux is a political theorist.



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Margaret Mary was well paid by adjunct standards. 

the response of the Spiritan community at Duquesne.

Well, the Rev. walsh's response seems to be to cover his own ass.


How much were nuns paid for teaching in parochial schools for over a hundred years?  (In many cases, nothing at all.  In most cases, next to nothing.  In a few cases, a little, but nothing resembling a living wage.  They were not enrolled in Social Security, thanks to the bishops and pastors who feared governmental oversight, etc.  Most of those nuns had no degrees, no teaching credentials, and little education other than summer courses.  Etc.  Many/most had two or more grades in a classroom, 40 to 50 children.   Often more.)

When the bishops and pastors were no longer able to exploit nuns to staff the schools, they hired lay teachers.  Those people were underqualified, underpaid, provided with few, if any, benefits, and fired at the whim of pastors and principals.

Why would anyone be surprised that college teachers are treated with the same contempt?

(No one forces anyone to work for the Church.  If a person sticks around, taking the abuse, for more than a year or two, s/he bears some responsibility for enabling it.)

It isn't only teachers and "professors" who are abused financially by Catholic institutions.  Ask a tradesperson if s/he likes installing windows, painting, doing carpentry, etc., etc., etc. for a parish or diocese.  Was s/he paid on time?  Was s/he paid at all?  Etc.

I'm glad to learn that many individual Catholics were concerned about Vojtko, and it was clear from the original Post-Gazette story that some details were being elided (why she wasn't supported by Medicare/Medicaid, for example, if she wasn't); presumably, she was refusing some of the offered help.

But Duquesne's anti-union position and its claim to the NLRB that they should be exempt from labor laws and the majority vote of their own adjuncts <i>because they're a religious institution</i> is just revolting. Shame on them.

I think its a disgrace that an 83 year old woman is required to work at all. This is an indictment not only of Duquesne, her employer for the past 25 years, but of her employers the 40 years before that.  All those years of work and no pension to show for it. 


Imho, the whole adjunct system should be abolished.  Teaching fellows are one thing, but harried and miserable adjuncts are another.   

With the rise of MOOCs, there's no reason for a student to be expected to sit in a classroom listening to someone talk about something s/he knows/cares little/nothing about.  Much better to take an online class from a real expert.

From yesterday's NYT:

Coursera and edX, the two largest providers of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are inching closer to offering degree programs, although the courses so far carry no academic credit. Coursera is now offering courses from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, covering most of its MBA program’s first year curriculum. And Edx is starting two “sequences,” linked courses in a particular discipline. Both are from MIT: Foundations of Computer Science, a set of undergraduate courses that will begin this fall, and Supply Chain and Logistics Management, a set of graduate level courses that will begin in fall 2014.


I get paid $3100 for a course I teach as an adjunct .  I'm not doing it for the money, but it makes me wonder a little why students have to pay $35,000 a year in tuition.

This topic hits close to the bone for me, and I don't want to start a rant here.

So let me offer this historic perspective, having worked as an adjunct since 1984:

The adjunctification of academia has fostered a two-tier professional system in which tenured professors have a union, benefits, high wages, and a pension ... and adjuncts have none of those things. Even where unionized--and many adjuncts are leery of unionization because union activity is easily punished by simply not renewing a contract--adjuncts who teach a full-time load do not approach the benefits/wage/pension package of tenured faculty. It's comfy for tenured professors to think that adjuncts are second-rate teachers and scholars, but that's a harder fiction to maintain as the number of adjuncts grow in proportion to tenured faculty, particularly in the liberal arts. 

For those interested in understanding what it's like to have an advanced degree and earn less money and respect than unskilled workers in the service industry, and a study of the MOOC phenom (I actually like MOOCs as a means of professional development, and my employer does too because they don't have to spend any money on me!), here are some good places to start, and I'll try not to butt in again.

A study shows that adjunct teaching is not sub-par:

Dick Gordon (The Story, American Public Media) interviews a U-Pitt adjunct who offers a good overview of the state of non-tenured instructors.

"The Nation" on MOOCs.

The idea that adjuncts should be put into category other than that of those Gerelyn calls "real experts" does not hold up, as can be seen in what Jean posts above, as well as when one simply considers the fact that most people becoming adjuncts received the same sort of training as those who entered the tenure-based system way back when. It may be that adjuncts do wind up teaching courses that are only tangential to what they were trained in, but the same can be said for tenure track profs. (e.g., my brother the tenure-track classicist who teaches Chinese religion).

(Hi, Abe!  Imho, a "real expert" is someone who is a real expert.  S/he has the time and energy to keep up with the latest developments in her field.  And an office.  And heat and food.  And s/he's not 83.  Etc.)

 "A study shows . . ."

The "study" was done by "David Figlio, the Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy and of Economics at Northwestern; Morton O. Schapiro, Northwestern's president (and a long-time scholar of higher education economics); and Kevin B. Soter, a management consultant."

None of those men are adjuncts.  

The authors acknowledge that Northwestern is not a typical college. It has highly competitive admissions and more resources to hire faculty members (tenure-track or not) than is the case for many other colleges. However, they add that "our findings that the benefits of taking courses with non-tenure track faculty appear to be stronger for the relatively marginal students at Northwestern indicate that our findings may be relevant to a considerably wider range of institutions."



(The comments below the anti-MOOC article at The Nation are interesting, imho.)

I was kind of shocked to learn that full time faculty at colleges teach between 4 and 6 courses per year.



I discussed this matter for a short period this morning, with my Fordham University anthropology students, in a a Comparative Cultures class. We were scheduled, in any event, to discuss how death is managed,or was traditionally, in a number of Melanesian tribal societies. One theme here has been that, in death, obligations of various sorts are highlighted, and marked by gift exchanges and other rituals, between the kinship groups that are the building blocks of such small societies. 

A strong finding, by anthropologists in this field, is that the rituals around death are crucial to restoring and perpetuating the important links between all the groups that interact, and constitute by their interaction the very fabric of society--that's a familiar phrase, isn't it, the fabric of society, even perhaps something of a cliche? 

But it's useful, and the care and maintenance of that fabric does indeed seem to involve serious community investment in many societies. The death of any individual, anywhere, disrupts social functioning in that person's network of associates and kin, to use the driest sort of social scientese. 

Ok, as an adjunct, I feel close to Margaret Mary, even though I did not in fact know her personally, and I think one can see that close feeling even more clearly, in Dan Kovalik's article. Dan Kovalik is one of Margaret Mary's people. He knew her, he tried to be helpful to her. He is also senior associate general counsel of the United Steelworkers union, which has recently and successfully organized Duquesne adjunct faculty, something that has been resisted fiercely by the university's administration. 

Now, Rev. Walsh has objected to Dan's article, claiming that Kovalik is serving "an alternative agenda" in a "sadly exploitive" way.  Rev. Walsh also wants us to know that he too knew Margaret Mary Votjko, and that he and other Spiritan priests knew her and visited with her regularly, and tried to be helpful.

So, I guess we're arguing, aren't we, about what this death really means. My personal view is simple. For forty years now, higher ed has more and more exploited an ever more adjunctified faculty, and I don't think that end-of-life pastoral attention, no matter how well-meaning or comforting, even begins to substitute for the thoroughgoing soul-searching that needs to be done about an exploitative labor system that violates the church's basic social teachings. In fact, I think that Rev. Walsh should be ashamed of himself, for so grossly ignoring the very obvious system of exploitation that so very obviously structured the death, in poverty, of a devoted Duquesne faculty member.

Now is the perfect time to discuss these things, not at all an "alternate agenda," and, "shameful"? Really? And, by the way, the person who, in this string, wrote that Margaret Mary Votjko was "well paid by adjunct standards," that person should also be ashamed. At the end of her quarter century of teaching she was limited, by the university, to teaching a couple of classes only, so that her annual income--annual income--was below $10,000. 

But, it's ok, even good, by "adjunct standards"? 

What kind of standards are to be set, and by whom, for the adjuncts who do most of the teaching in higher ed in the nations colleges and universities, including the "religiously" based institutions whose spokepeople so often claim the moral high ground? 

Margaret Mary Votjko died, she died after long service in higher education, she died in hard circumstances, she died in poverty. Yes, we're going to use her death, that's our "agenda," to reveal intolerable and unsustainable forms of exploitation, and to fight against them. I think this is far from "shameful." We honor Margaret Mary by doing this work.

Alan Trevithick, adjunct, Fordham University, Westchester Community College, LaGuardia Community College, board member, New Faculty Majority. 

Being long gone from academia, my attention and sympathy  is now  away from fast food workers being shafted to adjunct professors. Fast food workers at least get to eat on the job ..  Catholic Universities , charge $35-$40 K a year tuition now, so I'm really glad to be long gone from them. .!!!!!!!

I don't understand how it could be that she was still working at 83.

I don't understand how come she didn't get benefits from whatever work she did before starting at Duquesne (apparently she started at Duquesne around 58 years old).

I don't understand where her friends and family were during that time, or who formed her community.

We learn that she was 83, poor, and had worked as an adjunct at Duquesne for the previous 25 years. But what about the rest of her life? 

I also don't understand how an instructor can be paid for instruction time only, as if they could just enter the classroom and have infused knowledge and instantaneous plans.

I don't understand how instructors can not get paid for grading. At Brown we hire undergraduate students to help grade and we pay them by the hour for that job. Isn't it illegal to pay someone by the hour and not pay them for their hours spent grading?


I am an adjunct professor at Duquesne. I breifly knew Mary Margaret. I understand the comments directed to her situation, but for us teachers, it is about much more. We voted to unionize, but the school fails to reconize our union. They are attempting to hide behind the religious instituion mask in order to avoid the National Labor Relations Board. Although, I believe there are other unions already on campus. This is about Duquesne's unwillingness, as well as hundreds of higher education instustions in this country, to pay adjuncts or at least provide us with a health care option. I needn't go into deatils or arguments about the struggles adjunts face--that information can be found with any simple google search. We hope the spotlight of the issue focuses on workers' rights at our University and Universities across the nation. As a Catholic instution that prides and markets itself on Spiritan values and helping humanity, the fact that Duquesne treat adjuncts unfairly is plain injustice. All we would like is the chance to have our union reconized, so we can fight for a decent pay and some health insurance (something even the graduate students recieve). Mary Margaret is just one story in this broad debate. I am saddened that her legacy is now reduced to this, but it is my hope that it opens up a broader, national discussion about how we proceed in the treatment of adjuncts both at Duquesne and elsewhere. 

Margaret Mary Votjko was "well paid by adjunct standards," that person should also be ashamed.

Alan, bitter sarcasm doesn't translate apparently. My point was that Ms. Votjko was paid a very low wage ... and shameful as that is, many are paid even less, especially since course allocations have been cut in order for colleges to avoid paying health care.


Irene --

ONe of the reasons college is expensive now is because the increase in the number of administrators, and the top administrators are often highly paid by any standards.  I recently checked out a couple of universities (I forget which ones) and one of them had THREE TIMES the number of administrators as teachers.

When you look at what coaches and other sports employees are paid, well, you see that universities are no longer about education.


Here are a some figures relevant to  teacher-administrator ratios:


Academic staff


Admin. staff

2,500 non-medical
11,000 medical


University of Michiga

Academic staff


Admin. staff


 University of Arkansas:


Academic staff


Admin. staff




According to a Huff Post article on compensation for public university presidents, some college president to be paid over a million a year.  A former president of Penn State had compensation over $3,000,000.

"Three other public university chiefs made more than $1 million in 2011-12 at their respective institutions.

"Auburn University president Jay Gogue jumped up from No. 13 in last year's survey to second place this year, getting $2,542,865. E. Gordon Gee dropped from the top spotto third place, but still got nearly $2 million.

"Median presidential pay hit $441,392 in 2011-12, an increase of 4.7 percent from the previous academic year."

Public College President Salaries: Survey Reveals Graham Spanier Highest Paid In 2011-12

Besides salaries, presidents and some others often get other valuable perks, like free housing and cheap loans.  See this article on ridiculous perks from Mother Jones:

10 Ridiculous Perks Given to College Presidents and Celebrity Profs | Mother Jones

Jean, please accept my genuine and heartfelt apology-I guess I was not seeing entirely straight. You're quite right, absolutely, and, again, I'm sorry to have been so dense. This story, I guess, has really unsettled me.


I was an adjunct for a few years as a young man.  While it would be overstating it to claim that I didn't need the money at that time, still, I was also working as a consultant, and so the teaching wasn't my only source of income, nor my life's calling.  Still, I found the teaching work to be enjoyable and fulfilling, and I've thought from time to time that, if/when I get to a stage in life in which my current work, family, ministry etc. are less demanding and time-consuming than they are now, it would be pleasant to pick up a couple of classes somewhere.

Having read this piece and these comments, I now think that people like me probably are part of the problem in the adjunct system.  As a matter of social justice, I think it would be wrong of me to compete for classes with adjuncts for whom teaching is their chosen vocation.  And in a way, that's too bad, because as I say, I enjoyed the work, and really, I wasn't a bad teacher.


Everyone reading and thinking about this issue needs to read the Thomas Frank piece to which Matthew Boudway pointed us in the topic adjacent to this one.

Jim, you were not part of the problem; I work with many fine folks who are retired or have day jobs in business or industry and who enjoy teaching a class or two in the evening. They may not NEED the money, but they understand those trying to carve out a living from it. Plus it's often those occasional adjuncts who can provide us full-time adjuncts with the network we need to get OUT of academia and into a job that pays.

No, the problem is that college policy-makers require students with bachelor's degrees to jump through two years of general education requirements (it keeps them in the system longer in order to siphon more money out of them). However, the college wants to make those two years of gen ed as profitable as possible, so it demands that those filling those positions have master's degrees (minimum, PhD preferred) and hires them only part time and pays them temp wages. The need for full-timers is clear, given the gen ed requirements, but hiring many adjuncts and paying them low wages and no benefits is much cheaper than hiring full-timers with a full benefits package. 

Alan, no apologies necessary; I just wanted to clarify where I stood. I think it's wonderful that this issue is being discussed and that a variety of opinions are being aired.

I get paid $3100 for a course I teach as an adjunct .  I'm not doing it for the money, but it makes me wonder a little why students have to pay $35,000 a year in tuition.

Irene, this brief article in the Atlantic suggests that most of it probably goes to financial aid - apparently, it's known as the high tuition / high aid model.


What I'd like to know is this:  Let's say that


1)  each student at XX University  pays $12K per semester tuition, 

2) each student takes an average of 4 courses per semester,

3) there are an average of 10 students per course, and 

4) adjuncts are paid $3K per course.


This implies that 

1)  each student pays an average of $3K per course

2)  each course of 10 students takes in $30K per course.


But each adjunct is paid only $3K per course.  This implies that the university has $27K left over per course.  Just where does this $27K per course go if it doesn't go to instruction? 


Sounds like university administration is the most inept in the culture.


Ann - see my comment directly before yours - if your hypothetical university is the "high tuition / high aid model", then most of that $27K is actually going to student aid, i.e. the actual amount of incremental revenue coming for your ten student class is, in reality, a good deal less than $30K.


Thanks, Jim, but I'm not sure I understand that.  It seems to be saying that the school takes $10. from the rich kid and give $5 to the poor one.  

So, in my example, the rich kid would be giving half his tuition of $12K (i.e. $6K) to the poor one, and they would still average out to $6K for those two students, which would be 4 times what the adjunct is being paid.  The school is still making money on the rich kid and probably paying administrators and coaches (and janitors) with the surplus.  (Im assuming that there are about  equal numbers of rich and poor kids.)


I just checked Harvard.  60% of Harvard College kids get need-based scholarships.  The school has several billion in endowments, last I read including huge endoments for scholarships, and no doubt much of the cost of those poor kids need NOT be paid for by rich kids.  That means that much, if not most, if not all of the rich kids' tuition is going to administrators and other non-teachers.  Granted, Harvard has the biggest endowment of all universities, but most other schools also have endowment money to help with scholarships.  

A couple of comments.

1) The Spiritans attempted to be charitable (in the best sense) within the confines of an unjust structure.  They deserve a little credit for that, yes.  But the broader question of how much the Spiritans themselves have benefited from, perpetuated themselves and unjust structure goes unaddressed.  The reply from their community is dissembling.

2) The crisis in higher education is multifold, but its root is quite simple.  We're offering a product that too few people value, too few people want.  There's no shortage of demand for credentials.  But does anyone want to spend the time with a scholar studying important questions deeply in a way that refines and challenges their thinking?  Does anyone value scholarship and inquiry for its own sake?  A few of us, but too few.  The premise of MOOC's and the University of Wisconsin's scheme to give credit for 'life knowledge' is the same: speed up the credentialing assembly line.  This serves a 'need' for educational consumers and the revenues makes universities quite happy, too.  Everyone is complicit.  Meanwhile, the 'costs' of higher education go up.  Why?  Decline of public funding, sure.  But it's also true in private institutions.  And, how much do salaries, benefits, utilities, library books, and lab expenses really cost?  Not that much.  What is expensive?  Football.  Basketball.  The vast empire of student life distractions that are the real venue of competition among institutions of higher learning when they seek new customers.  Very few prospective students are asking about faculty publications, measuring the quality of instruction, etc.  The end result of all of this is unsurprising: faculty become an expense to minimize (adjuncts) instead of the core of the university community--which is what we should be.  Do you want to be important on a university campus today, shape its direction and future?  Become an assistant director of student life.  If you want to teach French or literature or political theory, your future comes at about $2k-$3k per course in a best of all possible outcomes.  

Anti-intellectualism sits at the heart of this whole problem.  It has found a safe home on campuses across the United States.  Visigoths at home amid the gothic architecture.

Steven, I agree with much of what you say, and I think college sports are, at best, a distraction from academic pursuits, and, at worst, attract the "Animal House" element who want to spend four years in college getting drunk and setting sofas afire after big rivalry games. 

However, most sports programs are big revenue generators. For example:

Scratch that last comment. I am clearly a dupe of the coach at the nearby Big 10 university who is always touting his team's revenue contributions to the school. Yes, athletics do provide several million dollars in student tuition. But coaches at most of the school listed are paid as much or more than all the tuition grants combined.

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