No More Of This in Academe! by Grace Yia-Hei Kao

Last week, social media was ablaze over a September 18 Pittsburg Post-Gazette column entitled “Death of An Adjunct” by Daniel Kovalik that had the following teaser: “Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct professor of French for 25 years, died underpaid and underappreciated at age 83.”  Inside Higher Ed reports that the column went viral as “adjuncts across the country reported seeing something tragically familiar in her story.”  The Chronicle of Higher Education likewise covered the story with this tagline: “An Adjunct’s Death Becomes a Rallying Cry for Many In Academe.”

This tragedy involves all sorts of issues with which readers of this blog are concerned: power, structural injustice, job insecurity, underemployment, unions, healthcare, and Catholic values (the last of these since Margaret worked at a Catholic institution), to name a few.

To pay homage to Mary Margaret and to the plight of many today facing similar obstacles and difficulties, I invite you to read Daniel Kovalik’s full column.

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…follow link to read the rest.

Daniel Kovalik is senior associate general counsel of the United Steelworkers union (

First Published September 18, 2013 12:00 am

How can we work together to prevent more of these stories from happening?

November 17, 2013 update: According to a recent Slate magazine article by L.V. Anderson, “the story…[i]s 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.”

Grace Yia-Hei Kao is Associate Professor of Ethics and Co-Director of the Center for Sexuality, Gender, and Religion at Claremont School of Theology. She is the author of Grounding Human Rights in a Pluralist World (Georgetown University Press, 2011) and is working on a co-edited anthology providing a theological exploration of women’s lives.

Categories: Academy, Aging, Catholicism, Death and Dying, Ethics, Gender and Power, Human Rights, Justice, Power relations, Women and Work

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15 replies

  1. As a Brit, my only response is – why don’t you Americans have a fully functioning National Health Service free at point of need, like we do in the UK ? (And in most of the rest of Europe, and in Canada) I read incredible lies and distortions about our National Health in the American media – and it is often Catholic and other faith groups who have again and again undermined attempts to create such a service because they are so frightened of women having free access to reproductive health care. Catholic institutions in the USA have as much to answer for in the matter of the cruel and truly wicked American health service as do Fox news and the pharmaceutical drugs companies.


    • June-marie: thanks so much for writing. Your question is absolutely the correct one to ask. Many of us progressives have been adovocating for a single-payer universal health care coverage system, but for so many reasons (mostly historic and pragmatic), it’s doubtful that we’ll take that more enlightened course. It’s a shame!


  2. This is a perfect example of the current issue in our government. So many at the white house profess to be Christians, yet they are willing to shut down government in order to not pass Obamacare. It may not be that great, but at least President Obama knows what the less fortunate need. Christ preached about helping the less fortunate and spent his ministry doing just that and here we have a government worried about their own pockets.

    If they profess to being Christians then they should do what their Christ actually did and state.


    • P.Johanna – thanks so much for writing. Yes, in the case of the Duquesne University, you have one and the same institution professing Catholic values (which, by the way, supports the right to organize in unions) but not necessarily living out that vision. I think you are right that many in the federal government profess to be Christians, but here’s where I’d say the analogy ends: the government is not “Christian” in the way that Duquesne is “Catholic”. This is not, however, to deny that the current situation with Congress is not deplorable for all sorts of other reasons!


  3. “Judge a country by how it deals with its neediest.” We fail. And it’s hard to know what to do with a large minority trying to push us even more into laissez-faire relations with the poor.


  4. I am so ashamed that we allow this to happen in the US. I have been on a personal campaign to abolish endowment funds at churches and universities, and turn those funds into benefiting the poor, the students, the adjuncts, and even small entrepreneurs in communities. I don’t know how many billions of dollars are controlled by endowment funds, but it is a lot. Were those funds released to the common good, the benefits would be far reaching, both for individuals and for the economy. I’ve had a pretty solitary voice on this, so I don’t expect that it will happen. But I pray that some radical change will simply change our way of thinking about our fellow human beings.


    • MaryAnn – thanks for writing. I confess to not knowing exactly what an “endowment fund” is; would you care to clarify?


      • An endowment fund is a special fund set aside, in academia usually for “a chair”. The principal is invested in Wall Street funds, and the earnings are used to pay a professor, a very high paying professor for the most part. It takes many millions of dollars to fund even one “chair”, and the principal investment is pretty sacred, i.e., it is never ever touched, no matter how dire the need. My dream is that some of that principal be released each year, even three or four percent, to fund needy students and turn adjunct professors into fully paid professors. It would do incredible things to reduce the astonishing debt loads that graduates now carry, thereby releasing their earnings to buy houses and cars and even give to charity — all in all, a real boost to the economy.

        However, Wall Street doesn’t want to release even three or four percent of its invested funds, so it would be very hard for an idea like this to gain traction. Sadly, needy students and adjunct professors are the ones who will suffer most as current policies continue.


      • Grace, as one added note: The principal in the endowment funds usually comes from donations from individuals, often legacies. “Chairs” are often named after the primary donor. This is not something that tuition pays for.


  5. The USA is the wealthiest, most powerful, and most Christian nation on earth: why does it have any poor ?


    • June-marie – Maybe we have poor people because money, power-over, and violence are the things people worship now. These are the fruits of patriarchy.


    • June-marie: again, I’d have to take issue with your description of the U.S. as a “Christian” nation, precisely because of some of the social ills and injustices you identified. In fact, I used to tell my undergraduate students (in Virginia) the following: if the U.S. is a Christian nation, then we are not providing good reasons to be Christian (e.g., we have the largest military budget in the world, we require employment as a condition of folks receiving healthcare, etc.)


  6. Grace, I see the contradictions. But Americans describe themselves as Christian, and fill out their census returns accordingly. And what really shocks me is the naked hypocrisy of so much ‘Christian’ propaganda – I’m thinking of broadcasters like ETWN, with its overtly political agenda, or the way that both the Catholic Church and evangelical movements have led the campaign against poor women having access to reproductive health care. And it is always the poor who suffer: rich girls will continue to get the contraception and, yes, the abortions they want. Preventing universal health care will not stop these things, it simply denies them to the poor. Hypocrisy again

    I suspect that it is precisely because Christianity is so dominant in the USA that it has become so politicised. In Europe, especially Northern Europe, religion is on the back foot, and has to earn its place if it wants to be heard. Perhaps for this reason, in the UK, for example, Christianity tends by and large to be identified with reformist and liberal policies including support for the poor.

    So where is the lead from American Christians ? If they supported a National Health Service, you’d all get one. But they oppose and undermine it, and not in any Christian spirit, but, it seems to me, for purely political motives.

    You might ask what any of this has to do with me: well, in the first place, having to put up with other people’s opinions is a consequence of being the most powerful nation in the world (we got the same thing when we were an empire !) But beyond that, are issues that transcend national issues. I am torn between rage and heartbreak when I imagine a world in which my children and grandchildren would be denied health care in the name of Christ.


  7. Ms. Vojtko’s story deeply saddened me, especially because my mother is an adjunct, and she’s poor. How to prevent more of these stories from happening? I think the most practical answer lies in unions for adjuncts and other university employees. A national healthcare system in the U.S. is a dream I don’t know that I’ll see happen, although it would solve a myriad of problems.


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