In late 2013, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published an op-ed piece titled “Death of an Adjunct” which chronicled the plight of Margaret Mary Vojtko, an 83-year-old adjunct professor at Duquesne University who died penniless and near homeless despite teaching for the well-respected university for almost twenty five years. Margaret’s story, which I regret I have neither the time nor space to recant here, was merely an echo of a much louder cry happening in dark corners of the higher educational system in America. Now, thanks to a ground swell of support and an unflinchingly brave group of adjunct professors, a very bright light is shining on one of academia’s best kept secrets: the dependency on adjunct professors.
So, what is an adjunct professor? Technically an adjunct professor is a part-time faculty member who is paid to teach by the course rather than a full salary. Adjuncts receive no health care, no tuition reimbursement, and very little support for professional development. But we are so much more than our titles. We teach, we mentor, and we invest our time-often many, many uncountable hours- in helping to shape the future of our Scranton students. Many of us are involved in community events, campus readings, clubs, and community-building exercise. Many of us embark on scholarly pursuits and further our scholarship with no outside financial assistance or resources. Many of us don’t have an office, a business card, or a place to hang our coat. Many of us work at several colleges or universities, and teach three times what is considered to be a “full-time load.” In 2012, before I was hired part time to coordinate the university’s writing center, I taught nine classes spread over four different universities for which I made under $22K and had no access to health care. And believe me, I am not alone.
The life of an adjunct is shaky, at best. We say yes to committees, we say yes to extra courses, we say yes to staying after and taking a “quick look” at a student’s paper. We say yes, we say yes, we say yes, even if we have to be across town in front of another class of smiling faces in the next ten minutes. We say yes, because in many ways we are afraid to say no. Why? Because for as low-paying and temporary as our positions may feel, there are a dozen or more well-qualified people waiting to take our place, because this is the future of academia- the tenured jobs are disappearing. Imagine walking into a classroom every day and feeling that the ground beneath you could give at any moment. That’s the life of an adjunct. That’s my life. This is probably the life of someone you know well, maybe even love. Maybe this is your life.
This is an important issue because the adjunct plight is gaining momentum and the eyes of the nation are watching. This is an important issue because the trend in higher education is one in which tenure-track positions are on the decline and adjunct positions are on the rise. In fact, according to the American Association of University Professors, 49.3% of all teaching positions in colleges and universities are adjunct positions. This is important because adjuncts are now the majority, and even scarier still, we are a majority with no voice.
This issue is especially relevant to The University for several reasons. First, we are an institution built on Jesuit principles. These values, especially “cura personalis” are an important part of our identity and should be foremost in our thoughts when examining the contribution of our adjuncts on campus. Second, the University has always been a leader amongst peers, standing apart from other schools for our long tradition of excellence and scholarship. I would argue that the University of Scranton could and should get out ahead of this issue and become an example of justice and equality in an increasingly visible public crisis. The University should be able to show prospective students that we stand behind the principles we hold so dear, beginning with how we treat our own. Finally, with the majority of our students facing one or more adjuncts during their first year here, one could argue that adjuncts play a large role in the retention of our students. We comprise much of what will become our student’s first-year experience, and we should feel supported and valued as contributing members of this university.
If you are a student, or a full-time faculty member, you may wonder how this affects you or how you can help. Simple, be supportive. Let your colleagues, students, or administrators know that you support the part-time faculty members on campus. Full-time faculty members, I’m asking for your support most directly. Maybe you have been where we are, maybe you haven’t, but either way you can be sure that this issue will seep into the future of our profession. We are your colleagues, we teach the same students you teach, and we are honored to be working beside you. Please, stand with us on this.
I have lived in Scranton my entire life, and like many Scrantonians, my family has roots that burrow deep into the cavernous tunnels under this city. Both of my great-grandfathers were miners, one dead before the birth of his youngest son. This city is quite literally built on the backs of workers who fought for what they believed was right and sometimes paid the ultimate price to protect the generations behind them. The city of Scranton has a history for being first, for being strong and true to what’s right. When we think of the hallowed ground upon which we teach, I can only hope that when faced with the decision of how to best support and protect our part-time faculty, that this university continues its great subscription to the words of St. Ignatius and seeks “to give, and not to count the cost.”
Feb. 27, 2015