Interview with an Adjunct Organizer: “People Are Tired of the Hypocrisy”

Mauricio Giraldo via Flickr Commons

The debate over working conditions for adjunct faculty was recently reignited by the death of Margaret Mary Vojtko on September 1. Vojtko, who had a long career as an adjunct professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, died penniless after being fired from the university in the last year of her life. Her story served as a reminder of what has become a massive underclass of underpaid contingent labor in academia.

Dan Kovalik, senior associate general counsel of the United Steelworkers, wrote an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that brought news of Votjko’s death to a wider audience. Kovalik has been working with Duquesne adjunct faculty for several years, helping them organize a union and fight for better working conditions. At the time of Votjko’s death, he was assisting her in a legal fight to keep her job and her independence. I spoke with Kovalik in his office in the United Steelworkers building in Pittsburgh. The interview has been edited for clarity.

Moshe Marvit: Can you describe the working conditions of adjunct faculty?

Dan Kovalik: As I’ve come to learn, and I didn’t realize it until about a year and a half ago when adjuncts approached us to organize, the conditions are just abysmal. The folks that came to me at that time were making $3,000 for a three-credit course. So say you teach a load of two courses a semester, and you have two semesters a year, then that’s $12,000 right there. No benefits. Maybe you get a summer course in there, so maybe you make $15,000 per year. That’s barely enough to live on, especially if you have a family. I know a guy who teaches seven courses per semester to make ends meet at three different universities. They call it a “milk run.”

It had always been my perception that going into the academy would be a great life. You would get a good salary; you would get benefits; you would get the benefit where your kids could go to school for free there or at a reduced rate. Adjuncts don’t get that. I’ve come to learn that 75 percent of all faculty around the country are adjuncts. It’s this kind of dirty secret of the academy.

Meanwhile there are just a few at the top who are doing well. It looks a lot more like the corporate world than like nonprofit education.

MM: And has it been like this for a while, or has it become worse over the last several decades?

DK: The phenomenon of adjuncts has been around for a while—since the 1970s. But two things are new: the overreliance on adjuncts and the CEO-like pay for the president of the university along with a handful of administrators. So you have the president making anywhere from $700,000 at Duquesne University to over a million, plus benefits and other nice goodies, at bigger universities. And then you have a handful of administrators—provosts, some vice presidents, and deans—making a couple of hundred thousand or a quarter of a million dollars. Again, at the bigger universities even more. And then you have the 25 percent full faculty that make a decent salary and receive benefits. And I don’t begrudge them that. What they make is nothing compared to the administrators. And you have this huge peasantry of adjuncts that are making poverty wages without benefits.

MM: Some adjuncts have chosen to organize. How successful have these efforts been in getting a union in place, getting a contract in place, and improving working conditions?

DK: It seems to me that most are not unionized, but there have been some successes. Georgetown recently recognized an adjunct union and is in the process of negotiating a contract. The University of San Francisco, which is Catholic, negotiated a contract. On several other campuses—I’m having trouble remembering all of them—adjuncts have gotten contracts and sometimes been able to double their salaries and get benefits. It definitely improves things when they get unions, but it’s kind of a slow and steady process.

We had an adjunct conference in April, and there was a guy from SEIU who talked about how they were organizing regionally in Washington, D.C., and they’ve been very successful with that. Again, I think it’s a place that’s ripe for organizing, but there are a lot of unorganized adjuncts.

MM: Do adjuncts face any unique legal or other challenges that other workers don’t when organizing?

DK: I’d say for the most part no. There’s this Yeshiva issue for full-time faculty, which doesn’t apply to adjuncts. Certainly no one with a straight face would raise a Yeshiva issue for adjuncts.

MM: Yeshiva is the Supreme Court case that said that full-time faculty are management, so they are not employees under the National Labor Relations Act?

DK: Exactly. The only place where it really is an issue is, bizarrely, at a few of these Catholic universities where the schools raise this alleged religious exemption from the law. Aside from that the adjuncts have a very strong case for unionization. I guess I could think of some arguments that universities could make: maybe the adjuncts are independent contractors or temporary workers, who would not be subject to unionization. But I’m a little loathe to say that for publication, because I don’t want to give them any ideas.

Interestingly, Duquesne never raised that issue. The school readily admitted that the adjuncts were more or less permanent employees—that if they had a contract, they had a reasonable expectation of being brought on the next semester. So Duquesne, fascinatingly, stipulated a National Labor Relations Board election. And the school agreed to consider adjuncts permanent employees if they had three consecutive semesters where they taught, excluding summers.

Duquesne also agreed to a mail ballot election. It signed a stipulation waiving a hearing before the NLRB. The school didn’t raise the issue of religious exemption until three weeks later, right before the election. The NLRB Region here properly rejected Duquesne’s religious exemption argument to get out of the stipulation, on the basis that it didn’t find the school to be any more religious than three weeks before when it signed the stipulation. That’s all to say that even Duquesne recognized that the adjuncts really weren’t independent contractors under the NLRB.

I do want to say something about the part-time issue because it seems like a red herring. What makes people part time? If you teach two or three courses a semester, that’s a full-time load. And you have some people doing seven courses. To me the part-time designation is a lie. It’s a joke. That’s just something to disabuse people of.

I’d say about 90 percent of the emails I received about my article are very positive, from adjuncts expressing empathy and saying that they’re in the same boat as Margaret Mary—but to the extent I get any pushback, one common comment is: well, she was part time; of course she doesn’t get benefits or retirement or pension or severance. And my quick response is: she’s part time because they say she’s part time. But before her course load was reduced within the past year, she had been teaching three courses per semester. And that’s full time.

MM: For those who don’t know, can you describe what happened with Margaret Mary?

DK: I met her at that adjunct organizing conference in April. One of the other adjuncts, Josh Zelesnick, introduced me to her. And he said, “She really wants to meet you. She needs to talk to a lawyer.” I found out from her that she had been an adjunct at Duquesne for twenty-five years, she’d been an adjunct at some other place before that, and she’d been a nurse even before that. This was a profession person. She taught French.

She had been teaching about three courses a semester, and a couple in the summer, until the past year when Duquesne reduced her to one course per semester. So she was then making really little pay. By the way: in her final year she was making $3,500 per course because the school raised it $500, precisely because of the union organizing drive. Duquesne would never say that, but that was the timing. Even by trying to organize, we got them a significant raise. But again, you’re talking $7,000 per year for one course per semester.

Then she was saying that not only had her course load been reduced, but there were indications that they were thinking of terminating her entirely. And she was really worried because she’d had a terrible year: her brother had died, she was fighting cancer—in April it was in remission, but she had been battling cancer with radiation and chemo treatment. She paid for a lot of that out of pocket, and frankly she was worried about the medical costs. Meanwhile, as she explained to me, during the winter she couldn’t even live in her own home; her furnace had broken down, and she didn’t have the money to get it fixed. So during the cold winter months, she was virtually homeless. She would do her school work in an Eat & Park to keep warm, and she’d sleep where she could during the day on campus. In her office. Though if she was caught doing that, sometimes she’d be removed by the campus police. Apparently she did have a short stint with the priests at Duquesne at the house where they lived. But that was a temporary thing. She was never offered permanent housing, though Duquesne might have suggested that in some of the responses to my article.

But in any case, she was in pretty dire straits. She was eighty-three. She didn’t have a car; she rode the bus everywhere. Her life was one, near the end, of great struggle. And she came to me because at first she didn’t want to take Duquesne on. She was a devout Catholic. She didn’t want to embarrass Duquesne. But she wanted to save her job.

So she wanted me, at first, to write letters to them on behalf of her to try to save her job. I wrote a couple of letters and never got any response. Finally she was terminated from her job.

MM: Did Duquesne provide a reason?

DK: I believe they claimed she was not an effective instructor anymore. Which she found very hurtful. She obviously believed otherwise, and she showed me some very positive evaluations from some students who still really valued her as an educator. If there were students that might not have, that’s typical. You’re not always going to get 100 percent good evaluations. She still believed she was a good instructor.

But in any case, she and I both believed that they should keep her on. But if they didn’t, they should send her away with something, with severance, or whatever. But they weren’t willing to do that. So finally, against her initial judgment, she decided to pursue a case with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. We filled out the initial questionnaire in July.

MM: Based on age discrimination?

DK: Age and disability, because of the cancer. And her cancer came back in the summer, so that added even more to the stress. I’ll note that a professor from the law school called me in the spring, a friend of hers who knew about her situation, and said, “Dan, I would pursue an EEOC case because I think she is being discriminated against.” He urged me to do it, because he felt he couldn’t raise that issue himself because he had to worry about his own job. This is typical. I think there are a lot of people who are really afraid to come out on these types of issues because they have a lot to lose. They feel very vulnerable in their own positions.

As I write in the article, the last time I heard from her, she called me because she had received this letter from Adult Protective Services saying that someone had given a report of need, saying she needed help from them, and if she didn’t meet with them she would be referred to an Orphans’ Court and possibly be appointed a guardian. That was just an indignity that she could not stand.

She had a heart attack a few hours later. She lost consciousness and never regained it. And she passed away a couple of weeks later.

MM: Was she part of the organizing effort at Duquesne?

DK: She supported the union. She was at that adjunct organizing conference. I can’t say how active she was in the effort, because she was eighty-three years old. But she was very supportive. She was a person of real values along those lines. I learned from Charlie McCollester that in the 1980s, at the time that the steel plants were closing, she was part of the movement to try to keep them open.

MM: Why do you think her story has reignited the debate over adjuncts? Do you think it is representative of what other adjuncts face?

DK: At this point, I know that that’s true because I’ve probably had over a hundred adjuncts email me from all around the country and tell me that, tell me their stories. One guy wrote in the reply line of the email, “solution for adjuncts: don’t get leukemia.” He said that he has leukemia, and he has no benefits and is getting hardly any pay. I’ve heard all kinds of stories just like that. And the day my article came out, a friend of mine in town told me of a friend of hers that just died that day from a drug overdose. He was the chief breadwinner, and he left his wife with a kid. She’s an adjunct, and she has no idea how she’s going to take care of this kid on an adjunct’s salary.

I got scores of stories like that. It’s very clear that one of the things that propelled the story is that you have all these adjuncts around the country who see themselves in her, who know they could end up like her. And that’s a very scary prospect.

MM: What has been Duquesne University’s response to this?

DK: They haven’t denied really anything I said in the story, but they claim that they really did do some things for her. The priests let her live at their residence.

MM: And was that an official act of the school or was it a priest who took it upon himself to help her?

DK: It appears that it was an unofficial act. Apparently there were people who reached out to her, including some cops who would drive her home when she needed it. I don’t take that away from people. I think there are some very kind people out there who did reach out to her. But the point is, at age eighty-three, a twenty-five-year employee shouldn’t have to depend on that type of charity. She didn’t want it. She was a very proud person. She wanted to be able to stand on her own two feet. And her job did not allow her to do that. Her employer, Duquesne, failed her. And it’s failing all these adjuncts.

The other thing, and I was talking to someone at Duquesne about this, is that she worked there for twenty-five years and you’re giving her the boot; isn’t it traditional for a twenty-five-year employee to get a gold watch, dinner, or something? Why didn’t that happen? Because the adjuncts are treated like they’re on a different level; they’re somehow this sub-class in the university system.

MM: I’m guessing there’s no emeritus adjunct faculty status?

DK: Right. It’s quite stunning. The other thing I took from the emails I got from the adjuncts was that in this country a lot of people who aren’t doing well—and that’s a lot of people—blame themselves. We’re told that this is the land of opportunity. You watch American Idol and think that wealth and fame and all that is just around the corner. And if those things aren’t happening, it’s your fault.

I think that a lot of adjuncts that wrote to me just wanted to tell me their story. They felt a certain comfort because, for the first time, “it’s not just me.” This is happening to other people too. It’s because the system’s rotten. There’s some comfort in that, because people in this country tend to blame themselves for their own problems. So hopefully now they’ll blame those that should be blamed. It’s the system itself—the university system and the corporate system in which we live. What’s happening at the university is happening throughout the economy. These nonprofit universities are acting like the corporations at large, which now have exorbitant CEO pay and rely more and more on contingent workers, and contractors, and even prison labor. You have more and more exploited labor, and the universities are just following suit. In Pittsburgh there was a particularly great outcry about this story because people are furious at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, another nonprofit that kind of runs over people—and here’s another nonprofit hiding behind its Catholic faith to act in un-Christian ways. I think people are tired of that hypocrisy.

MM: What do you think the solution is here? Your description sounds like the current system is unsustainable. With highly-paid administrators and the two extremes—tenured faculty, who have decent pay and strong job security, and a growing class of adjunct faculty, who make little and have no job security—do you think the whole system needs to be reformed?

DK: They have to start getting away from this two-tiered model. They have to find a way to bridge the gap between this poverty-stricken group and those that are doing well. That can’t be allowed to happen. What that compromise solution is going to be, I’m not certain. But I think they can’t have a system where they come to rely on this cheap workforce because it’s not only unfair to the adjuncts, it’s unfair to the parents who must wonder where the heck their money is going.

They’re also destroying the academy. Because as this happens, more and more students are going to ask, “why would I get a PhD? You want me to have a PhD to teach your students, yet why would I do that? Because it seems to me if I get a PhD, I’m going to end up making poverty wages. I can do that now without a PhD. I’ll go to Starbucks and do it.”

They’re destroying their own system, and they’re going to wake up and realize that students and parents have decided that there’s no use for the university anymore.


Moshe Z. Marvit is a labor and civil rights attorney and a fellow at The Century Foundation. He previously wrote about adjunct organizing here.