The Adjunct’s Lament

Source: In These Times

Even in the ivory tower, work is often solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.

“She was a professor?” That’s the question an incredulous caseworker asked when confronted with the predicament of Margaret Mary Vojtko, an 83-year-old French teacher who spent the final months of her life destitute and nearly homeless before dying on September 1. The story of her death has become the symbol of a surprising economic reality: “Adjunct professors are the new working poor,” as one CNN headline proclaimed.

Vojtko taught for 25 years at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, but, as an adjunct faculty member employed on a contract basis, she never received health or retirement benefits. And when the university informed her last spring that it would not be renewing her contract, it was not obliged to provide her with severance pay. Fighting cancer and unable to afford both the out-of-pocket costs for her radiation treatment and the heating and upkeep bills on her house, Vojtko’s case was finally referred to Adult Protective Services (APS). Vojtko reacted to the summons from APS with shame and dismay. But before she could appear, she collapsed from a massive heart attack and died two weeks later, according to an account published in the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette by United Steelworkers (USW) counsel Daniel Kovalik.

The caseworker assigned to Margaret Mary before her death wasn’t the only one who reacted to her desperate circumstances with disbelief. “Most people are under the illusion that the academy still provides people a good life,” says Kovalik, whose union is organizing adjunct faculty in Pittsburgh. “But professors have been proletarianized.” The USW is seeking to represent adjuncts at Duquesne—who voted last year to unionize, though the university has refused to recognize the union—and attempted to intervene with both the university and APS on Vojtko’s behalf.

Indeed, the injustices that Vojtko’s tragedy laid bare—an employer that treated her as disposable, a tattered safety net that offered her little assistance at her most vulnerable—are all too familiar. What shocked the public consciousness, instead, is who is now suffering them: Contrary to the economic axiom that higher education is the pathway to prosperity, the highly educated may now end their lives as destitute as anyone else.

The professoriat’s decline

Five years into the recession, the continued downward mobility of professionals is often portrayed as a droll example of class pastiche. A February New York Times article, for example, playfully describes adjuncts who travel abroad to pick up extra teaching work in the summer as “seasonal workers with Ph.D.’s.”

But in fact, adjunct faculty may have more in common with low-wage seasonal workers than with the tenured faculty at their own institutions. A 2012 analysis by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, a research group, found that while salaries for tenure-track positions averages $66,000 a year, pay for adjunct faculty—who now constitute as much as three-fourths of the teaching force in higher education—average just $21,600. And like seasonal farmworkers and others who eke out a living moving from job to job, most adjuncts lack access to health insurance and retirement benefits. Both groups, too, have served as canaries in the coal mine of an economy increasingly structured around precarious employment. But the freefall of the professoriat, once archetypal members of what Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich have termed the “professional-managerial class,” suggests an even bigger shift underway: the erosion of the professional class itself. Will the academy’s penurious part-timers awake to this new reality?

In June 2013, the Labor Department released statistics revealing that the number of workers with temporary jobs stands at 2.7 million, an all-time high. Take the entire “contingent” workforce—which also includes day laborers, independent contractors, part-time workers and the self-employed—and the number soars to 42.6 million, about a third of the total workforce, according to a 2005 study from the Government Accountability Office. (This figure hasn’t been reassessed since, an omission that researchers into precarious employment say reflects the broader lack of attention to the particular challenges and needs of these workers).

One explanation for the growth of precarious work, promoted by an industry of temporary staffing and consulting agencies, is that workers themselves are leaving the traditional workforce in favor of greater flexibility. Within the professional workforce, those with contingent jobs are often touted as “independent” workers who have loosened the shackles of the 9-to-5 workday.

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