News of the death of Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct professor of French at Duquesne University, went viral in 2013. The circumstances of her final months painted a jarring picture of how dire a professor’s living conditions could be. Before Vojtko learned her semester-to-semester contract would not be renewed, she was earning less than $25,000 per year for teaching eight courses, without health insurance or retirement benefits, and living on the edge of homelessness. Just as Duquesne told her to clear out her office, she learned from her doctor that she had six months to live, as the cancer she’d been battling got worse. Shortly after losing her job, she suffered cardiac arrest and died in the hospital two weeks later, at age 83. “For a proud professional like Margaret Mary,” wrote Vojtko’s lawyer, the termination of her tenuous contract “was the last straw.”
Even as obscene tales of adjunct woe lay bare the cruelty of adjunctification, the percentage of contingent faculty members continues to rise. At the time of Vojtko’s death, those working without the possibility of tenure — and in many cases on a course-by-course, semester-to-semester basis, without salary or benefits — made up about two-thirds of all college instructors in America. Today, that figure is closer to three-fourths. Depending on the type of institution, one- to two-thirds of the vast faculty majority working without the prospect of permanent employment can’t count on having a job for more than a year at a time.
Appeals to empathy and outrage gin up so much hot, concentrated concern — witness the outrage after Vojtko’s death, and the more recent death of Thea Hunter, an adjunct professor of history — but inevitably, like the smallest of stars, such concentrated concern ends up dying a quiet death. We need to fundamentally reconceptualize the battle against adjunctification, shifting away from pity or outrage and toward arguments that universities themselves deny at their own peril.