DU slammed over treatment of adjunct

By Julian Routh | News Editor

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UPDATE (4:56 PM September 20): The Rev. Daniel Walsh spoke to The Duke, saying Vojtko was allowed to stay at the Laval House for a month with daily meals. Read the full story here. 

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UPDATE (1:35 PM September 19): Vice President for University Advancement John Plante sent an email to all Duquesne employees today addressing Kovalik’s piece in the Post-Gazette.

“Our defense is the truth. Mr. Kovalik has tried to frame this as an issue of human resources policy, but he is wrong,” Plante said. “The support provided and offered to Margaret Mary Vojtko was broad, involving the Spiritan community, student housing, EAP, campus police, facilities management, and her faculty and staff colleagues.”

Plante also said there are those in the university who think Kovalik’s story is “a reckless attempt” to exploit Vojtko’s death for self-interest, and those who have “no direct knowledge of the actual circumstances.”

“[The latter] have also expressed outrage, using social media to attack Duquesne based on their acceptance of Mr. Kovalik’s published mischaracterizations,” Plante said.

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A lawyer for the United Steelworkers on Wednesday criticized Duquesne, claiming the school turned its back on an ailing adjunct French professor who died weeks after the school told her she would not be teaching this semester.

Daniel Kovalik, senior associate general counsel for the union, said the school should “reflect on how they treat all their employees” in the wake of the Sept. 1 death of Margaret Mary Vojtko.

Vojtko’s plight was first reported by The Duke last week. Kovalik wrote an opinions column in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Wednesday, critical of the way the school handled her departure. He told The Duke Wednesday that the school could have done more to help a longtime employee who couldn’t afford to make ends meet.

“They could have kept her teaching [at Duquesne], which is what she wanted to do and what she’s fully capable of,” Kovalik said. “On the alternative, if they weren’t going to do that, at least provide her with a decent severance and retirement package for someone who worked there for 25 years.”

Duquesne University Chaplain and Director of Campus Ministry Rev. Daniel Walsh issued a statement in response to the Post-Gazette piece, saying he was “incredulous” after reading the story.

“I knew Margaret Mary well,” Walsh said. “When we learned of problems with her home she was invited to live with us in the formation community at Laval House on campus, where she resided for several weeks over the past year.”

Walsh also wrote that while Vojtko was ill, he and other Spiritan priests “visited with her regularly.”

“In addition, the University and the Spiritan priests at Duquesne offered several other types of assistance to her,” Walsh said. “Mr. Kovalik’s use of an unfortunate death to serve an alternative agenda is sadly exploitive, and is made worse because his description of the circumstances bears no resemblance to reality.”

The Steelworkers are in the midst of coordinating unionization efforts with the adjuncts.

Kovalik said the University “doesn’t dispute my account at all.”

“They simply claim that, in lieu of a living wage and benefits, they offered her intermittent charity and prayers as a salve to her impoverishment,” Kovalik said.

Vojtko, who died from complications of a heart attack she suffered in August, taught French courses before the school told her she would not return for the fall semester.

Family and friends said Vojtko could not afford to fix a broken furnace in her home and frequently spent nights at an Eat n’ Park. On one instance, she was escorted off campus after officials found her sleeping.

 

19 Comments
  1. http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/education/2013/11/death_of_duquesne_adjunct_margaret_mary_vojtko_what_really_happened_to_her.html

    It looks like someone finally did some legwork and investigated the real story behind Prof. Vojtko. There are no winners in this tragedy, but there are losers; the Post-Gazette should hang their heads in shame for allowing the Steelworker’s Union to write an article for them without followup, while the aforementioned union, more specifically the author of the article has lost any claim to the moral high ground in this issue by leaving out so much important information.

    Margaret was a sick woman, and she rejected all offers of help. I cannot say what can be done in cases like this other than allowing the government to take over (an extreme case, to be sure), but blaming Duquesne for not paying her enough is to simplify the issue beyond recognition.

  2. Pingback: How Duquesne University can keep Geraldo Rivera and Adjunct Op-eds out

  3. A few odd-and-ends.

    Reading all the pleas for a “living wage”, I wonder how she managed to “live” for 25 years? If the money was not good enough did she not have a responsibility to find a better paying job?

    Regarding health insurance, did she not have medicare? If she was destitute, why not medicaid?

    I notice the family is up in arms, did they not visit her house and see the repairs that needing doing? Also, what support did they offer?

    Finally, if the Steelworker’s Union was not fighting Duquesne for the ability to organize the adjuncts, does anyone think Mr. Kovalik would have had anything to do with this woman? I’m tempted to wonder how the man lives with himself having used the death of this woman for political gain, but then again, I’ve seen the tactics of the union over the years and nothing surprises me anymore.

    • You sound like an administrator at the school. You are distracting from the real issues here–and instead putting the blame on the victim. Yours is a very common, low-grade intellect and attitude.

  4. I suggest Administration officials take some time to read Pope Leo XXIII’s 1891 Encyclical on the rights of workers.

    “45. Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.

    The issue is not one of personal charity or kindness. Rather, it is social justice that is required of Duquesne. I hope that in the future the University will follow the lead of Pope Francis in providing justice and mercy to its oppressed adjuncts.

  5. “The support provided and offered to Margaret Mary Vojtko was broad, involving the Spiritan community, student housing, EAP, campus police, facilities management, and her faculty and staff colleagues.”

    Really? Calling the campus cops on someone now constitutes “support”? Nice try, Duquesne.

  6. The thing that most disturbs me is that adjuncts are so dehumanized and so marginalized that it never crossed anyone’s mind to even conceive of giving this woman health care or a pension, any more than it would to give such things to a horse or a dog. I’m sure the idea that she might be due such things after 25 years of service is a completely stunning and novel idea to the people in power.

    • The original idea of adjuncts was that they would be outside experts coming in to teach on specialist areas-like an accountant coming in to tell students about business practices. That tells you how far this has gone. Adjuncts have become a simple way to get instructors-in every subject-who don’t get a living wage, pension or healthcare. And ones you can fire or force onto half-pay whenever you don’t need them.

      Disgracefully, I’ve heard claims that the new trick is to force adjuncts into part-time hours-forcing them to find extra work in this horrible economy-so as to avoid having to pay their healthcare. This whole business is completely contrary to Christian teaching on how to treat the poor and downtrodden.

      It’s time to completely abolish adjunct teaching for all liberal arts subjects, and replace those jobs with full-time posts, with full benefits. Just because other universities treat their staff like dirt doesn’t mean a Catholic institution has to. Saying that’s commie-talk or promoting an ‘alternative agenda’ is extremely offensive.

      Heck, maybe it could point to how it treats its staff in the prospectus to sell itself.

  7. What a despicable, disingenuous heaping on heaping of coverups and excuses. This woman sacrificed her life to teaching, dying in poverty and decay, to fill up your tuition coffers. I spit on your plastic saints. Wicked hypocrisy.

  8. It’s not about the charity the university offered; it’s about her dignity and her right to a decent wage, healthcare, and benefits. Perhaps, Duquesne’s president might agree to give up his retirement and benefits and rely on charity in his old age? No? Then don’t expect anyone else to either.

  9. It’s really too bad you all feel this way. Margaret Mary Vojtko was 83, and a very sick woman. Maybe examine the medical ethics that lead to the decision of peaceful death (which she had), versus prodding the university for money to fund life preserving efforts when in terms of quality of life– what is that going to provide? It seems more fitting to do what Fr. Dan did, and provide her a place to stay (at Laval house, which is a beautiful, historic house on Duquesne’s campus), and spiritual care (she was a devout Catholic woman). For someone dying of cancer, these simple tenets are the important things in life.

    • Maybe examine the medical ethics that lead to the decision of peaceful death (which she had), versus prodding the university for money to fund life preserving efforts when in terms of quality of life– what is that going to provide?

      Um, electricity and heat for a dying woman?

  10. “The support provided and offered to Margaret Mary Vojtko was broad, involving the Spiritan community, student housing, EAP, campus police, facilities management, and her faculty and staff colleagues.”

    Might have been a bit better if it involved health insurance.

  11. In response to Walsh’s statement: Obviously it’s nice that the priests offered her somewhere to stay and visited her while she was sick, but what Duquesne needed to do was pay Prof. Vojtko a living wage and offered her a severance package.

    At 83, she didn’t want to stay in the homes of strangers, relying on their kindness at the expense of her own pride. She just wanted to be able to afford to fix her home and live there.

    It’s totally disgusting that Walsh felt he had any right to feel “incredulous” about anything other than the fact that Prof. Vojtko died penniless and basically homeless after teaching at Duquesne for 25+ years.

  12. Spiritan priests visited the professor at her home? The one without electricity? And didn’t think “hmm maybe we should attempt to help this woman, battling cancer, get her lights turned back on” at some point? Surely there’s a fund somewhere? Something Catholic Charities might offer a devout member of the faith employed by an employer that swears it’s a church-based body? No? Really?

    The only thing more disturbing than Duquesne’s response to Professor Vojtko’s situation is the reality that there are hundreds of other adjuncts employed by the school who could easily find themselves in the same position should they also develop a serious illness, and the school is doing its level best to keep it that way. So deeply, truly Christ-like. Oh, wait, no…

  13. The social justice traditions of Catholicism are sadly missing from this case as are the social justice commitments of feminism. The department head responsible for terminating Ms. Vojtko, Edith Krause, states in her faculty description that she brings “feminist perspectives” to her work as a scholar. These perspectives apparently did not extend to Professor Krause’s colleague. When Professor Krause joined the department, why didn’t her feminist perspective lead her to fight for health insurance benefits for Ms. Vojtko? A salary instead of per-course pay? If Ms. Vojtko had become too ill to work (which is itself contested in this case), why didn’t Professor Krause fight for her? Why didn’t she get her colleague a severance package? When the president of Duquesne is making nearly a million dollars a year, Duquesne surely would have had the funds to take care of Ms. Vojtko during her illness if Professor Krause had led her department in pleading Ms. Vojtko’s case with the president. Instead, she told her to clean out her desk. Why is Professor Krause offering lame comments to the press now? She should be acknowledging that she is culpable, and she should be declaring that, in line with her feminist perspective, she will do everything in her power to support the unionization efforts that will prevent future cases like this.

  14. Director of Campus Ministry Rev. Daniel Walsh should be forced out over his defensive, angry response.

    The union lawyer is right on target: charity and prayers are no substitute for a living wage and benefits and to suggest that it is “outrageous” or “political” to highlight what is a very real — and political — issue with how adjuncts are compensated is beyond misguided, it is immoral.

    This woman deserved better and the union is fighting to make sure her legacy improves the conditions for all adjuncts.

What do you think? Leave us a comment!