Priest details late adjunct’s stay on campus

Photo by Julian Routh | News Editor. The Laval House, the ministry's formation home, sits across from Mellon Hall on Academic Walk. Margaret Mary Vojtko stayed in the house for a month.

Photo by Julian Routh | News Editor. The Laval House, the ministry’s formation home, sits across from Mellon Hall on Academic Walk. Margaret Mary Vojtko stayed in the house for a month.

By Julian Routh | News Editor

In response to claims that Duquesne turned a blind eye to an ailing adjunct professor before her death on Sept. 1, Chaplain and Director of Campus Ministry Rev. Daniel Walsh said the university “offered the help to get her to where she would be able to care for herself.”

Margaret Mary Vojtko was permitted to stay at the Laval House, the ministry’s formation house, for a month while her home was without a furnace, Walsh said to The Duke on Thursday. Vojtko approached Walsh in February to ask for a place to stay and moved in the same day. According to Walsh, Vojtko “said that her home had no heating, and that she would return there when it was warm.”

Vojtko stayed on the second floor of the house for over a month, Walsh said, and was provided with daily meals.

“We welcomed her,” Walsh said. “And not just as a visitor, but to come whenever she wanted to our meals. We would prepare meals for her. She could be a member of the community and not a guest.”

A new priest’s arrival to the Laval House in March required Walsh to find ways to address Vojtko’s situation, he said. Walsh, along with other Spiritans, offered to repair or replace Vojtko’s furnace. University funds were also available to assist.

“We [said we] would quietly take care of the repair or the replacement if it was needed,” Walsh said. “[Vojtko] didn’t have the resources, and we were very willing to help.”

Vojtko refused the help because she was “a very private person,” according to Walsh.

Walsh’s statements came a day after the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published an opinions column critical of the way Duquesne handled Vojtko’s departure. United Steelworkers lawyer Daniel Kovalik, who wrote the now-viral story, told The Duke Wednesday that the university could have done more to assist a longtime employee who couldn’t afford to make ends meet.

“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.

Kovalik, senior associate general counsel for the union, said the school should “reflect on how they treat all their employees.”

Vice President for University Advancement John Plante sent an email Thursday to all Duquesne employees addressing the Post-Gazette piece.

“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.

Vojtko, who died from complications of a heart attack she suffered in August, taught French courses in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures for 25 years before the school told her she was not being asked to 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. Walsh said he remembers Vojtko telling him she would sleep in a booth at the restaurant.

On one instance, Vojtko was escorted off campus after officials found her sleeping on a couch in the department. According to adjunct professor and friend Joshua Zelesnick, Vojtko did this because she would “lose energy all of the sudden” as a result of chemotherapy.

“[Vojtko] said she was doing this because she was too weak and didn’t want to miss her classes and her students,” Zelesnick said. “This was a recurring problem. She didn’t want to miss work.”

Vojtko suffered from ovarian cancer and was undergoing treatment since a recurrence last year, nephew John Vojtko said. She had just completed her first week of treatment on Aug. 16, the day she went into cardiac arrest.

After the heart attack, Vojtko was put into the Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit at UPMC Mercy Hospital for 12 days. According to John Vojtko, Margaret Mary was “able to breathe on her own, but never regained consciousness.” Under the advice of the physician who oversaw Margaret Mary’s care, John Vojtko transferred his aunt to hospice care at West Penn Hospital in Bloomfield, where she died three days later.

Margaret Mary’s funeral was held on Sept. 7 at Epiphany Catholic Church in Uptown.

10 Comments
  1. The overarching concern with this situation is not simply about Margaret Mary Vojtko. Instead, this is about the very low pay of the adjunct professors at the school. If this is the same rate of pay that other Catholic Universities pay, the issue needs national attention.
    I am a graduate of Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri. Rockhurst is a Jesuit school and I pray that its adjunct professors make a living wage. Obviously, if these people are teaching college students, then they too have graduated from college. When a person graduates from college with any education degree they understand that in all likelihood they will not be a member of the 1%’s. However, they do have the expectation that their work will be valued and that they will be paid a fair rate.
    In total, there are 270 Catholic Universities in the United States. Perhaps these Catholic institutions of higher learning could lead the way for all colleges, –public, private and religious — to pay their professors a living wage.

  2. The overarching concern with this situation is not simply about Margaret Mary Vojtko. Instead, this is about the very low pay of the adjunct professors at the school. If this is the same rate of pay that other Catholic Universities pay, the issue needs national attention.
    I am a graduate of Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri. Rockhurst is a Jesuit school and I pray that its adjunct professors make a living wage. Obviously, if these people are teaching college students, then they too have graduated friom college. When a person graduates from college with any education degree they understand that in all likelihood they will not be a member of the 1%’s. However, they do have the expectation that their work will be valued and that they will be paid a fair rate.
    In total, there are 270 Catholic Universities in the United States. Perhaps these Catholic institutions of higher learning could lead the way for all colleges, –public, private and religious — to pay their professors a living wage.

  3. “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.”

    Family and friends??????? Where were they!!!!!! Yeah…let’s demonize the only people who would actually hire this lady.

  4. Any proof you offered to help her fix her furnace? I thought not.

    Kudos for letting her live in Laval House, but any thoughts on why she had to live there in the first place? Because she, like all adjuncts, was making very, very little with no benefits? Yeah, I thought not.

    Disgraceful that you pretend to have Catholic charity.

  5. Wait a minute, who is John Vojtko? a nephew? Why wasn’t he helping her? What kind of crappy family lets an old lady with these many problems live alone? Institutional problems aside where was he? Does she have any other family? It’s not Duquesne’s responsibility nor the governments responsibility to care for someone it is the family. I don’t know the situation but if they had not cared about her up to this point they need to stop blaming others.
    I realize this was the union bosses chance to rail against the machine but there is a bigger problem in the background.

  6. The Rev. Daniel Walsh, Duquesne Chaplain and Director of Campus Ministry, and John Plante, school’s Vice President for University Advancement, seem to be in denial, ensnared in a tangle of inability to credit the legitimacy of other people’s intentions and interpretations. At least Rev. Walsh, though, uses reasonably direct language in describing his no doubt well-meaning and helpful activities, and those of his Spiritan brothers, on behalf of Margaret Mary Vojtko. But these activities, as Dan Kovalik rightly puts it, were largely in the vein of “intermittent charity and prayers,” and very obviously avoid the larger context here, which is the long-term institutional exploitation and abuse of adjunct faculty–nothing, by the way, unique to Duquese: it is, shamefully, the norm in higher ed. VP Plante, for his part, maintains an even more distanced and limited view than Rev. Walsh, claiming that “our defense is the truth,” and that Dan Kovalik is wrong “to frame this as an issue of human resources policy.” But it is precisely about “human resources,” in this case the resources, the knowledge and talent and commitment of faculty, and how these have been placed at an ever-lower value, for decades, by institutions like Duquesne which would be nothing, nothing, without them.

  7. No worries now for Ms. Vojtko… as “you
    will eat pie in the sky when you die.”

    Keep in mind that Duquesne is religious
    institution as you sing along with Ani DeFranco
    & Utah Phillips:

    “Long-haired preachers come out every night
    To tell you what’s wrong and what’s right
    But when asked how about something to eat
    They will answer in voices so sweet:

    “You will eat, bye and bye
    In that glorious land above the sky
    Work and pray, live on hay
    You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.
    That’s a lie

    “And the starvation army they play
    They sing and they clap and they pray
    ‘Till they get all your coin on the drum
    Then they’ll tell you when you’re on the bum:

    “You’re gonna eat, bye and bye, poor boy
    In that glorious land above the sky, way up high
    Work and pray, live on hay
    You’ll get pie in the sky when you die
    Dirty lie

    “Holy Rollers and jumpers come out
    They holler, they jump, Lord, they shout
    Give your money to Jesus they say
    He will cure all troubles today

    “And you will eat, bye and bye,
    In that glorious land above the sky, way up high
    Work and pray, boy, live on hay,
    You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.

    “If you fight hard for children and wife
    Try to get something good in this life
    You’re a sinner and bad man, they tell
    When you die you will sure go to hell

    “You will eat, bye and bye
    In that glorious land above the sky
    Work and pray, live on hay
    You’ll get pie in the sky when you die

    “Workingmen of all countries, unite
    Side by side we for freedom will fight
    When this world and its wealth we have gained
    To the grafters we’ll sing this refrain:

    “Well, you will eat, bye and bye
    When you’ve learned how to cook and to fry
    Chop some wood, it’ll do you good
    You will eat in the sweet bye and bye

    “Yes you’ll eat, bye and bye
    In that glorious land above the sky, way up high
    Work and pray, and live on hay
    You’ll get pie in the sky when you die
    That’s a lie…. “

  8. Let me get this straight…. Farher Walsh says that even
    though the university used the “adjunct” status to pay
    her a poverty wage, Kovalik is the “bad guy”
    because he chose to shine a spotlight on this
    outrage.

    My farts make more sense.

What do you think? Leave us a comment!