Duquesne disputes claims over death of adjunct professor

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An op-ed piece Wednesday in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recounting the death of a longtime Duquesne University adjunct professor fueled online anger nationally over conditions facing low-paid temporary instructors but was criticized by the school as misleading and exploitative.

The column involved Margaret Mary Vojtko, 83, who taught French at Duquesne University for 25 years before being let go this spring. After she died Sept. 1, Daniel Kovalik, senior associate general counsel of the United Steelworkers, the union currently in a fight to organize adjunct instructors at Duquesne, wrote the piece.

Mr. Kovalik wrote of the near-homeless woman's battle with cancer, of her struggles as a semester-to-semester hire earning as little as $10,000 a year, and of her death following a heart attack not long after losing her job with no severance or retirement benefits.

Online, the column went viral, attracting more than 171,000 page views on the newspaper's website, 50,000-plus Facebook likes and almost 1,500 comments from readers across the U.S. and overseas.

All of it placed the Catholic university of nearly 10,000 students at the center of a maelstrom -- undeservedly so, its leaders said Thursday.

They took umbrage at the column's suggestion that the school did not help the woman. In fact, the campus community reached out to her on multiple occasions, inviting her at one point to live on campus, said John Plante, university vice president for advancement.

"Despite the assertions made in the op-ed piece, individuals across the University community attempted to help Margaret Mary through her last trying days. Spiritan priests, support staff, and University and McAnulty College administrators reached out to assist Margaret Mary with the challenges she faced," Mr. Plante wrote in a letter Thursday to university employees.

Duquesne officials said they did not know how many responses to the column they received. Mr. Plante said they were of two distinct types.

The first, he said, included "individuals who have been intimately involved and familiar with the situation, and who immediately recognized this op-ed as a reckless attempt to use Margaret Mary Vojtko's death as a means to further the self-interest of Mr. Kovalik's external organization.

"These individuals have expressed both outrage and sadness that Margaret Mary has been used in this way," Mr. Plante said.

"Then there are those with no direct knowledge of the actual circumstances. They have also expressed outrage, using social media to attack Duquesne based on their acceptance of Mr. Kovalik's published mischaracterizations," Mr. Plante added.

His message quoted a letter from the Rev. Daniel Walsh, university chaplain and director of campus ministry, who said he was left incredulous by the piece. He said its claims bore no resemblance to reality and accused the author of being "sadly exploitative" for use of an unfortunate death "to serve an alternative agenda."

"I knew Margaret Mary well. 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," he wrote.

Mr. Kovalik said Duquesne did not dispute what the woman was paid or that she lacked benefits, and he balked at the "agenda" claim. "Margaret Mary supported that so-called agenda," he said. "She supported unionization."

He called her a friend, adding, "I thought her story should be told."

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Bill Schackner: bschackner@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG.


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