With college tuition costs sending students and their families into hock, how can a university professor die in poverty?
In the 21/2 weeks since the Post-Gazette published "Death of an Adjunct,'' an op-ed column by Dan Kovalik, some form of that question has been asked tens of thousands of times.
The social media meter had the column tallying 68,000 "likes'' on Facebook and about 4,000 tweets. More people probably know the story of Margaret Mary Vojtko -- the adjunct professor of French at Duquesne University who died Sept. 1 of a heart attack at 83 -- than can remember her name. But this tough, bright, giving and private woman from Homestead, who had been a nurse before teaching well into her 80s, has kindled an important public conversation.
Duquesne officials have responded to Mr. Kovalik's column with the truths that part-time teaching positions have been around forever, that the $3,500 she received for teaching a 15-week course is higher than at many colleges and universities, and that she was able to live on campus for several weeks when, in the midst of chemo treatments for cancer, she could not afford the upkeep on her deteriorating home.
They say Mr. Kovalik, an attorney with the United Steelworkers, wrote the piece because he wants to unionize the adjuncts. OK, says Mr. Kovalik, but so did Ms. Vojtko. Adjuncts at Duquesne voted overwhelmingly a year ago to join the USW, though the Catholic university is seeking a religious exemption from oversight by the National Labor Relations Board.
This isn't really about one college, though. All those eyes are on this because it's about the American educational system at large. More than half the teaching positions at American universities are adjunct professors doing educational piece work, and that percentage has soared over 30 years even as tuition costs have shot through the roof.
It doesn't take a math professor to question the educational transactions here. Art Nussbaum of McCandless, who holds both a medical and law degree, zeroed in on it in a letter to the editor Thursday.
Paraphrasing Dr. Nussbaum, he paid about $3,900 for a three-credit law course that had about 35 enrollees. Their total contribution was above $137,000. If, from this, the professor got $3,500 or even twice that, where's the other $130,000 going?
That's hardly the only disconnect in academia. The nation's four-year public colleges and universities have raised undergraduate charges by more than 200 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars since 1980, as the median family income rose only 29 percent.
That comes from Tom Mortensen, "70 and madder than hell,'' who's been a higher education policy analyst for 43 years. His postsecondary education data show Pennsylvania has followed the nation in shifting more of the financial burden to students and their families.
Here in the Keystone State, tuition and fees paid by students and their families to public colleges exceeds the amount devoted to instruction. We're one of four states -- the only one outside New England -- where tuition revenues covered more than 100 percent of the expenditure for instruction and student services, according to Mr. Mortensen.
Money charged to students covers 108 percent of instructional costs. The overflow goes to university research, public service and overhead. That would be where dwindling state budget money devoted to universities goes, too -- not to instruction.
Thus college costs have soared even as more instruction comes from part-time professors who squeeze in classes with their real jobs. Public universities have done this largely because state appropriations have shrunk. In Pennsylvania, state appropriations cover only 18 percent of university core revenue. Only Colorado and Vermont offer a lower percentage.
The state appropriation share dipped 26 percent between 1987 and 2010. On the bright side, Pennsylvania found the money to build a lot of prisons.
Dave Newman, a former adjunct professor at the University of Pittsburgh, wrote a vividly comic novel about that life, "Raymond Carver Will Not Raise Our Children,'' in 2012. His fictional English prof wound up working the midnight shift in a Braddock hubcap factory because it paid better.
Mr. Newman, 42, said Thursday he got a commercial trucker's license after getting his master's in English and tapped into it for years on and off. He finds Ms. Vojtko's death "terribly tragic and sad,'' but it should resonate with educational consumers in ways that a thousand exhausted, part-time professors carping on the Internet never could.brianoneill
Brian O'Neill: email@example.com or 412-263-1947.