Every so often, an individual's fate crystalizes a large, under-recognized issue. The 2009 death of 23-year-old lab assistant Sheri Sangji focused national attention on lax safety standards in America's academic labs. This year, the 1 September death of 83-year-old adjunct professor Margaret Mary Vojtko appears to have done something similar for the situation of the nation's more than 1 million contingent (that is, nontenure eligible) faculty members, nearly 800,000 of whom have part-time appointments.

Accounts about Vojtko's circumstances during her final months vary, but it's clear that she died destitute and desperate, not having earned more than $25,000 a year or received health insurance or retirement benefits in a quarter century of teaching French at Duquesne University. In her final year, with her teaching load cut to a single course per semester, she could afford neither chemotherapy for her cancer nor furnace repairs to heat her house. "Finally, in the spring, she was let go by the university, which told her she was no longer effective as an instructor—despite many glowing evaluations from students," according to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article by Daniel Kovalik, who is senior associate general counsel for the United Steelworkers union, which is working to organize Duquesne's adjuncts. Vojtko spoke with Kovalik in great distress on 16 August, hours before she collapsed from a heart attack. She died without regaining consciousness.

The vortex of woe that engulfed Vojtko was especially harsh, but the problems she faced were not unique. Last year, for example, we reported on mathematician Don Haussler, the adjunct at Kansas City Kansas Community College whose students mounted a fundraising drive to help finance the surgery he needed to retain his ability to walk.

Common complaints

Apparently, there just aren't any data that break down adjunct numbers by academic field, but circumstantial evidence suggests that significant and possibly growing numbers of adjuncts are teaching  science, technology, engineering, and mathematics subjects. In their book Off-Track Profs: Nontenured Teachers in Higher Education, John Cross of Bloomfield College and Edie Goldenberg of the University of Michigan, Anne Arbor, name calculus and other math courses as subjects widely taught by adjuncts.

At one prestigious university they studied, the "math department hired local junior college faculty to offer a number of courses as overloads. … Similar issues arise in introductory science courses and laboratories in biology and chemistry." As federal sequestration and other disruptions of government funding have forced academic labs to cut their staffs, some junior scientists are reportedly turning to adjunct teaching to pay their bills.

Nationwide, contingent faculty members do the bulk of undergraduate teaching, especially in lower-level courses at 2- and 4-year institutions, but also at universities, with "tenure-track faculty … teaching significantly fewer than half of all the credit hours generated in the lower divisions in arts and sciences," Cross and Goldenberg note.

Academic sharecroppers

The percentage of faculty members with traditional, full-time tenured or tenure-track appointments has reached the lowest level on record, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) reported in April. In 2011, the latest available year in their annual survey, 24% of the nation's instructional staff were in that fortunate, formerly dominant category, while 41% were part-time adjuncts—a figure that has grown 71% since 1975—and 15% were full time but off the tenure track—up 48% since 1975. The portion of graduate students in the instructional ranks has hovered close to 20% since 1975.

Nationally, the AAUP figures show, the total number of faculty members has more than doubled since 1975, but the number of tenure-track faculty members has barely budged. In 1975, tenured and tenure-eligible faculty members numbered 353,600, and contingent faculty members numbered 268,880. By 2011, there were 444,680 tenure-track faculty members and 1,046,299 contingent faculty members. Some part-time adjuncts have other full-time careers. But many earn their livelihoods from their off-tenure-track teaching, either on a single campus or as "gypsy scholars" traveling to meet classes on several campuses.

As we have reported, adjuncts at some schools have begun organizing unions, but the title of a 2005 book, Academic Sharecroppers: Exploitation of Adjunct Faculty and the Higher Education System by Wendell Fountain, still aptly captures the situation of the great majority. Some of the 36% of contingent faculty members who work full time have contracts and at least some benefits. Depending on the institution, such positions may provide decent pay, long-term employment with no less job security than the great bulk of American workers, and the chance to focus on teaching with less professional pressure and possibly shorter hours than tenure-track faculty members face. However, academics hired, like Vojtko and Haussler, to teach individual courses generally work with little or no job security. "A lot of adjuncts don't know if… they'll have a job, if they'll have income from one semester to another. That's a big source of stress," C.N. Le, a senior lecturer (a contingent faculty member with a stable though "indefinite" appointment) at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, recently told The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Although both categories of "non-tenure-track faculty"—full time and piecework—receive lower pay "than tenured and tenure-track faculty, part-time faculty are customarily paid significantly less than even full-time non-tenure-track faculty for the same work," write Adrianna Kezar, Daniel Maxey and Lara Badke in a report from The Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success. "One national study found that full-time non-tenure-track faculty typically make 26% less than tenured faculty, but that part-time faculty earn approximately 60% less than comparable full-time, tenure-track faculty when their salaries are expressed on an hourly basis." At the low end of the pay spectrum, both full- and part-time faculty members receive a bit more than $3000 a course. At the high end, part-time faculty members can get $5500 per course, but full-time faculty members can get as much as $8000 per course. Another study found that part-time faculty members were paid a median of only $2700 per course.

Only half of part-time faculty members get any benefits, usually some form of health coverage, Kezar and her co-authors continue. As we have reported previously, determining whether adjuncts will qualify for employer-paid health care when the Affordable Care Act's employer mandate comes into effect has been controversial, with some colleges reportedly cutting adjuncts' hours to keep them under the 30-hour limit. But it can be hard to determine how long adjuncts work; like all teachers, adjuncts spend considerable time outside of class doing work related to their courses. Institutions must be "reasonable" in making the determination, the Internal Revenue Service advises.

All types of institutions employ contingents. In 2006, the percentage of contingent faculty members was lowest in public research universities, at 51% of instructional staff, and 57% at public comprehensive institutions, according to an article by Kezar and Cecile Sam. Almost 65% of faculty members are contingent at private research universities and 71% at private comprehensives. At 2-year colleges, the figures are 79% for public institutions and 91% for private institutions.

Scientists working as adjuncts are likelier to be women than men. Female scientists—who now earn more than half the doctorates in some fields—are less likely than men to get tenure, note Mary Ann Mason of the University of California (UC), Berkeley, Nicholas H. Wolfinger of the University of Utah, and Marc Wolfinger, also of UC Berkeley in Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower. Female Ph.D. scientists "who do not secure ladder-track [i.e., tenure-track] appointments," they add, "are more likely to stay in academia [than men], either as contingent instructors or in nonteaching appointments." And those female Ph.D. scientists with small children—the scientists least likely to get tenure-track positions—"are disproportionately likely to be employed in contingent professorships and are less likely to be working in nonacademic jobs."

A contingent death

For decades, Vojtko got by teaching up to eight courses a year. To get through her final winter after being reduced to a single course, Kovalik states, she tried to use an all-night restaurant and a university office for paperwork and sleeping. When the university discovered this, "the police were called in to eject her from her office," Kovalik writes.

Kovalik's account of Vojtiko's final months "bears no resemblance to reality," says Duquesne's chaplain, Rev. Daniel Walsh, in a statement. John Plante, Duquesne's vice president for university advancement, calls Kovalik's report "a reckless attempt" to use Vojtko to advance the union cause. Vojtko lived for "several weeks" in a religious community on campus, Walsh states, and received offers of "several other types of assistance." Neither official's published statements, however, disputes Kovalik's description of her overall financial situation.

Which all brings to mind the famous monologue by Linda, wife of Willy Loman, in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. "He's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. … He works for a company thirty-six years, … and now in his old age they take his salary away." Vojtko, however, never received a salary but rather payment by the course.

Attention has indeed been paid across the Internet to Professor Margaret Mary Vojtko—belatedly, now that no pay raise or insurance can help her. Perhaps, like Sheri Sangji, she will inspire improvement. Penury and insecurity are not, after all, laws of nature. In Mexico, part-timers "are eligible for tenure, and in Argentina, [they] are considered members of the permanent workforce and are often paid on a par with full-timers," according to an article in the 2013 Almanac of Higher Education. But, as Sangji's case also illustrates, change only happens through resolute action by those in a position to make a difference.

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.