Just How Bad Can a Life of Adjuncting Be? Pretty Bad.

My hometown paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, covers this very sad story of an adjunct French professor who died without health insurance or retirement benefits, and who, despite her “professor” title, lived out her last years close to the poverty line and suffering from cancer.

Worst is the information that her employer, the Catholic-affiliated Duquesne University, declined to recognize its adjuncts’ vote to join the United Steelworkers Union, begging religious exemption — while Georgetown, another Catholic university, recognized its adjuncts’ unionization, citing Catholic values of social justice. This is particularly sad in Pittsburgh, an historically strong union city (and a very Catholic one).

If this woman had held an M.F.A. rather than a Ph.D. or M.A., would we read this story differently? Does a fine arts degree somehow make us feel more licensed to look for work outside the academy than scholars? It’s worth pointing out that if someone performs well for 25 years in the private sector, they’re likely to  move up in the ranks, earn more money, and see their quality of life improve. Young professors starting out in 1969, when 78% of faculty had a chance of getting tenure, could expect the same. Margaret Mary’s quality of life, in contrast, stagnated and then took a turn for the worse, and when she was already in her eighties, a time when most people might like to be sitting on their porches enjoying their grandchildren.

As we search for and work at jobs outside the academy, let’s not forget to advocate on behalf of the nearly 50% (or, by some counts, two thirds) of university teachers who work with no chance at tenure and benefits. (Not to mention, increasingly, in climates hostile to unionization).

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