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Few of us might've heard of Margaret Mary Vojtko had the story of her death not gone viral this past week. The 83-year-old adjunct professor at Duquesne University died destitute, nearly homeless. Her story struck a nerve with the tens of thousands of part-time faculty around the country.

NPR's Claudio Sanchez has the story.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Last spring, months before her death, Margaret Mary Vojtko showed up at a meeting between adjunct professors at Duquesne University and union officials who've been trying to organize them.

Daniel Kovalik, legal counsel to the U.S. Steelworkers Union in Pittsburgh, says Vojtko was distraught.

DANIEL KOVALIK: She had cancer. She had very high medical bills.

SANCHEZ: And after 25 years of teaching French at Duquesne, the university had not renewed Vojtko's contract, As a part-time professor, she had been earning about $10,000 a year and had no health insurance.

KOVALIK: She didn't want charity. You know, she'd thought that after working 25 years for Duquesne that she was owed a living wage and some sort of retirement and benefits.

SANCHEZ: After her funeral, Kovalik submitted a biting op-ed piece to the local newspaper, critical of how Duchesne had treated Vojtko. Almost immediately, a much bigger debate unfolded on Facebook, Twitter and listservs. In large part, because the compensation and treatment of adjunct professors has been a simmering issue since the early 1970s when campuses began to see a shift from full-time to part-time faculty.

Today, these itinerant teachers make up a whopping 75 percent of college instructors; average pay, between 20 to $25,000 a year. This shift has helped institutions save lots of money. But Duquesne University provost Tim Austin says it's unfair to cast his school as heartless and greedy.

TIM AUSTIN: First of all, I don't accept that the arrangements we make with part-timers are dictated by cost savings.

SANCHEZ: Second of all, says Austin, Duquesne University pays adjunct professors more than most institutions.

AUSTIN: The least that an adjunct professor could be paid is $3,500 for a course, $7,000 for a given semester. Whether those are appropriate in a yet larger context is, as I say, a matter that the academic world has not yet found a decisive answer.

SANCHEZ: The answer is staring university leaders in the face, says Maria Maisto, head of the New Faculty Majority, which advocates for adjunct professors. Pay college presidents and coaches less and part-time professors more.

MARIA MAISTO: If education is really at the heart of what we do, then there's absolutely no excuse for not putting the bulk of the resources into what happens in the classroom.

SANCHEZ: But that's not what institutions are doing, says Maisto.

MAISTO: In fact, here in Ohio, I have colleagues who have recently had to sell their plasma in order to buy groceries.

SANCHEZ: Maisto says that's why so many adjunct professors identified with Vojtko's story. Still, Tim Austin of Duquesne University says the Vojtko case has been shamelessly exploited. Duquesne did reach out to help Vojtko, says Austin, and at one point even offered her temporary housing. The U.S. Steelworkers' Daniel Kovalik though, says he's still hoping that Duquesne will be shamed into allowing adjunct professors to unionize.

KOVALIK: And if Margaret Mary can help in that way, she would be very proud.

SANCHEZ: Duquesne University officials say there are no immediate plans to allow adjunct professors to unionize.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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