By Ryan McLaughlin
UPPER BURRELL, Pa. – A Penn State New Kensington instructor is advocating for better pay for adjunct professors after a Duquesne University adjunct professor died in poverty.
Rebecca Mertz is an adjunct professor of English at both Duquesne University and Penn State New Kensington. She did not know Margaret Vojtko, the adjunct who died in poverty after working for 25 years, but she said she understands the hardships that adjuncts can go through just to make ends meet.
“The MLA, which is the Modern Language Association, did a study of what adjuncts should be paid,” Mertz said. “They recommend that adjuncts make $7,000 per class per semester. Penn State New Kensington pays between $2,000 and $2,400 per class per semester.”
Mertz said she got into teaching because she likes teaching. However, she wanted to be a college professor, as opposed to a high school teacher, for the material. “I wanted to teach more grown up kind of stuff and have more control over what I taught,” she said.
According to Mertz, an adjunct professor is an added on professor. They teach fewer classes than full time professors, and are used to supplement the full time professors. They may be professors that are fulfilling their doctorate degrees or perhaps want to teach fewer classes. Because adjuncts don’t receive benefits and are paid less, universities are taking on more adjuncts. “Right now, however, 60 percent of average university faculty is adjunct,” Mertz added. “So it’s much more than a supplement. It’s the majority effect.”
After Vojtko’s death in poverty, adjunct professors have received much more attention. “The main thing is better pay and benefits and to convert part time positions in full time positions,” Mertz said. Duquesne University has received a lot of attention because of Vojtko’s death, but Mertz said she wants to stress that this is a nationwide issue, and must be handled as such.
At Penn State New Kensington, Mertz teaches English 15, Creative Writing, and is also the advisor to the Creative Writing Club. James Stull, a sophomore history major, had Mertz for both classes. “I felt she was a very good teacher,” he said. “She taught us to write, of course, but she also helped us develop our style and come out of the box a bit.”
Stull is the vice president of the Creative Writing Club and says that Mertz is an extremely helpful advisor. “She almost runs the meeting, sometimes,” he said. “Outside of planning, she’ll introduce creative writing prompts for us, and exercises.”
Caitlyn Cody, a sophomore and president of the Creative Writing Club, also said that Mertz is a good instructor. “I think Mertz is an amazing professor and advisor,” Cody said. “She genuinely cares about her students as something more than a grade, and she really helped me further myself in writing. She pushed me to be the president of creative writing (club), I think because she knew that I could do it and because it would be a good learning experience for me. And it has been.”
Many of Mertz’s students have heard about the adjuncts’ situation and hope to see it swiftly resolved. “I really think that Mertz is one of the more valuable professors here, and that she deserves more than the school gives her,” Cody said. “I don’t pretend to understand the whole adjunct situation, but I know that they are vastly underpaid and overworked. It isn’t fair, and I really do think that several of our adjunct professors deserve better.”