BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- Last month the story about the death of an adjunct professor from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh went viral. It was not so much the death of Margaret Mary Voitko at age 83 that tugged on the collective conscience of the public, but her life as a vastly underpaid and arduously overworked adjunct. Voitko had been teaching French at Duquesne for a quarter-century before dying Sept. 1. Her position, which was contract, offered no benefits and approximately $3,500 per three-credit course -- meaning her annual net salary reached barely $25,000 even during those times she was teaching three classes a semester. By contrast, the president of the University gets a yearly salary of $700,000 and full benefits, while college tuition and fees have increased by 440% in the past 25 years (four times the rate of inflation). "Contingent faculty" such as Voitko -- which include part-time teachers, non-tenure track full-time teachers and graduate assistants --make up 75% of higher education faculty of U.S. universities, with part-time faculty making up just over half. A 2010 survey by the magazine American Academic found that though 57% of adjuncts enjoyed their jobs, the exact same percentage was dissatisfied with their income. As it turns out, the paltry pay and lack of benefits that defined Voitko's position as an adjunct is far from rare. The national average pay reported for adjuncts is just $2,900 per three-credit course, which amounts to an average hourly wage of $8.90. The overall range of pay among adjuncts varies widely, though. Some have reported earning less than $1,000 per course, while one adjunct reported earning $12,575 for a course taught at Harvard University (Harvard adjuncts, at approximately $11,037 per course, are paid significantly above the national average). At other top-tier universities, the average pay per three-credit course is $4,750. Some factors that affect pay for adjuncts are location of the university (urban or rural), whether it is a community college and whether adjuncts are represented by a union. Those at smaller, rural, two-year institutions average about $1,808 per three-credit course. In California, where faculty at four-year and two-year institutions tend to be unionized, the average pay is $3,888 per course.
Still, even with such a wide range of pay among adjuncts across the nation, four out of five adjuncts report making less than $20,000 a year and most do not have any benefits, while a tenured professor can earn a salary of $80,000 per year with a full benefits package. According to a survey by the Adjunct Project, 79% of adjuncts do not have health insurance through their college and only 14% of adjuncts either have retirement benefits or the ability to buy into a group retirement plan. The growing discomfort with low wages and lack of benefits has led to some momentum on college campuses toward unionization. The Service Employees International Union has been particularly active in this arena. The SEIU, which represents more than 15,000 adjuncts in the U.S., has developed a "metropolitan" organizing strategy focused first on unionizing adjuncts at colleges around Washington, D.C. The efforts have been relatively successful, with adjunct unions now present at American and George Washington universities, as well as Montgomery College. More recently the SEIU college campaign, called Adjunct Action, has set its sights on the 20 colleges in the Boston area, with some resistance. "the No. 1 union-buster in America." Other colleges in the area have been less resistant, with Bentley and Tufts filing for union elections in recent months. Such strides could have national implications. "Boston is the bigger market for higher education, but in that sense it is a nut that needs to be cracked," SEIU campaign director for higher education Malini Cadambi Daniel told The Chronicle of Higher Education in April, noting that unionization among adjuncts in the city's institutions would "have the potential to really set the standard across the country." Meanwhile, Voitka's Duquesne University sought to void a vote by its adjuncts to unionize by seeking an exemption from the National Labor Relations Board due to its affiliation with the Catholic Church. Attending Duquesne is estimated to cost $41,232 per year, or even up to $57,666, with tuition and fees jumping 62% in less than a decade. As adjunct English professor Deborah Schwartz of Boston College said in a press release supporting Adjunct Action's Boston campaign, "When a university is asking $50,000 in tuition from students, one wonders where the money is going and why it's not going into instruction."