University professors are organizing, cyber-style

Michelle Kibiger

The last time University faculty members voted to form a union, they sat at the same tables and discussed the issues over lunch at the Campus Club in Coffman Memorial Union.
That was in 1981. Today, fewer faculty members have time to stop by the cafeteria, and another means of communication is used to mobilize faculty unionization efforts.
The obvious choice, said University Faculty Alliance member and physics professor Thomas F. Walsh, was e-mail.
“To tell you the truth, I honestly didn’t expect this to work as well as it has,” Walsh said.
The University Faculty Alliance is using e-mail to send meeting notices, updates, and analyses of proposed tenure revisions to faculty members who subscribe to a list server.
Authorization cards, which allow faculty members to solicit membership in the union, are also sent to potential members via e-mail. If a faculty member wants to join the union, the membership form can be printed from e-mail, filled out, and then sent through the campus mail system.
Walsh said e-mail allowed union members to quickly reach more people than they could by phone or regular mail.
“This is a kind of new way of communicating information to people,” Walsh said. “It permits you, if you’re responsible, to transmit factual information where previously that would be difficult. I think the amount of miscommunication can actually be reduced this way.”
Classical and Near Eastern Studies professor Robert Sonkowsky said e-mail and Internet access has made some of the issues involved in the tenure debate clearer.
He said some documents, like University President Nils Hasselmo’s letter suggesting that tenure could be changed, were readily available to faculty because they were posted on the Internet. Sonkowsky said this ready accessibility helped rally faculty against tenure changes.
“I don’t know that I would have seen a copy (of the letter) if it weren’t for e-mail,” he said.
But communication by e-mail is only effective when people regularly use their accounts. Walsh said many professors and staff members were not using e-mail when the faculty alliance first began organizing. He said even fewer were accessing documents on the World Wide Web.
Shih Pau-Yen, director for University Distributed Computing Services, said the tenure issue has prompted many faculty to learn how to use e-mail. About five months ago only about 40 percent of faculty members used their e-mail, he said. Today, that number has nearly doubled.
“Tenure issues are a fast way to get faculty to use e-mail,” Pau-Yen said.
Pau-Yen said an estimated one-third of the more than 3,000 Twin Cities campus faculty use the World Wide Web. He said the number of users has also increased.
Talking with University faculty is quicker and cheaper using e-mail than using the telephone, said Jack Nightingale, local field representative for the American Association of University Professors.
Nightingale said because professors’ association attorneys are based in Washington D.C., they are not familiar with Minnesota statutes. He said using the Internet, the attorneys are able to find the laws in a short period of time.
He also said e-mail allows University faculty to discuss tenure issues with faculty at other institutional across the country.
“E-mail provides an opportunity to make those exchanges with one-on-one personal attention without leaving one’s home environment,” Nightingale said.
The professors’ association will use list servers to link University faculty with their departmental counterparts at already-unionized institutions.
“The Minnesota case is commanding a lot of attention across the country,” Nightingale said.
E-mail privacy concerns many University alliance members. Walsh said some people, who think e-mail is equivalent to a private telephone conversation, do not realize that e-mail is public material.
“It’s very disturbing that the law makes those communications not private,” Walsh said.
But, he said, all e-mail is meant to be public, and the issues faculty members are addressing should be available to the public.
Sonkowsky said alliance members should not be afraid to say what they think in their e-mail messages.
“There should be no fear,” he said.”
Walsh said faculty at other institutions might catch on to using e-mail as a way to organize union efforts.
“Minnesota is probably more on the cutting edge than many other campuses,” Nightingale said.