Professional unions are inevitable trend

by By Professor

During the past several years, University faculty members have suffered a slow decline in their professional status and security, though some may not have recognized it. This demotion became catastrophic in 1996. On several occasions, in rapid succession, the regents summarily dismissed legitimate results of faculty governance, in some cases without even deigning to acknowledge them. The tenure debate is only one part of the story.
For several months last year, powerful political forces attempted to discredit and degrade University professors per se. The big lie was employed: Without substantial evidence, professors, as a group, were repeatedly said to be corrupt, expensive idlers. It is not entirely clear what the motives were; even some politicians, who should have been natural historical allies of the faculty, went along with the scam. What happened at Minnesota was not isolated; it has been occurring at other universities, but less visibly.
This can be seen in a national context. A new type of enforced caste system has been developing throughout the United States, with a purely managerial class at the top and all others (including professional people) definitely below them. In former times, professionals, such as university faculty members, medical doctors, engineers and so on, have at least, by courtesy, been accorded status comparable to that of the administrators. This tradition is rapidly disappearing, and University professors have led the way in downward mobility. Perhaps it is no accident that some of the earliest, most obvious manifestations of the trend are centered in the medical and public health parts of the University, because one can imagine outside profit motives there. But the trend is real in any case.
The notion that the managerial class has been diverting larger fractions of the national income to itself is well known. (The University is an example in microcosm; Morrill Hall administrators’ salaries have been increasing faster than inflation, while faculty members’ salaries have conspicuously not been.)
But another phenomenon has been discussed less: The same managerial class has also been marginalizing or eliminating residual sources of power that previously belonged to professional people and professional organizations. Medical doctors in health maintenance organizations, for example, are experiencing the same exclusion from power as professors in universities. And Minnesota, again, appears to be on the leading edge.
Eventually, to retain what standing they still have, professionals will have to invent countervailing influences.
New professional associations will be formed specifically to take back some of the lost power and status. At a university, such as Minnesota, one obvious goal would be to re-institute the faculty governance traditions that have been lost or weakened.
Critics who imagine that they enjoy status too high to belong to a mere union may be deluding themselves. Professional standing outside Minnesota, scholarly publications and awards, past research support — these do not mean as much to management as some scholars believe. Thus, without an active organization we are doomed eventually to join Dilbert in his cubicle. If no universities comparable to Minnesota have such faculty organizations, that is because none have yet experienced comparably hostile, inept administrators and regents. Many professionals have organizations that represent their interests; consider the Screenwriters Guild, orchestra musicians and the Airline Pilots Association. I predict that within a decade, we will see the American Medical Association evolving toward a more collective bargaining model, much as the American Association of University Professors is doing. We are all realizing that we must organize to protect the standards of our professions.
Neither high- nor low-ranking members of the faculty can safely remain aloof from this question. Younger professors should be concerned because, as a group, they are most vulnerable. Senior faculty members should recognize that seniority and healthy research grants are not real protection from a wholesale degradation in status outside Morrill Hall.
Advocates for a faculty organization are not motivated by a romantic view of labor unions; they favor one, because, like it or not, such an organization has become necessary in order for us to survive with any professional self-esteem. Unless an unforeseen, implausible change of course occurs soon, the University faculty will eventually be forced to organize, and there is evidence that administrators and regents know this.
We will be in a stronger position if we do it now, not five years from now after our situation has deteriorated further.
Anyone who realistically investigates the chain of events in the past several years, will come to a similar conclusion.

Kris Davidson is a professor in the astronomy department