Future depends on faculty unionizing

If the Board of Regents has its way, tenure as we know it at the University of Minnesota will be a thing of the past.
The administration will possess the power to axe whole departments with impunity. It will be allowed to lay off faculty for failing to exhibit “a proper attitude of industry and cooperation with others.” It will be permitted to lower a professor’s pay for substandard performance or — get this — for any other “compelling” reason. About the only thing administrators won’t be allowed to do to faculty members under the regent’s proposed tenure revisions is flog them with bullwhips and torture them with red-hot pincers.
Forget that the regents’ proposals violate a long-standing tradition in higher education of faculty self-governance. Forget that by forcing professors to adopt an obsequious attitude of cooperation the revised tenure code would stifle controversy, blunt inquiry and chill debate. Forget also that there is almost nothing a budget-slashing, belt-tightening, upper-level administrator wouldn’t regard as compelling grounds for cutting someone’s salary. Just consider for a moment what will happen to the quality of the professors at this school in the event that the Board of Regents gets its wish.
To begin with, the University’s better faculty — the ones with national reputations, prestigious awards and hefty research grants — will leave in droves. Some are so disgusted with the proposed tenure changes that they may leave even if the plans are dropped. And there’s no shortage of jobs for these folks to flee to should they feel the urge. It’s no secret that other top-flight schools are already trying to use the tenure issue to lure away our big-name scholars.
Meanwhile, promising young academics will avoid the University like the plague. After all, why should people who’ve spent eight or 10 years slaving away in graduate school take a job at one of the few places in the country that insists on treating people with doctorates like they were trainees at McDonald’s? Those budding scholars unfortunate enough to end up here will stay only long enough to find a better position elsewhere.
So, who do you suppose will be left to teach, mentor and conduct research after the euphemistically titled “restructuring of tenure” is complete? In all likelihood, the only professors the University will be able to retain after the fall of tenure will be the very deadwood the regents and their political backers say they want to eliminate. Contrary to what the board seems to believe, excellence in higher education is not achieved by constructing multimillion dollar buildings, or hiring high-paid provosts, or creating award-winning sports programs, or even signing exclusive contracts with soft drink companies, but rather by cultivating a talented, dedicated faculty. If it is unable to attract and keep decent educators, Minnesota’s premiere institution of higher learning will be reduced to little more than an oversized community college.
Thankfully, the faculty still has a fighting chance to block the regents’ catastrophic scheme. That’s because since last spring the University Faculty Alliance has been working to make it possible for the professors at the University to unionize. Over the summer the group collected the faculty signatures necessary to call a union election. And until such an election can be held, the state Bureau of Mediation Services has ordered the terms of employment for University professors temporarily frozen.
But is a union the right thing for the professoriate?
“It’s pretty clear we need some sort of formal legal protection against random acts of violence perpetrated by the Board of Regents,” said Tom Walsh, professor of physics and co-coordinator of the UFA. In theory, faculty self-governance should provide that protection. Unfortunately, Walsh explains, “Our faculty self-governance is chartered and paid for by the regents.”
Since all other avenues of influencing the board’s decision-making have evaporated, the faculty has almost no choice but to unionize. Given the dictatorial treatment of labor that prevails in most private corporations, combining in unions and engaging in collective bargaining is usually the only reliable way for most American employees to have a voice in the conditions under which they work. Now that the regents have decided to apply the anti-democratic management style practiced by corporations to the business of running this University, why shouldn’t professors take advantage of the one sure-fire way to protect their rights? Indeed, they would have to be stupid to do otherwise.
The first thing a faculty union would win in any contract negotiations is long-term protection of tenure. That’s virtually guaranteed. Not only that, but a unionized faculty will have the right to negotiate over any other reforms affecting its employment the regents might dream up. And equipped with the collective resources of a union, the faculty could afford to send its own lobbyists up to the legislature to educate some of our politicians about what it takes to be a great university.
Encouragingly, the faculty members appear to be rallying behind the unionization campaign. The phones are ringing off the hook at the UFA. Moreover, the group just received the crucial support of the Alliance of American University Professors, so it looks like there will be only one potential bargaining agent on the ballot when a union election is called.
Faculty members may lack that all-important “cooperative attitude” the regents are so fond of, but nobody can accuse the faculty at the University of Minnesota of being dumb. Sooner or later even the most conservative faculty member will be forced to accept the idea that collective bargaining is the only way to save the school they helped build from almost certain mediocrity.
When an election is finally called, the professors should — and I predict will — do the right thing and vote yes for a union. The future of this institution depends on it.
Steve Macek’s column will appear in the Daily every Tuesday.