Professors should unionize for good of state

By Alfred

In view of what happened at the University over the last two or three years, some thoughts about the academic life are in order, particularly because a collective bargaining election will be held for the core university faculty members on February 11 and 12.
Financial problems in the health care industry have their repercussions in the health sciences at the University: the University hospital, and other University health care services suffered from these problems. The newly created Fairview-University Medical Center is supposed to provide financial stability. We all hope the University Hospital workers will be able to stay on their jobs with favorable conditions. What will happen to the 600 clinical faculty members was — and probably still is — not quite clear. There seemed to be a feeling that 600 members are too many, hence the idea of abolishing tenure became interesting.
This produced serious attempts to abolish tenure — for the entire University. The administration first went along with the abolishment scheme, then had second thoughts. At this point, the regents hired their own outside lawyers against the administration, and the turmoil began, ending with a regents’ “emergency” meeting where some new “tenure regulations,” called Sullivan II, were imposed on the Law School. The other units were exempted because of a “cease and desist” order issued by the Bureau of Mediation Services, which accepted a petition for a collective bargaining election.
Now those Sullivan II regulations are not tenure regulations, but dismissal regulations. Two main points: first, according to Sullivan II, every year one-fifth of the faculty is put on notice that a post-tenure review has to be passed or else dismissal or disciplinary action, like a salary cut, will be in store. Already now, every faculty member is evaluated every day of his working life, and the reviews are being done at least every year when compensation is under discussion. To formally install in addition periodic dismissal procedures for every faculty member makes the University a questionable institution. You do not need a Ph.D. in political science to know what dismissal procedures do to academic freedom. The notion of tenure in the 1985 regulations is limited by dismissal for cause, which is fully adequate for a University.
And then there are procedures in case of financial emergency — or exigency — carefully laid out in the 1985 tenure regulations. This too, is as it should be. But now, and this is the second point, Sullivan II introduces the notion of “financial stringency”, and local, fairly local, or global retrenchment measures will be possible. Again the Sullivan II regulations are dismissal regulations. Is a University that tries to be a first rate education and research promoting institution really going to put such ambiguous “financial stringency” rules into effect? Are the Sullivan II dismissal regulations a lawyers’ empowerment act? A lawyer for every faculty member?
In short, the question comes down to: Do we want to be a university? The answer should be “yes.” But then somebody has to defend this answer. What happened over the last 15 years is very encouraging. In 1981, the core University (Twin Cities campus minus health sciences and Law School) had 2,167 regular faculty members eligible to vote in the core University collective bargaining elections in 1981 and 1997, respectively. The veterinary sciences were included in 1981, but are not in 1997. If we take this into account we get a reduction by about 500 regular faculty members from 1981 to 1997 in the core University. There are names for that: retrenchment, downsizing, restructuring, re-engineering, focusing, and outsourcing. It should be noted that e.g. the School of Mathematics presently employs 14 visiting assistant professors, and it would be interesting to know how many temporary instructors are working in the core University.
Another characteristic property of a first rate institution of higher learning is a respectable compensation plan for the faculty. In this regard, the University is a sad place. Of course, we have to live with the “market conditions” in academic life. A senior professor in liberal arts may have a salary of $45,000 after 35 years of service, in contrast to a beginning assistant professor of economics or management who may take in $60,000 per year. This in itself can be regarded as a bad arrangement for a University. But it is widespread in academics. In addition, the University is at the bottom or near the bottom in every faculty salary list comparable to other research universities. Somebody has to tell the state that Minnesota deserves a first rate university equipped with a respectable salary structure. This will cost money, and the state should honor a commitment to support the University adequately. Excellence does not come cheap.
Who will defend the University, who will work to realize the idea of a highly regarded university? The faculty will be able to do it for the benefit of the students and many others in Minnesota and throughout the civilized world. However, the faculty has to do it with a united voice if it wants to be heard, and for this the American Association of University Professors /University Faculty Alliance are ready to provide the necessary leadership. I hope every faculty member in the core University will come to the conclusion that we as faculty members have to take action through an organized effort to defend the University. This means collective bargaining on campus, support of faculty governance, representation and lobbying in the Legislature, promotion of academic excellence, and emphasis on education and research. Technically, we need an orderly dialogue called collective bargaining, between the regents — the employer — and the faculty. This will lead to a legally binding agreement on notions like tenure, academic freedom and other terms and conditions of employment for the faculty. Let us build an excellent AAUP-UFA chapter that will be the faculty of the University. Let us all hope for the best.
Alfred Aeppli is a professor of mathematics.