U will not use taxpayer, tuition money to cover faculty unionization legal fees

The University said it will cover legal fees using other sources that have yet to be identified.

Jessie Bekker

The University of Minnesota won’t use taxpayer and tuition money to pay for legal fees incurred in connection with faculty unionization efforts, school officials said.

The Minnesota Daily reported last week that the University used more than $500,000 from a fund of tuition and state money to pay for an outside law firm as it clashed with faculty union supporters in court.

After Thursday’s story, University officials said legal fees associated with union efforts won’t come from accounts funded by federal, state or tuition money. The University will also review records from fiscal year 2016 to ensure that no taxpayer or tuition money is used to cover legal fees from the unionization push, according to an emailed statement from the University.

Additionally, money already taken from the state and tuition fund to pay the University’s fees for external counsel will be returned to the account, said University Interim Vice President and CFO Michael Volna. He said he’s unsure why the money was pulled from that account for the fees.

The five invoices from the law firm Fredrikson and Byron, totaling nearly $515,000 between March and mid-July, were discovered by the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group through a public records request. The group released its findings Wednesday.

The disclosure angered some state legislators, who said the University should not be using public and student money to fight union efforts at the school.

“It is a very poor use of money that students use for an education,” said Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, who chairs the House Higher Education Policy and Finance Committee, told the Daily last week. “Legal fees should be a separate fund.”

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) filed for a faculty election in January with the Bureau of Mediation Services.

The University has publically disclosed that it hired external counsel for its court battle with union supporters, who have tangled with the school since March over which faculty members could be included in a union vote.

Experts and the University say it is common for institutions to use outside legal counsel for union organizing procedures where there’s been a push to unionize.

In this case, the University said external lawyers were necessary to combat SEIU’s “unprecedented request to create a bargaining unit that does not conform to state law.” Supporters of a union say the law firm was hired to help thwart their efforts.

“These one-time costs are necessary for the University to fully address the complex legal and practical issues involved in this issue,” the University’s Office of the General Counsel said in an emailed statement Wednesday.

Chris Aadland contributed to this report.