Unionization won’t threaten research funds, quality

by By Roberta

There is a widespread false impression among University faculty members that collective bargaining is inconsistent with quality. In addition, rumors have been circulated that collective bargaining will limit or even prevent research funding (see Oct. 18 Daily story, “Governance with teeth”).
It is easy to dispense with rumors that collective bargaining will drive away research grants. The alleged basis for this is that federal agencies will not give grants to a university where strikes are a possibility. This is absurd. Imagine the outcry in Congress if any federal agency denied or restricted funding to a principle investigator, institution or government contractor because of collective bargaining. Two high-quality universities would lead the charge: State University of New York-Stony Brook and Rutgers. Both have collective bargaining.
What about the other issue — that collective bargaining is inconsistent with quality? The standard quality measure for research universities is the National Research Council’s rankings of graduate programs, which came out last year.
We have checked the council’s rankings against a list of universities that have both graduate programs and collective bargaining. There are only nine universities in this class that appear in the ranked list. By comparison, a total of 127 universities have graduate programs in English, 111 have graduate programs in history, 62 in materials science, 146 in physics and 187 in biochemistry and molecular biology. Thus, universities with collective bargaining are relatively few in number. Therefore, we would be surprised to find programs outranking ours at these universities.
However, the results of our survey are surprising. We find that among the 47 ranked programs cited by our vice president for research in 1995, 19 are outranked by universities that have collective bargaining (most of which are represented by the American Association of University Professors). A synopsis of the comparison is in Table I accompanying this story. (Neither this nor the following comparison includes all 47 ranked Minnesota programs.)
Thus, there is certainly no evidence that collective bargaining is correlated with low quality, at least when compared to Minnesota. Critics may assert, however, that we only compared Minnesota’s weaker programs with those at unionized universities.
We see no merit to this view. If we look at the programs in the top 20 nationally at universities with collective bargaining, we find 13 programs in this high-quality group in Table I. There are clearly strong programs at universities that have collective bargaining.
We also looked at programs where Minnesota has a high rank — where we are at our best — and compared them with the same programs at collective bargaining universities. Our results for highly ranked Minnesota programs are in Table II. To ensure that there was broad competition, we only included those programs where there were at least 80 universities competing. We also cut off our list at a rank of 40 –universities with programs ranking below this do not appear on our list.
The only field where we find collective bargaining universities to be far below Minnesota is economics. Other places are noticeably less competitive than Minnesota in some engineering fields, as well. Since these are among our best programs, it is perhaps not surprising to find lower rankings in our small sample. In addition, we find from the Web listings for Rutgers and SUNY-Stony Brook that the departments comparable to ours at Rutgers are much less than half our size. At SUNY-Stony Brook we find no listing at all for mechanical and aerospace engineering and civil engineering. These two institutions are of high quality in basic sciences and mathematics. We are inclined to doubt that the quality difference with the corresponding engineering fields at Minnesota means anything, at least so far as SUNY-Stony Brook and Rutgers are concerned.
On balance, we do not see any argument that collective bargaining impairs quality. Minnesota has declined in national ranking from 12 in the 1960s to 16th in the 1980s to 23rd today. This decline occurred with no contribution from collective bargaining. What can be argued, however, is that bad management and reductions in state funding contributed to that decline. We think collective bargaining gives us at least a chance to arrest our decline by exerting a strong faculty voice for quality.
Roberta Humphreys, astronomy professor;Tom Walsh, physics professor