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“The Watchers” is a film adaptation of the 2022 book of the same name by A.M. Shine.
Review: “The Watchers”
Published June 13, 2024

Do all the people who teach at the University of Minnesota belong in the same bargaining unit?

This question — which is separate from the question about whether faculty should unionize — is again before the state’s Bureau of Mediation Services (BMS).

Minnesota law hitherto assigned tenured and tenure-track faculty (TT), who are “regular faculty” in the language of University policy, to Unit 8, the “Twin Cities Instructional Unit.”

Meanwhile, lecturers and teaching specialists, who are ineligible for tenure (NTT), were assigned to Unit 11, the “Academic Professional and Administrative Staff Unit,” along with employees of many other types.

Last month, the BMS ruled that all instructional employees, TT and NTT alike, belong in one unit on the grounds that they share a community of interest. The University administration has appealed this ruling.

Now, eight members of the University’s TT faculty have submitted a letter to the BMS (under cover of the Roe Law Group’s legal representation) asserting that the regular faculty do not share a community of interest with NTT instructional employees.

They argue for this position in the following terms: Regular faculty are required to do “high-quality research” in order to earn tenure and promotion, and this work “is entrepreneurial in nature; success in research is typically compensated through retention packages in response to outside offers at other research universities.” Moreover, regular faculty have the responsibility to train graduate students to do such research.

By contrast, their argument continues: Lecturers and teaching specialists serve primarily to teach undergraduates. TT faculty also do some of the undergraduate teaching, but “there are simply not enough regular faculty to teach all the required undergraduate courses.”

Why, you may ask, doesn’t the University simply hire enough regular faculty to teach all the required courses? Because of “a budgetary consideration,” the authors write: “Hiring lecturers is a cost-efficient solution to meet the shortfall because not only is a lecturer pay significantly less than regular faculty pay, but in addition lecturers teach many more undergraduate courses than regular faculty.”

Perhaps the authors of this letter think of the regular faculty as somewhat like the citizenry of ancient Athens, a minority whose rights and privileges were supported by the labor of their slaves, women, and the metics who lived and worked in Athens, but were ineligible for citizenship. Or perhaps they think of themselves as somewhat like the Spartiates, whose elite status depended on exploiting the Helots to do the work of the polity.

According to their letter to the BMS, an army of low-paid teachers who have no chance to earn tenure is required to support the faculty who do. And to earn tenure and promotion, members of the regular faculty endeavor to do research on the basis of which they can individually obtain outside offers and threaten to leave the University, which is expected to reward such disloyal behavior handsomely. Their retention packages are, in effect, financed by the cost savings wrung from hiring cheaper employees to do the teaching.

Maybe everything the letter-writers state is true, but should it be? By their logic, many of us TT faculty do not share a “community of interest” with them: We do not necessarily think of our research as “entrepreneurial,” nor do we share the idea that our research entitles us to raises at the expense of our NTT colleagues, who are hired to teach because there aren’t enough of “us” to do it. Maybe we should petition the BMS to split Unit 8 along these lines, assigning faculty who view themselves as prizes to be bought and sold on the academic market to a separate unit ineligible for bargaining.

There is a better way, and that is to begin by recognizing both our heterogeneity and our shared interests. Some TT faculty do entrepreneurial work, some must constantly chase grants in order to fund their own salaries, some do a lot of undergraduate teaching, some advise a lot of graduate students, some do research in laboratories and others do it in studios. Some NTT faculty supervise graduate student instructors, or otherwise contribute to graduate education, and many of them do research, often funded by the same kind of grants as TT faculty get. Both TT and NTT faculty participate in University governance. Whatever our job classifications, we all share the responsibility to carry out the University’s threefold mission of education, research and public service.

Eventually Sparta could not field enough Spartiates to preserve its independence, and their polity dissolved. Athens too succumbed. The city-states of Greece were overpowered first by Macedon and later by Rome, which built its empire in part by extending the franchise, not restricting it.

Eva von Dassow; Associate Professor, Classical and Near Eastern Studies

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