Union wouldn’t hit tenure

Experts say state law ensures that a potential faculty union would not affect tenure policy.

by Brian Edwards

As the University of Minnesota’s union push continues, faculty members have voiced concerns over its potential effects on tenure and pay. 
But some experts say faculty members have little to fear about tenure because Minnesota law prohibits any policy changes to the tenure process. And according to a new study, professors’ pay might rise if the faculty voted to unionize.
“[The] Minnesota Supreme Court … decided whether tenure could be affected by a union,” said Stephen Befort, a University law professor, adding the ruling barred policy changes to the tenure process. 
Tenure, which protects professors who want to pursue potentially controversial work, is an important safety net, said Rebecca Ropers-Huilman, professor and vice provost for faculty and academic affairs.
If the faculty voted to unionize, Befort said, most aspects of tenure would remain intact. One facet that the union could challenge is individual aspects of a professor’s tenure process, he said.
When tenure decisions at the University of Minnesota-Duluth are denied and the union believes the administration didn’t follow proper procedure, the union can challenge the decision, said Dr. Michael Pfau, an associate professor of communications at UMD and a former president of the University Education Association-Duluth.
During the review process, administrators could use information outside of a professor’s file — such as statements from colleagues — to dock a professor, he said. Unions can challenge any undocumented procedural issue.
While Pfau said these types of challenges occurred at UMD, they’re relatively uncommon.
“Typically, any smart union will only take ones they think they can win,” he said.
The push to require a paper trail helps improve transparency between the administration and professors, Pfau said. 
Transparency tends to increase at unionized universities, according to a document complied by Aaron Sojourner, a professor in the department of work and organizations in the Carlson School of Management.
The Minnesota Supreme Court also ruled that challenges to tenure decisions can’t occur through the contract’s grievance process, Sojourner said in the document.
There are different policies in each academic unit to decide how much of a tenure-track professor’s time should go to instruction, research and outreach, Ropers-Huilman said.
The variability between departments allows for each unit to craft the tenure process to best fit their discipline, she said.
“Each department thinks about productivity in different ways,” she said.
Professors are expected to go through multiple reviews in the tenure process for approval, Ropers-Huilman said, and require input from multiple levels of the University of Minnesota.
This type of policy would be unaffected if the faculty decides to unionize, Befort said. 
“That criteria is not subject to bargaining,” he said.
New study shows pay increases with unionizationAlong with tenure, unionization’s effect on pay is a central concern of many professors. 
A recent study by Stephen Katsinas, professor of higher education and political science at the University of Alabama, looked at the compensation of about 130,000 faculty members at nearly 400 colleges around the country. 
According to the study, about 63 percent of the employees worked at universities with collective bargaining.
The study split faculty groups into three different sizes: rural, suburban and urban.
At universities with collective bargaining, all three groups received higher average pay, about $10,000, $30,000 and $20,000, respectively.
Katsinas, also the director of the University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center, said fringe benefits — which also saw an increase according to his study — are just as important to consider as base wages.
He said employees’ real or perceived purchasing power has eroded over the years, causing many schools to unionize.
UMD was included in the study, and Dr. Michael Pfau said unionized employees have seen pay rises, but perceptions vary.
“No one ever feels they are paid enough,” he said. “People always think they are underpaid.”
However, the requirement that the school negotiates any pay cut or pay freeze during financial hardship ensures faculty only have pay reduced or frozen when necessary, Pfau said.
Still, finding accurate data on pay and benefits at multiple universities across the country is extremely difficult, according to Katsinas’ study. This is partially because in 2011-12, the federal government stopped collecting university wage and fringe benefit data.
Unionization helps gather decentralized information about the current landscape for employees at a university, said William Herbert, executive director for the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College, City University of New York. 
Unified information from the data benefits both unions and universities because it allows for both parties to look at disparities between groups on campus and eliminate them, Herbert said.
“The first part of the collective bargaining process would include the institution gathering data and information for a snapshot of where things are,” he said.