Faculty union vote: three strikes and out?

by Jennifer Niemela

Tuesday and Wednesday’s faculty union elections mark the decisive battle in a yearlong war between professors and the Board of Regents over the future of tenure at the University.
The tenure code the regents proposed last spring was unsatisfactory to faculty groups, prompting them to push for a faculty union. University faculty have voted in union elections twice before, in 1978 and 1981. Both attempts failed.
When faculty members began their union drive, it was seen by many as a bargaining tool, or even a stalling tactic, to force the regents to reconsider changes to the tenure code. Members of the faculty were concerned about sections in the proposal that allowed for layoffs in event of program termination or fiscal stringency.
The call for reforms
A letter from University President Nils Hasselmo to the board last spring said certain areas of the tenure code needed reform, including the “rigidity and lack of flexibility” the tenure code creates. Hasselmo also called for the reduction in number of tenured faculty by creating non-tenured appointments.
The regents responded by beginning to review the tenure code which hadn’t been reviewed since 1985. The code had remained virtually unchanged from its inception in 1915 until 1985. They cited concern that Minnesota had more tenured positions than other schools of comparable size.
The proposal called for more stringent post-tenure review, possible layoffs in the event of program termination, and layoffs if faculty “fail to maintain a proper attitude of industry with others.”
Tenure is granted to faculty members after they have taught at an institution for about six years as an associate professor and published an acceptable number of articles or books in their field of study.
Over the past five years, the number of new tenured faculty at the University has declined. In the 1990-91 academic year, more than 100 faculty members were awarded tenure while fewer than 70 received tenure in 1994-95.
Once faculty members have tenure, they can remain at the University until retirement — barring extraordinary violations of University rules. For example, tenured professor Tzvee Zahavy was fired in 1995 for moonlighting at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.
Faculty remainloyal to tenure
Faculty members regard tenure as their protection against administrators who might not agree with what professors say or what they are researching.
“Ideas are what we deal with,” said Sara Evans, a history professor. “When we think new things, we need to assume it’s not a problem if someone doesn’t agree with us.”
While tenure might create an atmosphere of free thinking for faculty, some people say it also allows for “deadwood” to be carried along. Some faculty members might be burned out and just hanging around, or their tenure might have been too hastily granted, tenure reform advocates say.
On the other hand, opponents of tenure say professors must be accountable to students and to the state for their performance as teachers and researchers.
Minnesota legislators have been some of the biggest critics of tenure policies at the University. The Academic Health Center felt some of the first effects of legislative dissatisfaction last March when state lawmakers said they would allot $8.6 million to the University provided that the tenure policy in the AHC changed. Legislative leaders said they added requirements for downsizing and salary adjustments to assure the money wouldn’t be used to give raises to tenured faculty.
Officials from the American Association of University Professors, a national faculty group campaigning for unionization in this week’s election, say this kind of interference in tenure policy is exactly what they’re fighting.
“This corporate mentality of downsizing is destroying the nature of the research institution,” said AAUP General Secretary Mary Burgan. “Lots of people criticize tenure because it’s virtually disappeared (from other professions). We’re not trying to set ourselves apart, but the nature of our profession necessitates tenure protection.”
The union gambit
When the regents proposed changes to the tenure code for the rest of the University, faculty groups began to organize because they felt they weren’t being included in the process.
Last March, a letter to The Minnesota Daily from members of the Faculty Consultative Committee, which had been reviewing the proposed code, said, “The process and proposals for revision of the tenure code … are being driven by the administration without adequate input from the faculty.”
In May, faculty groups and the board set up a series of informal meetings to discuss proposals to the tenure code. Relations became tense when former Regent Jean Keffeler disclosed portions of a meeting in a letter to the board. Her action made the content of the meeting a matter of public record.
“All of sudden, something we thought was unofficial became official,” said Faculty Consultative Committee member Dan Feeney. “Everybody is very, very sensitive to the process.”
Despite the tensions, tenure negotiations continued into the summer. The regents first reviewed faculty proposals in June. The proposals included minor changes in the language of the code and an extension of the process for achieving tenure from six to nine years.
Mutual escalation
The first formal talks on a faculty union drive began later that month when the newly formed University Faculty Alliance urged faculty members to sign union cards. Thirty percent of faculty members needed to sign the cards, which would allow them to hold a union election at a later date. The UFA eventually succeeded in obtaining the required number of signatures at Crookston, Morris and the Twin Cities campuses except the Law School. In July, the board voted to postpone tenure negotiations until the beginning of the 1996-97 school year.
In its September meeting at Morris, the board unveiled its most radical proposal for tenure reforms, including layoff authority for departmental closings or for personal below-average performance.
In September, upon receipt of the appropriate number of union cards, the Bureau of Mediation Services, a state-run labor relations agency, placed a cease-and-desist order on tenure negotiations. The order, also called a status quo order, is commonly placed on negotiations when a group is driving for unionization. The order prevents the University from making or discussing changes to the terms of employment — such as reforming the tenure code.
Also in September, the AAUP joined the UFA in the union campaign. Because the association hadn’t been on the union cards the faculty members signed in July, they won’t be on the actual union ballot. The AAUP has petitioned the BMS to be on the union ballot twice since September, but the BMS has ruled both times that the UFA will be the only organization on the ballot.
A motion filed by the University on Jan. 31 sought a cease and desist order against the UFA and AAUP to prevent them from campaigning together for unionization. The state stopped short of issuing such an order but did reaffirm that the AAUP will not be considered a part of the faculty union if the union vote succeeds.
While the status quo order allowed faculty members to organize their union efforts, regents defended their attempts to change the tenure code. In an editorial to the Star Tribune in October, Regents’ Chairman Tom Reagan claimed the board wasn’t the enemy of tenure but rather the agent of change necessitated by restricted state funding.
“Tenure is necessary because it assures faculty will have sufficient time to do their research and teach their students,” he wrote. “Unfortunately this idyllic scene faces harsh and unforgiving realities today. Increasingly, demands are growing while resources required by the University are becoming scarcer. Though we may wish it otherwise, there is growing competition for teachers, students, and money.”
Also in October, the AAUP announced it would seek to merge with the UFA if the faculty members vote for a union. According to the association’s plan, the alliance would be dissolved and all collective bargaining would be done by the AAUP if the union is approved.
The effort stumbles
November saw the union drive falter when the Law School failed to requisition the necessary one-third of the faculty’s signatures to join the union drive.
When the Law School didn’t get the required number of union cards, the regents immediately proposed a tenure code for the school in an emergency meeting called for that purpose on Nov. 7, a move criticized by faculty groups. The FCC didn’t approve the proposal, called Sullivan II, authored by Law School Dean Tom Sullivan.
Professors at the Morris and Crookston campuses then voted to reject unionization; one day later, on Nov. 21, the AHC voted not to join a union.
Regent Keffeler tendered her resignation from the board Nov. 1, creating what some saw as an opening for further compromise on the tenure issue. Keffeler’s initial hard-line stance had softened in the previous months. By the time of the emergency meeting to enact Sullivan II for the Law School, Keffeler was calling for a halt to reform efforts and further dialogue with faculty about the issue.
During fall quarter, the union election date was stalled due to a disagreement between the University and faculty members over who should be included in the vote. Faculty groups wanted department heads, chairs, and directors included, while University lawyers thought these groups should be excluded from the vote. In January, a compromise was reached that allows the disputed professors to vote.
The date was finally set for January 21 and the AAUP/UFA has been scrambling since then to convince faculty members to choose a union.
Despite the outcome of the union election which will occur on campus this week, how the tenure debate will play out is already determined for the most part. Union organizers managed to keep the issue alive up to this point, but they will need another issue to propel their drive beyond the election.