Unionization plan stirs UI senate debate
A faculty union would restore balance to shared governance and advance the University of Illinois' interests — or spell the end of the UI as a top-tier institution, opposing sides argued Monday.
The campus senate hosted an open debate on the contentious issue of collective bargaining in response to the Campus Faculty Association's stepped-up efforts to assess support for a faculty union. Members of the pro-union group have been meeting privately with professors one-on-one for months and hope to reach almost 1,800 faculty who work half-time or more.
Making a case for the union, mathematics Professor Randy McCarthy said he has grown to see the potential benefits of collective bargaining since joining the faculty 18 years ago.
McCarthy said he initially had a "very positive" experience with shared governance — which gives faculty a role in the operation of the university. He served on the executive committee for his department, as well as director of undergraduate studies and later graduate studies.
But in the last few years, McCarthy said, shared governance has been hurt by added layers of bureaucracy, growing centralization and a new "business model" for the university.
"The search for (former UI President Michael) Hogan was a horrible example of top-down business practices and the end result a predictable disaster," he said, referring to Hogan's resignation under fire last year.
Colleges now have less control over discretionary money, and departmental administrators have been transformed "from dreamers and doers to pessimists and damage-control experts," he said.
McCarthy said when he came to the UI it was rated one of the best bargains in the country, his classes had 30 students and his research was stimulated by his 73 colleagues and a startup grant from the campus.
"Today we are the most expensive public school, my calculus classes have over 200 students, and the now 60 faculty are often too busy to interact with one another" because of larger teaching loads and budget cuts, he said.
Meanwhile, he said, students sweat or shiver in classrooms that are too hot or too cold. His research money is "taxed" by the campus and "spent like administrative slush funds."
A democratic union would give faculty a strong, independent voice to protect the principles of the university and restore balance to shared governance, he said.
"We need to raise our collective voices to administration so that we will not only be politely listened to for advice but once again respectively invited as a partner in the debate of our campus' future," McCarthy said.
Arguing against the union, education Professor Nicholas Burbules predicted it would prompt many of the UI's best faculty to leave and impede efforts to recruit top professors.
"Faculty unionization would mean the end of the University of Illinois as a top-tier institution," Burbules said.
None of the UI's peer universities, public or private, is unionized, he said. The only schools with unions in the Association of American Universities — Florida, Oregon, Rutgers and some SUNY branches — are not the UI's peers, he said.
Burbules said the UI-Chicago's east and west campuses have split over its recent faculty unionization, and he predicted a union at Urbana would lead to "toxic relations" among pro-union and anti-union faculty.
He questioned the benefits of unionization on salaries, saying the primary threat to UI pay and benefits is outside a union's control — that is, budget constraints imposed by the state.
Those most affected by union demands would be students and parents who pay tuition, Burbules said.
"I just ask you to imagine what newspapers around this state would write about increased faculty salary demands and the threats of a strike from a high-tuition school like Illinois. It would be a public-relations disaster," he said.
Other questions raised by Burbules: Would faculty be bound to support strikes by other unions or not cross picket lines? How would a potential faculty strike affect public support for the UI? Should professional rights such as tenure and sabbaticals be simply matters of collective bargaining?
Other schools that have unionized are already having "buyer's remorse," he said, but "union rules make it extremely difficult to undo this decision."
Collective bargaining might be an answer on campuses where shared governance doesn't represent faculty interests well, but that's not the case at the UI, said Burbules, who chairs the University Senates Conference.
The campus senate has been "very effective" in demanding accountability and pushing back against unpopular initiatives, citing Global Campus, the Academy on Capitalism and Limited Government, Category I admissions scandal and, most recently, "the Hogan/Troyer mess."
Faculty are involved in substantive discussions on budgets and salaries through the senate and departmental and campus committees, he added.
"Shared governance is not broken. Unionization would break it," he said.
Burbules and others argued that collective bargaining's worker-management model is "antithetical" to the idea of collaborative partnership between faculty and administrators.
Most administrators are faculty members themselves, often continuing their teaching or research.
In comments after the presentations, Professor John Prussing said "administration" starts with department chairs who often later move back to faculty. He also wondered how unions would deal with faculty members who function as independent entrepreneurs, raising money to conduct research and hire graduate students.
McCarthy said unionization can improve transparency because administrators and faculty have to listen to one another. Under unionization, faculty senates often obtain contractual, not just advisory, powers, he added.
McCarthy said shared governance isn't the proper tool for negotiating benefits.
"It is unfair to ask administrators who need to beg for basic operating funds to also fight like tigers for our benefits, and it is cowardly to ask other public employees to fight for us," he said.
Emeritus Professor Al Kagan said a union could have a bigger effect on pensions and health-care benefits, two hot-button issues on campus. The senate's benefits committee can't lobby the state, whereas a union would be part of the influential state labor coalition, he said.
Chancellor Phyllis Wise characterized the debate as thoughtful and professional, pledging to "let this process play out."
Asked her opinion, Wise noted that none of the UI's peers is unionized.
"I don't see the advantage to it," she said. "Shared governance is working very well. There's mutual respect and cooperation between the faculty and the administration."