UI board chair sees threat in faculty unionizing

CHICAGO — The chairman of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees on Thursday said faculty unionization could threaten the greatness of the university.

Meanwhile, pro-faculty union organizers said they are not out to destroy the university but to help improve benefits, wages and working conditions for tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty.

UI board Chairman Christopher Kennedy's comments came after an outgoing faculty governance leader outlined his concerns to the board about faculty unionization and said unions have no place in shared governance, the system on college campuses in which faculty advise administrators.

"What I think the board believes is co-governance is a competitive advantage. We can recruit great faculty if they think they can help lead the university. A poorly managed unionization effort threatens co-governance," and as a result, threatens the "greatness of the university," Kennedy told The News-Gazette after the board meeting in Chicago.

The UI's existing shared governance system includes three academic senates, quasi-legislative bodies comprised of faculty and a few academic professionals. They deal in academic policy issues. The University Senates Conference includes members from each of the three senates.

Earlier this year, the Urbana Academic Senate held a meeting in which faculty could voice their opinions for or against collective bargaining. A formal card campaign has not been launched yet, but the Campus Faculty Association has been assessing the need for a faculty union on the Urbana-Champaign campus, meeting with tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty. Faculty at UI Chicago have formed a union and are in the process of negotiating a contract with the university.

"I'm very concerned about the adversarial relationship that many of my (pro-faculty unionization) colleagues seem to have or seem to want to have with the administration," said UI education Professor Nicholas Burbules, the outgoing chair of the University Senates Conference.

He said some pro-union faculty organizers have taken accusatory or hostile stances that are counterproductive to shared governance. Burbules also said he is concerned about faculty unions wanting to be involved in academic policy issues which he said are the purview of the senates.

"Faculty have the right to organize and state law gives duly established unions the power to negotiate over salary and working conditions," he said. However, a faculty union is not a governing body, and unions have no place in the system of shared governance, he said.

UI President Bob Easter, who has been on campus for over three decades as a professor and administrator, said he has seen the shared-governance system work effectively over time.

"Overall the coming together of those in administration with faculty to develop a concept of how we make decisions creates a real sense of pride and ownership. I can only say that in the last year I thoroughly enjoyed working with the senates conference," he said.

"In order for an institution to be truly great there has to be a sense of unity. And Nick spoke to that as being threatened, if you will, by an environment that may be more adversarial," Easter said.

Susan Davis, spokeswoman with the Campus Faculty Association, said she and her colleagues remain optimistic about what collective bargaining can do for the faculty and the university.

"Professor Burbules sees a lot of threats. We see a lot of opportunity. There are faculty unions are all over the country in lots of different places. They've co-existed with senates and other forms of shared governance for decades," she said.

"We're not interested in destroying the university. We're interested in protecting pensions, improving benefits and wages and workplace safety," Davis added.

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