Existence of faculty union will force administration's hand

Existence of faculty union will force administration's hand

By Robert W. McChesney

I have been a professor for 26 years, first in Madison and, since 1999, here in Urbana-Champaign. The public research university system has been very good to me, and very good for the people of this state and nation. I love this university and I bleed blue and orange; that is why I support the formation of a faculty union.

I understand some of my colleagues believe that there is no place for faculty unions at universities. I too thought that for much of my career. These universities had large roles for faculty in governance.

Most of the administration came from the ranks of faculty, and many in administration made a career at the same university. There was real institutional loyalty, and the loyalty was for the public service function of the university.

There still are people like that today and we have a number of them in administration at UIUC.

I respect them, and I believe they have sacrificed their research and teaching to advance the university. But they're a dying breed in the rapidly changing university environment.

In this new world, administration positions and salaries have grown sharply while faculty positions, salaries and influence have stagnated.

Today's top administrators hopscotch from job to job and have questionable loyalty to a place that may soon be in their rearview mirror. With declining public financial support, administrators are looking to locate and satisfy donors and partners with deep pockets. Meanwhile, faculty members play a smaller and weaker role in determining the course of the university.

A faculty union can formally reassert faculty's role in the administration of the university. It can protect our interests and see that we are not abandoned behind closed doors.

By merely existing, a union will force administrators to take faculty concerns seriously.

In the next decade a series of crucial decisions are going to be made that will determine the ratio of tenured-faculty to adjuncts, the role of technology, and class form and size. The type of career many of us have enjoyed at Illinois may become unthinkable for younger scholars.

In all of these cases the faculty is the one constituency has the greatest concern for protecting and expanding the quality and public service nature of the university experience. But in these tumultuous times, our voice is weak.

There is an old saying in politics: If you're not at the table when decisions are being made, you're what's being served.

On individual matters, a union can see that faculty can get due process.

Everyone I know can cite cases where faculty members have been mistreated and either had to consider hiring expensive counsel, swallow the injustice, or leave the university. The existence of a union with a small staff would have resolved all these problems quickly and efficiently, before they escalated beyond a point of no return.

If we are going to have effective faculty governance and effective participation in university affairs, there is no better option that I can see than a union.

Robert W. McChesney is the Gutgsell Endowed Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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thinks wrote on February 25, 2014 at 10:02 pm

In her response to Dr. Robert McChesney's opinion column, Dr. Joyce Tolliver says he "promises that a union will strengthen the faculty voice, without offering any evidence for this broad claim." That may be so; however, in a 2013 IPRH blog surveying 40 years of research on faculty unions (covering this issue and others, including the pros and cons typically argued on the question of faculty unionization), Dr. Tim Cain (College of Ed / EPOL) writes:

"Wickens (2008) cited research largely from the 1970s and 1980s to note both that 'there has been some support for the contention that unionization improves faculty power in university governance' (p. 549) and that “there is some empirical support for the argument that unions actually reduce faculty influence over university governance” (p. 550). Based on differing views of shifts in power, she concluded that the overall research lacked consensus on the roles of unions in governance...DeCew (2003) was more positive, if still hesitant.  She noted, 'The effects of faculty unions on faculty governance and academic freedom are varied and complex, but generally positive' (p. 64).

Porter (forthcoming) concurred that unionization has not only not decreased faculty input into governance—a contention of some critics—but that it has increased faculty input in governance...Porter notes that in addition to affecting salary scales, unionized faculty 'also have more influence in many other areas, such as appointments of faculty and department chairs, tenure and promotion, teaching loads and the curriculum, and governance....With the exception of setting degree requirements, areas where unionization has little impact tend to be administrative...However...even here unionization has small, positive effects... Unionized faculty are more likely than non-unionized faculty to have some influence over the size of the faculty, appointment of deans, budgetary planning, and institution-wide committees' (p. 13)." For the complete blog, see here.

Presumably, at each of the institutions of higher education studied, faculty also had a senate to provide a unified voice to the administration, as Dr. Tolliver has said is sufficient at UI. Yet, gains in faculty influence seem to have been registered.

My question is not whether gains in faculty influence are desirable, because I believe that they are, but exactly how tenured faculty would use this influence. Would they do something to help the plight of contingent faculty on this campus? Would they move to end what are clearly exploitative labor practices that are and have long been to their advange? Would they innovate the funding models for graduate education and undergraduate instruction?