A Letter from Professor Jerry Cohen

A Letter from Professor Jerry Cohen

Faculty Organizing Committee Requests Clarification of Status Quo Order
January 27, 2016
MN DAILY: Contingent and tenure-line instructors have a common stake in our University
March 11, 2016

Dear Colleagues:

In classical Greek society, education required a scholar, a student, smooth clean sand and a pointed stick. The royal essence of education has not changed, but the infrastructure has improved. Oddly, the administrators responsible for those ‘add-ons’ sometimes forget that their role is that of custodian for the process where the scholar interacts with the student. I think about these university basics often these days when I am asked about my opinion on the formation of a faculty union at the University of Minnesota. From the perspective of a scholar who loves education, I thought I would put together a few thoughts on this subject to provide my point of view.

I need to say that I am not one of those faculty that hates the administration of this University. In fact, I think President Eric Kaler and Provost Karen Hanson have done a good job and have achieved positive accomplishments. I am one who has experienced the worst and enjoys seeing better. The question of how faculty are organized, however, is a faculty decision and is not a repudiation of administration nor administrators – although it can change the relationship. Both of our top people have already demonstrated adaptability and I am confident that they will make an honest effort to negotiate with an organized faculty in good faith. Thus, forming a faculty union is not going to result in catastrophic upheavals or failures at the core of this University. We are strong and such changes can be accommodated – predictions of disaster are not only highly speculative but also underestimate our leadership.

Academics often deny the obvious link between politics and scholarship, but denying this link does not make it go away. Support for higher education, much like science funding, is closely connected to political events and processes. Such political decisions maintain the foundations of education from salary payments to brick and mortar. Politics works on pressure, influence, and priority setting. It occurs on the campus, in the state legislature and at the federal level. We have a strong and robust faculty governance structure at the University of Minnesota, and I have been an active participant for a number of years, but we must remember that it is only an advisory structure. When University leaders are making decisions, they have demands from the Regents, from the Legislature, from the Governor, from within their own ranks, and possibly from federal officials and members of Congress that they must prioritize against the simple advice they get from faculty. In their position, what voice would you find to be ‘louder’? It is no wonder why they often seem to be working against the interests of faculty and students, in some perception of a larger ‘good’. In other instances, the hopes and needs of faculty are simply not important enough to demand attention – they don’t rise to a position of high enough priority when faced with the abundant demands of other interests.

Although our current faculty governance structure has yielded successes, it is vital to ask where our ability to give faculty advice has failed us in the past. Many examples are available, but three are of particular importance to me:

1) The 2009 “Restructuring the Oversight and Support of Graduate Education to Enhance Excellence” (http://www.academic.umn.edu/provost/reports /grad_faq020909.html), rammed down our necks by Provost Sullivan, took away a well formed faculty governance committee structure of the (then well recognized and internationally accorded) graduate school and replaced it with funding managed by deans, who often had little expertise in modern graduate school reform initiatives. This unprecedented abuse of the academy resulted in putting many graduate programs, especially those cross-college programs, at risk and has had a huge negative impact on the ability of the U to advance true interdisciplinary development. It is to me inconceivable that this would happen on a campus with true shared governance.

2) Every faculty member writing a grant to the National Science Foundation requesting funding for a postdoctoral researcher MUST provide a mentoring plan approved by the University of Minnesota. NSF grants are awarded to the University of Minnesota, not to the PI of the grant, but at the University of Minnesota the grant recipient (the U) takes NO direct responsibility for the mentoring required to fulfill this important role. The graduate school advertises the fact that our program “…was celebrated in 2009 when The Scientist named the University of Minnesota one of the best workplaces for postdocs, in part because of the strength of mentoring by faculty and opportunities for professional development.” (https://www.grad.umn.edu/ faculty-staff/postdocs). In those years Dr. Esam E. El-Fakahany led the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs and ran a regular seminar series on career skills and advice. Along with Victor A. Bloomfield in 2008 he published the award winning “The Chicago Guide to Your Career in Science: A Toolkit for Students and Postdocs” which Michigan State’s Dean called “… a mentor in print.” Since then we have bottomed out from almost total neglect! The U still signs off on every grant, approves every ‘Postdoctoral Mentoring Plan’ and then does nothing to make mentoring within the institutional environment a reality. Instead, the administration falls back on a cottage industry decentralized to individual laboratories, increasing the burden on faculty, providing little or no oversight, thereby marginalizing a workforce that is at the frontline of research excellence. This would not occur on a campus with working conditions negotiated at defined intervals and can only persist in an environment where such important issues can simply be ignored for years because they are faculty issues with no outside constituency.

3) With the funding rate of grants at an all-time low, often just 5-8% in some programs, the need for active lobbying in support of university-based research has reached desperate proportions (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uIHiacX4QLI). However, the University of Minnesota has only a small staff in Washington, DC that is not actively engaged in seeking significant changes to budgets for the lead funding agencies. Universities and tax-exempt scientific societies are limited in their Congressional lobbying activities even when adequately staffed. However, faculty unions can act as full-fledged lobbyists for increased research funding; without a doubt unions have a long-established record of effectively lobbying for constituent interests. When we unionize we will become one of the largest faculty unions in the nation. Our ability to serve as a strong, new voice for the national research agenda could be a game-changer in this important area. On the other hand, an un-organized faculty will continue to merely be an observer in the contact sport that is the Congressional funding mandate.

A unionized campus changes the relationship between the faculty and the administration in many positive ways. It can, because of a better balance of strength, increase the ability of the two essential arms of the university to work together and to better understand each other. An imbalance often results in disappointment, disillusionment, and distrust – we currently see these dynamics operating almost daily. One particular example of this imbalance is currently illustrated by the university HR office’s recent response to our organizing effort. I am troubled by HR, an entity that should be responsible for representing employee interests, taking a decidedly anti-union stand (making obviously biased and patronizing statements like: “Many of you may be wondering what you can do if you oppose a union…”). Could they possibly think that their expertise in bringing PeopleSoft to campus, renaming job titles (requiring the writing of new job descriptions for our employees), expecting faculty to fill out the almost unreadable “Employee Performance Evaluation Form”, and initiating negative changes in staff benefits has earned them the respect and admiration of the faculty? They just don’t seem to get it, as it should be clear that the administration (particularly a unit that has contributed in recent years to the heavy administration-imposed increase in time burden) should not take obvious ‘sides’ in this issue. Simply put, the U should allow faculty to decide these issues for ourselves.

The idea of organizing our collective voice through a union is perhaps new to many of us. It is normal to have some level of uncertainty about our unionization efforts, especially when conflicting messages are openly expressed. A faculty union is one that is organized and run by faculty in which priorities are set by the faculty themselves. Unless we ‘fear’ each other, the scare tactics of repressive weak-labor voices ring hollow and describe a dark Orwellian image about union ‘bosses’ and outside agendas. Detractors are cultivating fears about an even more rigid bureaucracy, burdensome university policies, and undesirable changes to recruitment, leave, and salary that have no basis in reality. Forming a union gives us a new and balanced interaction between faculty and administration. For critical issues, negotiation replaces the advisory roles that are all too often ignored or paid minimal heed and, for national issues, the organization provides a collective faculty lobbying effort to help effect change. Great universities, such as Rutgers, University of Oregon, campuses within the State University of New York system and the entire California State University system, have a unionized faculty and strong faculty governance – good examples that counteract the negative views that some are suggesting. If we form a union, then we are the union, but we also join a national union that provides a route for us to project our influence into the national debates on issues critical to colleges and universities.


Jerry D. Cohen
Gordon and Margaret Bailey Professor Distinguished Graduate Teaching Professor