STAR TRIBUNE: Education governance: College teachers are banding together, for students’ sake

STAR TRIBUNE: Education governance: College teachers are banding together, for students’ sake

STAR TRIBUNE: University of Minnesota faculty to file for union vote
January 20, 2016
U of M Tenured and Contingent Faculty File for Election Today to Form One of Largest Single-Campus Faculty Unions in the Country
January 20, 2016

Why we need a faculty union at the University of Minnesota.

by Meredith Gill and Teri Caraway

On Wednesday, tenure-line and contingent faculty members at the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus filed for a union election with strong support from every level of the faculty in every area of the institution. We believe that when given the chance, faculty members will vote to form a union with SEIU Local 284. When that happens, this will be one of the nation’s largest single-campus faculty unions, with over 2,500 instructional members.

Why are faculty members taking this step now? As both tenure-line and contingent faculty members, we need a stronger voice in U governance to shape direction and priorities, our working conditions, and the future of higher education. We also need to bring our voice to the State Capitol to advocate for greater support for the U’s teaching, research and outreach missions.

Tenured and tenure-track faculty members are not forming a union in search of a bigger paycheck; however, our working conditions have deteriorated as resources for teaching and research have dwindled and the proportion of tenured positions has declined. We and our colleagues want to keep the U’s energy and resources focused on our core mission. By forming a union, we can work with the administration as an equal partner to help it resist the pressures that divert resources from our classrooms and labs.

For the increasing percentage of faculty members who work on either one-year or single-semester contracts without the protections of tenure, forming a union with tenure-line faculty members will mean the power to fight for reasonable pay, job security, and access to basic support for research, scholarship and professional development. As the proportion of contingent and adjunct faculty members has expanded, so has the impact of our working conditions on students’ learning experience. Contingent faculty members carry an increasing teaching load and perform many advisory and service duties for which we are rarely compensated or credited. Our union will give faculty members a seat at the table as the U adapts to this changing workforce.

Tenure-line and contingent faculty members are forming a union together because we all work as instructional faculty members. In many cases, we teach the same courses and work with the same students. We have a common interest in improving teaching and learning conditions. The U faces real challenges, and we need a strong faculty voice to solve them together.

Key among those challenges is a steep decline in federal and state funding for the school’s different needs. Federal support for university-based research has been on the decline for decades, when adjusted for inflation, and it has cratered sharply in the last 10 years. Meanwhile, per-pupil state aid to the U declined by 40 percent from 2001 to 2011, while tuition increased by $6,000 from 2000 to 2010. The financial burden of attending our public state university continues to worsen, students face the fifth-highest average debt load in the country at graduation, and our graduate students see stagnated stipends and decreased fellowship opportunities.

The union we are forming will bring the voice of faculty members to our State Capitol to advocate for the needs of our students, and we will join with other faculty members across the country to advocate for renewed federal investment in research projects.

We also need to acknowledge that our students and their needs are changing. As the state’s demographics have shifted, the diversity of the U in 2016 does not reflect the diversity of Minnesota. This is also seen in, and reinforced by, the notable lack of faculty members of color on campus. We will work hard to create working conditions and a campus culture that can attract and retain faculty members of color in every rank, as well as improve the learning environment for immigrants and other students of color.

Tenure-line and contingent faculty members are forming a faculty union because we know that our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions. We are forming a faculty union for the good of our profession, our community, our students and our future. We can be better advocates and accomplish more if we do it together.

Teri Caraway is an associate professor of political science and Meredith Gill is a senior lecturer in cultural studies and comparative literature, both at the University of Minnesota.