Faculty unions & excellence: the evidence

Faculty unions & excellence: the evidence

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Dear Colleagues,

In recent weeks, many of you have received information from colleagues suggesting that a faculty union will undermine the quality of the faculty at the University of Minnesota and have therefore urged you to join them in opposing our efforts to form a faculty union. These communications assert that there are no US institutions with faculty unions in the top 50 universities on the 2015 Academic Ranking of Worldwide Universities (ARWU) and infer that the US institutions in the top 50 are excellent because they do not have unions. The data used to make this argument and the conclusion drawn from them are flawed. Many excellent research universities have faculty unions; the low rate of unionization at top US research institutions is a product of an unwelcoming political climate and high legal barriers to organizing; and unions at universities in the US have contributed positively to institutional excellence.

The ARWU includes 17 institutions outside the United States in its top 50 list, and nearly all of them have unions or other faculty organizations that represent the local equivalent of tenure-track faculty. Of these, 14 are empowered to bargain collectively through their organizational affiliations. In the UK, for example, all universities have a branch of the University and College Union. French universities are integrated into the pay structure of the French public sector, and collective bargaining is carried out by a consortium of trade unions. Faculty at German and Swedish universities are represented by unions and covered by public sector collective bargaining agreements. Top Australian universities such as the University of Sydney and the University of Melbourne also have faculty unions. Closer to home, our colleagues at the University of British Columbia are represented by a faculty union, and the University of Toronto has a faculty association that engages in collective bargaining with the administration.

US higher education is therefore anomalous in the relative absence of faculty unions at its top institutions, and the reasons for this have little to do with excellence and more to do with inadequate legal protections and a political landscape unfavorable to unions. One reason unionization rates are so low—and not only in higher education—is that American employers often erect high obstacles to unionization and state and federal authorities do not properly or effectively enforce workers’ rights. The hurdles to forming unions are especially high in higher education. Tenure-track faculty at private universities in the US have often been found to lack protection under the National Labor Relations Act as “managerial employees,” which means that employers can legally fire those who participate in a union drive and are under no obligation to bargain collectively if faculty establish a union. Of the 33 US universities in the top 50 of the Academic Ranking of Worldwide Universities, 17 are private institutions. Of the 16 public institutions, 5 (Colorado, Maryland, North Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin) are governed by state laws that prohibit collective bargaining in the public sector or do not require an employer to bargain if a union is formed.

In addition, it is worth noting that tenure-track faculty at the University of California (UC), of which six campuses are in the ARWU top 50 (Berkeley, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and Irvine), are represented by the University of California Faculty Association (UCFA). The faculty associations from the multitude of UC campuses have a system-wide organization, the Council of UCFA. UC faculty formed this dues-supported association in 1979, and it performs some functions of a faculty union. Although only the UC Santa Cruz Faculty Association is a legal bargaining agent, by virtue of its membership in the Council, faculty throughout the UC system gain stronger representation on issues such as faculty salaries, medical, fringe, retirement benefits, and other conditions of work like teaching load and outside employment policies.

At research universities in the US that have a faculty union, moreover, we find evidence that faculty unions contribute to, rather than detract from, institutional excellence. After faculty gained collective bargaining rights at Rutgers University in 1970, it was transformed from a teaching-intensive institution to a research institution that is now part of the American Association of Universities, which comprises the 62 leading public and private research universities in the US. Rutgers’ faculty union played a central role in this ascent by increasing salaries over the decades, making it possible to attract more accomplished faculty. In its 2007–2011 contract, the faculty union negotiated a “faculty development fund” for the hire of 205 new tenure-track professors.

Faculty unions also contribute to institutional quality by putting more pressure on administrators to invest in the university’s core mission. A recent study found that unionization may result in a more efficient and effective university with higher graduation and completion rates and lower growth in costs and expenses. The author hypothesizes that these outcomes occur because unionization leads universities to direct more resources to instruction over administration. The experience of the University of Oregon provides additional evidence of this dynamic. Since the faculty formed a union in 2012, the University of Oregon has reduced spending on extravagant branding campaignsprovided more job stability, higher pay and more career advancement opportunities to its non-tenure track faculty; and committed to expanding the number of tenure track faculty positions.

The evidence outlined above refutes the argument that a faculty union will compromise the excellence of the University of Minnesota. We urge you to take this evidence into account when making your decision about supporting our faculty union.

If you have any questions, would like to speak with a colleague about the union, and/or wish to get more involved in our collective effort, reply to this email and we will be in touch. We also encourage supporters to sign our public letter.



MN Academics Steering Committee

Mark Borrello

Irene Duranczyk

Sumanth Gopinath

Mindy Kurzer

Mary Pogatshnik

Erin Trapp


MN Academics Communications Committee

Tim Brennan

Teri Caraway

Jerry Cohen

Jason McGrath

Mary Pogatshnik

Naomi Scheman