Why this drive is a mistake
The University of Minnesota is a world-class research university with the mission of creating knowledge through research, and disseminating knowledge though teaching and service to the state, country, and the world. Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of institutions of higher education, schools whose main or sole function is teaching, and universities whose mission places strong emphasis on the creation of knowledge along with its dissemination. The Twin Cities campus of University of Minnesota, alone among Minnesota schools, stands alongside stellar public schools like Berkeley and Michigan and the best private research institutions in the world as a major research university.
The University of Minnesota faculty is engaged in world-class research. Twenty five Minnesota PhDs, or current or former faculty, have won Nobel Prizes. Thirty eight Minnesota faculty have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, sixteen to the National Academy of Medicine, and thirty eight to the National Academy of Engineering. Current or past U of M faculty have also won Pulitzer Prizes, Guggenheim Fellowships, and the National Book Award, among other scholarly honors. In 2014, the Center for Measuring University Performance ranked the University of Minnesota 16th among US research universities and 6th among US public universities. Of the US Universities in the 2015 Academic Ranking of Worldwide Universities, zero percent of those in the top 50 have unionized faculty.
The research at the University of Minnesota literally places the Twin Cities on the map as part of a global research conversation. The maps, from the Mapping Scientific Excellence project, visually display the major research centers across the United States, for a variety of academic areas. The University of Minnesota’s prominence is clear: in many fields ours is a major outpost and we are the region’s research leader north of Texas and between Madison and the West Coast. As the pace of knowledge creation and technological change accelerates, strength in research will be even more essential for regional competitiveness. This is no time to weaken the region’s only research university.
We say these things not to boast but to remind ourselves that strong research universities create economic and cultural vibrancy. The economic vitality of the Boston area relies on Harvard and MIT, and the strong economy of the Bay Area relies on Stanford and Berkeley. Economic ties between the University of Minnesota and the region are similarly strong. The region needs the University of Minnesota to continue to strengthen its local economy and cultural scene, and we will do so only by maintaining world-class leadership in research and knowledge creation.
What’s on the table
The SEIU seeks to unionize the faculty of the University of Minnesota. The current drive is a bad idea, for the four reasons described below. First, the SEIU drive, if successful, would undermine the quality of the faculty. Second, the SEIU drive groups together employees with different interests. Third, SEIU unionization would require dues from all faculty but would deliver no increases in average pay. Finally, even if one wanted a union, the SEIU is the wrong one. In short, unionization will likely damage the quality of the university and harm the region while delivering little or no benefit, even to the faculty who support the union.
1. Undermining the quality of the faculty
A recent study on the unionization drive at the University of Washington finds that faculty who are more productive at research are less likely to be supportive of unionization, even among those in the same academic department. Thus, many research-productive faculty do not view unionization as an attractive job attribute. Hence, unionization would make it harder for the University to hire and retain the faculty who best advance the university’s knowledge creation mission. Over time, the quality of the University’s faculty would decline, ultimately harming the state and region both economically and culturally.
2. The union groups together employees with different interests
The SEIU drive has attempted to place different kinds of university employees - research faculty and teaching faculty - into the same bargaining unit. The University has two kinds of employees who teach. First are tenured and tenure track faculty. These employees have three responsibilities: research, teaching, and service. The University also has non-tenure track employees who teach. These employees mostly fall into two categories: full-time teaching faculty whose job descriptions do not include research and part-time teaching faculty who teach on a course-by-course basis.
Many of us who do not favor the current SEIU unionization drive are sympathetic to the concerns raised by the non-research instructional faculty. For example, the duration of contracts for non-research instructional faculty is an important issue that is long overdue for examination and possible change. But we believe that the unionization of the entire faculty of the University of Minnesota is the wrong means for addressing these concerns of these colleagues as unionizing also comes with the risk of harming the quality of the university as a whole. Therefore, we urge the administration to undertake a meaningful review of the contract terms for non-tenure track faculty. Let’s identify the actual concern and find a solution that addresses the problem without taking measures that undermine our basic mission.
3. Dues for sure, but no increase in average pay
While research shows that private-sector unions are often able to raise average pay, research on universities shows that unions have no discernible effect on average pay. The more likely outcome of unionization is a changed pay structure that would curtail the university's ability to compensate and attract the most productive researchers. One effect on compensation is certain: if the SEIU drive succeeds, all faculty will be compelled to pay union dues with no guarantee that their salary will be increased to cover the dues.
4. Even if one wanted a union, the SEIU is the wrong one
The SEIU was founded in Chicago in 1922 as the Building Services Employees Union, a union composed of janitors, elevator operators, and window washers. Their main focus continues to be on low-skilled service workers. Major current SEIU initiatives include their drive for a $15 minimum wage and a “justice for janitors” campaign.
SEIU has roughly 2 million members. Of these, over half are health care workers such as dietary aids in nursing homes. Another half million or so are janitors and building security guards. Another few hundred thousand work in daycare and as non-instructional school employees. SEIU represents the faculty of some two-year community colleges but does not represent the tenure-track faculty at any major research university.
SEIU has no experience dealing with a major research university. They have no track record of advancing their agenda while strengthening, or even maintaining, a major university's research mission.
We have an important decision before us. For the reasons articulated above, it is important to express your misgivings about the prospect of SEIU’s proposed unionization of the University of Minnesota faculty.