Photo by Tumisu
Jason McGrath has a good thing going. He’s a tenured professor in the University of Minnesota’s Asian Languages and Literatures department, with job security through tenure. He gets to teach and conduct research on topics he is passionate about.
Yet, for reasons that will resonate with many K-12 education activists, McGrath is helping lead a current effort to unionize University of Minnesota faculty.
One reason is austerity measures. Declines in public spending on education in many states have put the thumbscrews on public education from preschool through college—and related budget cuts have left many schools struggling to serve their students.
A second reason is temporary teachers. At the K-12 level, institutional reliance on temporary teachers often shows up in the use of Teach for America temps, who are less trained, less prepared and, given the two-year commitment required by TFA, less likely to stay on as classroom teachers. This trend is just as clear in higher education, where budget cuts and staffing shifts have meant more adjuncts are teaching college classes, often for less pay and no benefits.
“In the 2000s, per-student funding for the University of Minnesota was reduced by 40 percent,” McGrath says. “Essentially, they have privatized the university because it is no longer a public investment.”
McGrath believes that a university faculty union will be able to collectively lobby for more funding at the state level, and be able to better direct what happens to the money the university does get.
The drop in state funding also means the cost of annual in-state tuition for attending the university went from a little over $5,000 in 2001 to over $11,000 just ten years later, a cost that has fallen squarely on the shoulders of individual students. And there is mounting pressure within university departments to grow class sizes and compete against one another in order to capture more per-pupil funds.
This is not necessarily what’s best for students, McGrath says.
Another supporter of the movement to unionize university faculty is Meredith Gill, a senior lecturer in the Studies and Comparative Literature department. Gill considers herself a “contingent” faculty member; she works on a yearly contract, with the expectation—but not the guarantee—that she will be returning to her job each fall.
“I like to teach, and I feel I know the students well,” Gill says. “I just want to be paid adequately, and have a contract—which a union could provide—that reflects my skills and my contribution to the university.” She notes that she does just about everything a full-time, tenured professor in her department does, including conducting original research and serving on committees. But she is not paid for it.
Gill notes that many in her department are classified as “lecturers,” and are much more like temporary employees. Lecturers have to reapply for their jobs every semester, and can quickly disappear from the university for a number of reasons, including finding better jobs elsewhere.
This instability leaves students in the lurch, Gill says. Seniors, for example, may have a relationship with an instructor who suddenly leaves, meaning a lecturer must step in and guide the student through his or her senior project. Having a union contract, with the possibility of tenure-like job protections, would create a “more secure educational environment for undergrads,” she says.
Both Gill and McGrath say the University of Minnesota faculty union movement is being built around the idea that they are “one faculty,” and that tenure-track and non-tenure-track staff “will not be artificially separated.”
“Our mission of educating students and conducting research is the same,” McGrath says. “We are one instructional faculty.” Gill agrees: “Filing together has given us momentum.”
Currently, a Minnesota state agency is sorting through who is eligible to become a member of any potential University of Minnesota faculty union. Once that is clear, the vote will then be put to faculty, likely sometime this spring. If a majority of faculty agree to unionize, the University of Minnesota would become home to one of the nation’s largest college-level faculty unions.
Sarah Lahm is the Northeast Regional Progressive Education Fellow and a Minneapolis-based writer and former English instructor. She is the winner of a 2014 Nation Institute Investigate Fund grant, and blogs about education at brightlightsmallcity.com.