Thursday, March 28, 2013

Letter from Bern Kohler

Dear Faculty Colleagues,

I have great respect for those who ardently support a tenure-track faculty union, and who have put their time and effort into getting it off the ground. Recall, however, that the union was voted in by a margin of twelve votes. This virtual tie revealed a strong polarization that hasn’t diminished over time. Absent support from a strong majority, it is obvious that the union threatens our unity. 

If a union divides us, consider something most of us agree on: We are passionate about continuing MSU’s current upward path as a strengthening research university that offers world-class opportunities to growing numbers of Montanans and out-of-state students. I support decertification because a tenure-track faculty union is not the best mechanism to advance MSU and sustain our fledgling status as a top-tier research university.

As you consider decertification of the tenure-track faculty union, please keep the “90s” in mind: 1) 90% of the nation’s top research universities (i.e. the 108 universities in the Carnegie Foundation’s RU/VH classification, an esteemed group that now includes MSU) do not have tenure-track faculty unions. 2) 90% of AFMSU dues and representation fees leave campus and flow to state (MEA-MFT) and national entities (NEA/AFT, AFL-CIO). These groups, which overwhelmingly represent teachers and public employees, do much work that is good, but they have few affiliations with universities of our strength and potential.

A tenure-track faculty union is not the innovative way to right the higher education ship in turbulent 21st century seas.  A tenure-track faculty union builds a wall between “labor” and “management” when no such wall exists at the most dynamic and innovative institutions of higher education. At highly successful universities, effective and successful faculty members are expected to take their turn at the helm and serve in departmental and university leadership positions. We are at a time in our evolution where we must expect as much from our administrators as we do from ourselves. I see no way that a faculty union can bring about the strong administrative hires we urgently need to continue to improve. 

The union has failed in several years to significantly increase its membership. Today, roughly half the faculty have no say in approving legally binding agreements made by a subset that is now their exclusive representative on all issues pertaining to wages, benefits, and working conditions. Enfranchisement requires sending even more money to the off-campus groups AFMSU has chosen to align itself with, and lending our support through membership. Please reflect on whether these principles and this status quo should be continued.

MSU is on a remarkable trajectory set in motion by our faculty in spite of low salaries and the limited support provided by the modest tax base of one of the nation’s least populous states. A tenure-track faculty union erodes the agility that has brought us to the threshold of national prominence, and makes it more difficult to implement needed change. Allowing a “labor vs. management” culture to take root at MSU will disrupt the leadership pipeline, threaten excellence, and endanger the recruitment of innovative faculty and faculty leaders.

Let’s keep MSU “as remarkable as its setting” and the reins in our own hands. Please support decertification.

Bern Kohler, Professor
Chemistry & Biochemistry

P.S. The few tenure-track faculty unions at public research universities are overwhelmingly affiliated with the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). Interestingly, AAUP-affiliated unions charge lower dues than AFMSU. Ours may be the only faculty union in the nation with a regressive dues structure in which the least compensated pay the largest percentage of their salary in dues. An MSU assistant professor earning $52,000 pays 1.2% of her base salary to join the union. That is significantly more than she would pay as a member of the AAUP-managed union at Rutgers (0.8% of base), University of Cincinnati (0.75%), Wayne State University (0.9%), or the University of Florida (1.0%). Why must we have both the nation’s lowest salaries and the highest union dues?

P.P.S. The upcoming vote doesn’t change the status of the non-tenure track bargaining unit. Decertification is neither anti-union, nor a right-wing conspiracy. The fact that the majority of top public universities with their left-leaning faculties do not have tenure-track faculty unions dispels the myth that partisan, anti-union forces are behind decertification.