Friday, March 29, 2013

Letter from David Dickensheets

Dear Colleagues,

I value the discourse that has occurred these last weeks regarding decertification of our tenure-track faculty union, and I thank those who have made themselves vulnerable by sharing their opinions.

It is difficult to grapple with an issue that is emotional for many and inherently divisive. I have deep regard for my colleagues who want what is best for our institution and who have invested long hours toward that end, whether they are persuaded it will be achieved via unionized TT Faculty or whether they believe decertification would be a better outcome.

My overarching concern is departmental and institutional excellence in instruction and research and creative activities. Only if we continually increase institutional quality will we be successful recruiting and retaining the highest caliber colleagues with whom to share our ambitions, ideas and efforts, and recruiting the most highly motivated students who will choose to invest four or more years with us learning and discovering and engaging to address society’s challenges. It should be noted that this is the abiding concern of both our Faculty and our Administration.

I am not persuaded that collective bargaining through AFMSU (and MEA-MFT and NEA with whom we are tightly bound) will foster a focus on excellence. Neither during the original certification of AFMSU nor during this decertification period have I heard a compelling argument (or really any argument at all) for how the union will increase institutional quality. How will AFMSU make MSU a more excellent university? Union proponents have simply not made this case.

The discussion on decertification has covered a lot of ground already (please visit for an archive of much of this discussion). Many workplace concerns, including due process, tenure and promotion and faculty governance, will not be materially different with or without a union.  Similarly, our woefully low salaries (measured against peer institutions) are not likely to be affected by collective bargaining. In fact, a recent survey of 498 4-year public institutions that accounted for variables such as regional cost of living variation found that “Among public 4-year institutions unionization reduces university expenditures, faculty salaries, and wage variability.” (Cassell, M. K. (2012). Teachers’ unions and costs in the 21st century university, Issues for Universities in the 21st Century. Madison, Wisconsin.) It is irrational to expect that our situation at MSU will be any different, and certainly the evidence from the first three years seems in line with this expectation.

Others have also voiced a concern regarding the deterioration of relationships between Faculty and Administration since AFMSU was certified. I would add my voice to those concerns. In my own interactions with administration at MSU, I have heard the phrase “we can’t talk about that because it is part of the CBA – you’ll have to take that up with your union.” Unfortunately the presumed adversarial relationship between the union and the administration makes administrators reluctant to speak candidly for fear of exposing themselves to legal action. I find the lack of candor distasteful, and the extraneous layer of bureaucracy a significant cost to the university.

Let me raise one point that has not been discussed. I am deeply uneasy that AFMSU cannot advocate cleanly for MSU Faculty concerns. AFMSU owes its allegiance to MEA-MFT and the NEA (where 90% of our union dues go). Our local union executives cannot operate independently of the State and National unions – there is always a paid MEA-MFT or NEA representative present at AFMSU meetings. Nothing will happen at MSU that is contrary to the aims of these powerful unions. My colleagues who value the political power of a connectional union in Helena and in Washington are ignoring the fact that MEA-MFT and NEA are dominated by K-12 teachers – those organizations are not focused on the concerns of university Faculty, especially for a Faculty of a Carnegie RU/VH university. 
AFMSU inherits a political agenda that is a distraction from the legitimate concerns of quality and fairness in our university workplace. This was in evidence when I received several emails from AFMSU requesting my participation demonstrating with the nurses who were negotiating with the Bozeman Deaconess Hospital Administration. I doubt the AFMSU team even considered this political request to be out of order, since part of union philosophy is political solidarity. I am fully supportive of any of my faculty colleagues who want to give their time or money to the nurses’ or the teachers’ unions, or any other labor cause as they see fit. But the distraction of the political baggage carried by the union is yet another reason that I do not feel AFMSU is really focused on my concerns about the quality of our institution, as measured by the excellence of our Faculty and the research, outreach and instruction we can deliver.
Finally, I want to state that I have a high regard for our Administration, from my department Head to the third floor of Montana Hall.  They are not some “other” to be vilified in CBA negotiations. They are former faculty members, and in many cases they will return to the Faculty after the generous contribution of their time and talents in Administration (for which they too are underpaid). When I listen to the rhetoric of the AFMSU core, the “Administration” is treated with suspicion at best, and disdain at worst. This does not fit with my own experience. How can we face our formidable institutional challenges going forward without a cooperative and trusting relationship between the Faculty and the Administration?

When I think about the future of MSU and what we can do to increase the quality of our Faculty (and thereby of the University) and the environment in which we work, I do not feel that AFMSU’s involvement is going to help, and in some cases will cause harm. The financial, relational and workload costs of being unionized cannot be justified.  For these reasons I find that I must vote to decertify AFMSU as our bargaining representative.
Respectfully yours,
David Dickensheets
Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering