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UEA President: Maintaining a dialogue, not a monologue

By Michael William Pfau,
President UEA-D

As I enter the final two months of my term as UEA-D President I expect a busy time in which UEA will continue to work for our faculty, enforcing the existing contract through our grievance procedure, even as we enter into negotiations to establish our contract for the next several years.  But as my time as President comes to a close, I also find myself reflecting on the past and recounting the fairly tumultuous two years that we have shared together.  And as I reflect, I find myself thinking more and more of a comment shared with UEA leadership by my faculty colleague and union leader John Hamlin – “without UEA, we would have a monologue on this campus rather than a dialogue.”  The more I reflect on these words, the more I realize that they describe not only the value of UEA in general, but characterize my own thoughts about the last two years.

Contract negotiations certainly enact the idea of dialogue.  Unlike non-unionized campuses where raises and other terms and conditions of employment are imposed from above; on unionized campuses like our own, the negotiating table is the place where we literally enact a dialogue with administration.  We meet as two opposing sides at the table, but through a process of dialogue, we walk away with an agreement that serves the needs of the institution and its faculty.  Without this dialogic process of negotiation, our work lives would be the result of a monologue, in which administration dictates the terms and conditions of employment to its faculty.

So too away from the negotiating table.  Last summer, when UMD administration announced a process of prioritization, and commenced a campus conversation based upon the book (and consulting enterprise) by Robert Dickeson, we at UEA were concerned.  We were concerned that Dickeson’s story of prioritization was a threat to faculty, villainizing them as selfish protectors of allegedly wasteful academic programs.  Fortunately, we had the resources and foresight to invite "Fall of the Faculty" author Benjamin Ginsberg to campus for a keynote lecture and conference.  Ginsberg’s story of academe positioned administrative bloat, not academic programs, as the greatest threat to university budgets.  In hindsight we know that the prioritization process (at least so far) has resulted in very few cuts to academic programs.  But if we had not had a dialogue between Dickeson and Ginsberg, how might things have been different?  What if administration and Robert Dickeson had succeeded in imposing a univocal monologue upon our campus?  Fortunately, we will never know.

And this semester, when administrators proposed ideas about improving efficiency and increased instructional workload to the campus, UEA was there to advocate for a workload that is not only reasonable for faculty, but helps to ensure that our students will receive the best possible education in their years with us.  And we continue to pursue the workload issue on your behalf, working to protect existing instructional workloads and to decrease workloads that are too high. Because that is what we do, provide a voice on behalf of faculty, and by extension, our students. 

Over the last two years there have been occasional moments when an administrator, staff member, or even a faculty member would ask me “why does UEA always seems to be opposing what administration brings forward?”  My first answer is that we do not always oppose our campus administration.  Some of the greatest gains in our last contract – huge salary floor increases for term faculty, improvements and expansions in parental leave, supplemental raises addressing retention and salary compression, to name a few – were achieved working side by side with our administrative leadership.  And in the last two years we have worked in parallel with our administration to lobby legislators, Regents and Twin Cities administrators for increased funding for UMD.  On these and other issues, we can and do work with our administration.  

But my second answer to this question is to point out that the relationship between labor and management is supposed to be somewhat adversarial, not in the sense of acrimony and enmity, but in the same sense that our judicial system is based upon an adversarial model.  That is, prosecutors and defense attorneys do not argue with each other for the sake of conflict or discord, but to ensure that the outcome of any given trial is justice.  In the courtroom, it is hoped, the truth emerges out of an adversarial process between the two sides.  So too, UEA (like any union) often has a clear role to play as an adversary to our administration.  Administrators are pursuing their goals and playing their roles when they try, in the name of efficiency, to squeeze increased workload out of their workers.  And while we must disagree with them (often strenuously), we do so knowing that they too are playing their part.  Conversely, the role of unions in general and UEA in particular is to serve as advocates for our workers, our faculty.  If we were to lose sight of our proper role in an adversarial system, we would be doing a disservice to the faculty that we have a duty to represent.  Just as a defense attorney who cooperated with a prosecutor to sell out her client would be committing a profoundly unethical and illegal act, so too a union that, for the sake of harmony, appeased or colluded with administration to the detriment of faculty, would clearly have failed in their legal and ethical duty to defend their members. 

That sense of voice and advocacy is at the heart of what UEA does for the faculty on this campus.  If only our administration played an active role in determining issues on our campus, as my colleague John Hamlin pointed out, we would be caught within a frustrating monologue.  When the system works properly, however, administration and UEA are each playing their roles as separate and distinct voices in a process of dialogue.  And out of that dialogue, it is hoped, our campus, our faculty, and our students, will continue to thrive well into the twenty-first century.  I can leave my term as UEA-D President with some satisfaction that the entire UEA leadership has upheld its part of the dialogue for the last two years.  And given the immense experience of incoming President John Hamlin, and the outstanding slate of candidates on our UEA ballot this semester, we can remain confident that UEA will continue to uphold its end of the dialogue here at UMD.


As Always, In Solidarity,

Michael William Pfau, President UEA-D