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Faculty file for union to bring the U’s focus back to the classroom

Tenured and contract faculty at the U are joining up to form one of the largest simple-campus unions in the country.

Tenured and contract faculty at the U are joining up to form one of the largest simple-campus unions in the country.

When Teri Caraway began teaching political science at the University of Minnesota back in 2002, she led required writing-intensive courses of about 55 students. With the support of two teacher assistants, she spent an immense amount of time coaching students to write essays, grading those essays, and meeting with students one-on-one to improve their craft.

Now, with the same number of students, she has but one TA. It forces her to take on more work herself, push more work on her remaining TA, and as a last resort, give the students fewer assignments.

Regardless of how much support the U gives her, Caraway is expected to teach two courses a semester, complete her own research, and volunteer for faculty committees that must be led by a dwindling number of tenured professors.

“As the work load increases, we have to make very hard decisions about trade-offs,” Caraway says. “Frankly, what we’re mostly evaluated on is our research. We’re caught in this position of increased work load that is really stretching us thin.”

It’s harder on the U’s part-time and contract staff, who have to cobble together a living wage from the few thousand dollar stipends they receive for each course they teach, as well as the few faculty of color who face higher demand as advisers, Caraway says.

Part of the frustration comes from the U’s perceived inability to retain these faculty of color. The Chicano and Latino Studies program has only one full-time faculty, and professors are consistently cycling in and out of the African-American studies program. Students protested when beloved Hmong professor Juavah Lee of the Multicultural Center for Academic Excellence recently lost his contract.

When the teachers have to worry about job security and financial hardship, the students don't get the most out of them in the classroom, professors say. The U's increasing reliance on contract faculty who are poorly compensated for heavy workloads, who don't get a say in shaping the curricula they teach, is unsustainable.

There’s a faculty government that tries to address these concerns, but the U’s administration considers their suggestions only consultative.

“In fact whenever the faculty initiates anything, the administration drags its heels,” Caraway says. “I think a contract, sitting around a negotiating table and coming up with a written agreement that is legally binding seems to be the only way to make way on these issues.”

For the first time since a failed union drive in 1997 (when the Board of Regents threatened to take away tenure), faculty at the U’s flagship campus in the Twin Cities are filing to hold union elections. They’ll need just 30 percent of faculty to move forward.

At the top of the wish list is a livable wage and job security for contingent faculty, and a stronger voice for the educators working directly with students to set the goals of the U.

“It’s about looking at the funding priorities at the U, and seeing funding going into teaching and research rather than other places like facilities and the ($166 million) Athletics Village,” says Bruce Braun, a tenured professor in the department of geography, environment, and society.

“What we’ve seen is expansion in the number of administrators around campus, and increasing disparities between what administrators are being paid and what teaching faculty are being paid. There’s a frustration around campus.”