To: All Faculty
As you know, some of the University's non-tenure-track academic appointees are considering whether to vote for or against representation by a union. The University of Chicago respects the lawful right of employees to form a union if they so choose. I write today to share my concern about the effect a unionized teaching staff might have on the broad community of scholars, teachers, and students who, whatever their many differences in discipline, role, or professional ambitions, are held together by the shared values and commitments which have defined the University.
We belong to a community of academic professionals that is among the finest in the world, one that also has grown and changed composition over time while maintaining fidelity to core principles. The profound value of the contributions from our outstanding teaching faculty will continue regardless of the outcome of the impending union vote. There is no question, however, that ceding aspects of their autonomy to a union could change the nature of these appointees' relationships with the wider academic community of which they are now a part.
As things stand now, all academic appointees -- including practicing artists, teachers with careers in industry, and others whose primary work is teaching at the University -- have the ability to interact directly with their units or departments, all of which have distinct cultures and practices. In many cases departments have the flexibility to work with individual appointees on such issues as the number of courses taught, class size, compensation and many other factors that affect academic work. This type of dialogue is important at our University, where teaching faculty are intended to help shape decisions through collegial conversation.
The presence of a union would remove much of the flexibility that currently exists to work with individual academic appointees and might restrict the conversations that presently inform our work. It also would bring instructors with diverse professional goals and areas of expertise into a single bargaining unit and unified negotiation process. The union, an external organization, and those it selects as its representatives would serve as an intermediary and bargaining agent on all questions concerning working conditions, and would create a new, regulated relationship in our academic units, between faculty and unionized academic employees.
For some jobs and trades, a union may be well suited to act as intermediary. In fact, the University has bargaining relationships with a number of unions, including the same local chapter of the Service Employees International Union that is seeking to become the exclusive agent of eligible academic appointees.
But the Service Employees International Union is not an academic organization, and its core mission is not to create new knowledge or transmit knowledge to students through teaching.
Despite a recent effort to expand into higher education, the vast majority of the 28,000 members in SEIU Local 73 work in non-academic roles. It is not set up to address the interests of academic professionals at this University, or the range of issues that affect the diverse academic pursuits and talents of people in the voting pool. The union's negotiation of a one-size-fits-all contract for academic appointees would inevitably leave out the priorities of individuals, who would have no recourse beyond the collective agreement. One of our concerns is how this non-academic, outside organization may affect academic decisions — a prospect that eligible voters in this election should weigh carefully.
I am grateful for your deep commitment to the University of Chicago and to the education of our students. I share your commitment. Please do not hesitate to contact my office directly with any questions on these or other academic issues.
Eric D. Isaacs