It is with great concern for the future of this campus that I write this letter, putting thoughts in writing that I would prefer to leave unwritten. Unfortunately, however, an effort to unionize the University of Illinois campus faculty is underway, much of this effort behind closed doors, and with little occasion for widespread discussion. Those supporting this effort, although claiming to have the faculty interest at heart, are not willing to have an open election nor an open debate, preferring to meet with faculty one-by-one privately with a well-rehearsed and professional sales presentation, hoping to collect signatures while minimizing the opportunity to hear both sides. My purpose here is to present the other side as I see it. Fairness requires that both sides be heard.
To those who do not know much about me, let me say that I came to the Illinois faculty twenty years ago after a very successful career in the corporate world. I have been a member of the National Academy of Engineering for almost a quarter century, and I have received major professional awards. There are two reasons why I chose to come to this campus when I decided to join academia two decades ago. These reasons are excellence in scholarship and unsurpassed collegiality, and these reasons apply both to the campus as a whole and within the College of Engineering. No other university can match this excellence. No other university can match the warm and open environment of my department here, the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, or its superb record of scholarship. I hold that this university is a valuable asset of society and it is all our duty, and mine, to protect it.
During my eight years as Head of the University of Illinois ECE Department, I spent countless hours travelling the world and talking to our alumni, to major corporate leaders, to our local leaders, to parents, and to potential students. I watched as we garnered many tens of millions of dollars from alumni and others for scholarships and fellowships, for faculty chairs and professorships, for course development, and, yes, for a new ECE building. I have carefully studied the kind of people who are constantly sought out by us and others for donations. I know how these people think and the kind of appeals to which they respond. They donate to strength, not to weakness. They give to opportunity, not to difficulty. I believe that tension on our campus or any indication of possible decline will certainly dissuade future gifts. The potential donors will make it their business to know about us. Indeed, I believe that all our continuing efforts at enhancing the reputation of this university may now be at risk. Anything that harms our reputation and decreases our collegiality will harm research funding, decrease alumni support, impact student admissions, and complicate faculty recruitment.
I do not think that my concern is premature. The Chicago campus of the University of Illinois was on strike recently for two days. Reports reach us that the atmosphere of collegiality is gone from that campus. That strike is a very damaging and indelible embarrassment both to the Chicago campus and to the Urbana campus. The public does not distinguish between these two campuses as much as we do. Young men and women now deciding, with their parents, which university to attend in the fall will notice this chaos. Some of these students will go elsewhere, not here. Even our future rankings, much of which are subjective, may be affected.
It must also be said that recruiting top faculty will be harder with a unionized faculty. There will be some faculty candidates who do not want to join a union. Others will see the union simply as an additional uncertainty about the future of this campus, and so choose a safer position elsewhere. Our isolated location is a continuing impediment to recruiting top faculty. Our usual counter to a concern about location is mention of our undisputed and well-recognized collegiality. Damage to this reputation will have serious consequences to recruiting. Further, some of our top faculty members will leave a unionized campus. To those who dispute this, let me give myself as an example. I would not have joined this faculty had it been unionized twenty years ago. Moreover, I would have left Urbana if the faculty became unionized in the past, and I would do so in the future. I have heard similar statements from many others. Many current faculty members will leave, and their departure will be noticed.
I know that one response to this letter will be to call me a name, to dub me “anti-union,” and hope that this is enough to dismiss all my remarks. Indeed, I have already been called this name. To this, let me say that I grew up in a union household, that my father and all my uncles were dedicated union members. I fully appreciate the good that the unions have done for the unskilled laborers and for the skilled tradesmen. I am also aware that a union, like any bureaucracy, can evolve into a self-serving entity. However, the real point here is that a faculty is not a collection of interchangeable workers. It is a merit-based profession of research and teaching professors. This is not the blue-collar class for which unions were created. Some union proponents have cited a similarity to organizations of professional athletes. I cannot guess how they see an analogy between my career and that of a professional athlete, but I am quite sure that the financial world of athletics is very different from the financial world of a university.
A union will take one to two percent of our salaries from this community in the form of union dues. There will also be new expenses within the university administration taking funds that should go to other purposes on campus. Perhaps the state can be persuaded to make up these funds, but because the state contributes only a small fraction of our University budget, a large percentage increase of the state budget would be required. It is a false dream to imagine that a union can compel the State of Illinois to a double-digit percentage increase in the state’s contribution to our faculty salary.
My last topic is self-governance. We do have an existing faculty senate, and a faculty that comes forward when the need arises. We have dislodged two university presidents with entourage, a chancellor, and maybe others. The faculty has stood up to the Board of Trustees, and won. I do agree with the complaint that we have too many layers of redundant administration, and it does seem to grow unnecessarily. Nevertheless I do believe that the current hierarchy of administrative leaders is quite popular with most of us. I, for one, do not want to drive any of them away. Nor do I want to see them replaced with administrators whom we do not recognize as peers. And finally, to close, I mention that it certainly is a sound maxim that the last thing a troubled marriage should do is to invite a lawyer to share the marriage bed.
With sincere best wishes for the future of this campus,