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This article was submitted on behalf of faculty, staff and student leaders at the University of Minnesota. Their names and affiliations are listed below.


In recent years, the higher education workforce has become more vocal about workplace concerns, ranging from noncompetitive compensation to inadequate mental health resources for students. Upticks in unionization and union-led work stoppages across the nation's campuses indicate an academic workforce increasingly willing to demand improvements in its working conditions. As elected leaders in the University of Minnesota's faculty, staff and student senates, we are charged to help identify and address issues of concern to the workforce on our campuses.

In support of the U's workforce, parallel DFL bills introduced this month (HF 4508 and SF 4597) would reform the Public Employee Labor Relations Act (PELRA) to ease restrictions currently in statute limiting which U employees are permitted to join together to collectively bargain. A likely outcome, should this legislation become law, will be an increase in the number of unions representing the U's workers.

There's just one catch: The same DFL-trifecta ostensibly helping the U's workforce by advancing PELRA-reform has made it exceedingly challenging for the U to address pressing workforce needs.

Last year, the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State system of colleges and universities requested legislative funding to support their core missions in both years of the state's current two-year budget cycle. These state appropriations are key to enabling university administrators to offer annual pay raises to their employees. At the time, the state had a $17.5 billion surplus. To the astonishment of many of the U's rank and file workers, the legislature funded both years of Minnesota State's request, but only the first year of the U's request.

This year, the U has returned to the Legislature with a supplemental budget request seeking the core mission support that was denied last year. But this request appears stalled. It has not been taken up by the Legislature, and the governor's proposed supplemental budget includes no funding for the request.

The devastating impacts these funding decisions will have on the U and its workforce must be understood in the context of Minnesota's long-term disinvestment in higher education.

Consider the following stats based on data from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association and general fund forecast documents prepared by the Minnesota Department of Management and Budget. In 1990, Minnesota ranked ninth in the nation on per capita investment in higher education and allocated 6.8% of its general fund to the University of Minnesota. By 2021, the state's national ranking had plummeted to 25th, and the U's percentage of the general fund had declined by more than half. The 16 states that surpassed Minnesota included neighbors North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin, as well as several in the southeast, like Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia.

Concurrent with this divestment, legislators have pressured U officials to rein in the rising costs of tuition. Data from the U's Office of Institutional Analysis show that annual percentage increases in resident undergraduate tuition have been held at or below the inflation rate since about 2010.

Here's how all this ties together. By pressuring the U to limit tuition increases while refusing to adequately fund its core mission, the Legislature is tying both of the U's hands behind its back when it comes to taking care of its workforce. The result has been decades of decline in the competitiveness of employee compensation relative to peer institutions and local labor markets. This puts the University of Minnesota's mission and reputation at risk. PELRA reform is a nice gesture, but it conveniently ignores the real problem.

A popular red herring introduced into discussions of the U's budget is that the institution could afford to take better care of its workforce by cutting "bloated administrative costs." However, independent data presented to the Board of Regents in 2020 showed the U's administrative costs to be well within the range of peer institutions. Is it time to retire this old argument and pin the blame where it belongs?

If the Legislature is serious about supporting the U's workers, then in addition to promoting their rights to collectively bargain for bigger slices of the pie, it must act now and in future years to make that pie bigger.

The authors (whose views do not represent those of the University of Minnesota or its University Senate) are: Mark Bee, chair of the Faculty Consultative Committee; Jenn Goodnough, vice chair of the Faculty Consultative Committee; Matthew Verkuilen, chair of the Civil Service Consultative Committee; Stacy Maher, chair-elect of the Civil Service Consultative Committee; Whitney Taha Frakes, chair of the Professional and Administrative Consultative Committee; Kit Breshears, chair-elect of the Professional and Administrative Consultative Committee; Pavan Guttipatti, chair of the Student Senate Consultative Committee, and Taiwo Aremu, vice chair of the Student Senate Consultative Committee.