The bargaining chip

Published: Wednesday, January 7, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 6, 2004 at 9:54 p.m.

UF's new president, Bernie Machen, will have to learn quickly in order to settle the collective bargaining dispute with the faculty.

Judging from the hottest topic of conversations around here lately, one might think that the toughest and most urgent problem facing Bernie Machen, the University of Florida's brand new president, is the state of the football program.

But of course, football is just show business. In truth, Machen's got a lot more to worry about out here in the real world.

Start with a governor and Legislature that, in this election year, is likely to try to score points by cutting even deeper into the state budget and by playing up to ideologues who would like to send university professors to prison for doing stem cell research.

In short, 2004 will truly be the "Year of living dangerously," for Machen.

Coming into Florida cold, he has to learn the political, fiscal and educational landscape in a hurry. He's going to have to figure out how to keep UF thriving in a political milieu that favors the newer, more urban institutions.

He's going to have to decide whether UF should push for higher tuition to make up for falling state revenues, and if UF can, or should, say "no more" to lawmakers who expect the university to educate ever larger numbers of students for less and less per-student funding.

Oh yes, and football season is only about seven months away.

On top of all that, there are new town-gown relations to be established, influential alums to be stroked, private money to be raised and faculty and staff to win over.

In regard to that last item of business, Machen's successor, Charles Young, did the new president no favors by refusing to resolve the issue of collective bargaining. Of all the state universities, UF is the only one that has yet to recognize a bargaining unit. Indeed, it seemed that when Young was willing to talk to union officials at all, he did so at the top of his voice.

Some institutions have simply accepted the old bargaining unit, the United Faculty of Florida, as the new unit. Some required the union to get signed cards from at least two-thirds of the eligible faculty. A couple of other universities required a new election to be held.

Young and UF's trustees did none of those things. Thus, the issue is still hanging. And until it is resolved, Machen's relationship with his faculty is likely to be somewhat shaky.

Traditionally, Tigert Hall's attitude toward the faculty union has ranged from indifferent to hostile. But, under the previous governance system, it didn't matter all that much because the old Board of Regents, in Tallahassee, was responsible for collective bargaining. Now that responsibility has been devolved to the university level, and the question of who will bargain and under what circumstances must be settled locally.

It's clear that the administration would rather engage in "shared governance" with a strong faculty senate than engage in formalized bargaining with an authorized union. It's been argued that most of the great national universities that UF seeks to emulate do not have unions. And, indeed, collegiality seems much preferable to the structured, formalized adversity that is collective bargaining.

But ultimately, that should be up to the faculty to decide. And if the results of elections at two other universities are any indication, Machen is going to have to deal with UFF sooner or later. Faculty at Florida State voted 96 percent for the union, and those at West Florida favored bargaining by 91 percent.

It's too bad that Machen has to inherit this piece of unfinished business. But the sooner it is resolved the better. In trying to sway faculty opinion, Machen and other administrators can and should make spirited arguments against collective bargaining and in favor of shared governance. But if the faculty decide to stay with UFF, Tigert Hall should embrace that decision and resolve to work with the union in good faith.

Young did Machen no favors by leaving him the collective bargaining chip to play in his first weeks and months as president. But if this contentious issue is allowed to fester for much longer, Machen is likely to experience a very short honeymoon period indeed with one of his most important constituencies - his faculty.

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