Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
Clarification: NMSU history professor Ken Hammond is a former, not current, head of the department.
LAS CRUCES – Faculty at New Mexico State University are considering unionizing as a massive financial restructuring moves into the academic arena.
The conversation began last week in a string of emails among faculty across different departments. It’s little more than chatter right now, according to faculty who participated in the email chain shared with the Journal, but it’s an indicator of the apprehension some are feeling as budget pressures mount.
There have been at least three failed efforts to unionize NMSU faculty over the past 20 years or so, according to Ken Hammond, a tenured professor in the Department of History and a representative to the faculty Senate.
“In the past, there has been a wave of enthusiasm but it has petered out in the face of a broader sense of apathy,” he said. “In the current circumstances it might be different. Many faculty feel much more concerned, even threatened, by the budgets at the state level and the overall environment of higher education.
“Bottom line, there is a concern about how decisions would be made to address fiscal concerns and budgeting concerns.”
Universities statewide have been hit with budget cuts, as the Legislature has scaled back appropriations, student enrollment has declined and regents have limited tuition increases.
NMSU system Chancellor Garrey Carruthers has taken the cutbacks at the state’s second-largest university a step further: leading an effort to reorganize management, and now the colleges, to improve efficiencies.
Administrative departments have trimmed management and eliminated some positions. NMSU has slashed its “instruction and general” budget by more than $30 million over two years as a result.
College deans are now tasked with reorganizing the academic domain. Schools could be combined or programs eliminated; it’s not clear yet what shape the academic restructuring will take.
Carruthers said in an emailed response to questions that he believes “there is a process that is followed in unionizing an institution and we would honor the process, rules and regulations for such an activity.”
The faculty will be involved in the transforming efforts of the academic side “under any circumstances,” he said, “but that effort is scheduled for this spring, which means a union, if formed, would not be in place.”
In the email chain, faculty began by raising concerns about upcoming cuts and whether they would have a voice in the academic reorganization. Then, one professor noted that the Faculty Senate at an out-of-state university had “more teeth” thanks to a faculty union. Another professor replied with, “Oh! The forbidden ‘U’ word.”
Tenured faculty are protected from layoffs, but associate, assistant and adjunct professors and instructors on the non-tenured “college track” are not. That means that tenured professors – who have something to gain and nothing to lose – will likely take the lead on any effort to unionize, said Julie Steinkopf Rice, a tenured sociology professor.
“I have faculty who we are working with and we are protecting their anonymity because they could get fired,” she said.
In theory, NMSU operates on a “shared governance” model, meaning the administration works in conjunction with the Faculty Senate on key issues. The Senate can weigh in with an opinion, but on matters of finance – and the ongoing restructuring – faculty have no veto.
“The whole restructuring thing has been very top down,” Rice said. “The faculty have no voice.”
Carruthers has said he intends to include faculty in the team charged with guiding the restructuring of the academic side; faculty were also included on the teams tasked with the administrative reorganization.
Nationwide, faculty at more than 500 institutions of higher education are unionized, 93 percent of them at public institutions, according to the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College in New York.
Schools in California, New York and New Jersey account for the majority of unionized faculty, according to the center.
There are a handful of faculty unions at higher education institutions in New Mexico, but not at University of New Mexico or NMSU.
Central New Mexico Community College and Northern New Mexico College faculty have collective bargaining agreements.