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Negotiating and Implementing Change in a Unionized, Academic Environment

In April 2000, Governors State University (GSU) installed a new president. During the presidential search, the search committee indicated it was time to change some important aspects of the culture at GSU, which is a unionized, teaching-oriented campus, located approximately 35 miles south of Chicago. Previously, in the fall of 1999, a faculty member running on a pro-scholarship platform was elected President of the Faculty Senate. He represented the widespread belief that the arrival of a new university president provided the perfect opportunity to institute major organizational change. No one proposed that GSU give up its teaching emphasis to become a research-oriented school; however, they believed that increased scholarship would result in faculty who were more knowledgeable and more effective as professors. The president inaugurated in 2000 had ideas for institutional change on many fronts, including a desire to increase faculty attention to scholarship and to introduce more conventional approaches to the academic calendar and faculty rank. After setting the stage with a quick look at some key institutional arrangements as they existed in 2000, this article describes the labor-management negotiations process, results and major lessons of institutional change at GSU.


GSU was founded in the late 1960s as a highly innovative institution. The primary focus was teaching, not scholarship. GSU was founded on a philosophy of egalitarianism and all tenured and tenure-track faculty members had the same title, “university professor.” Students were evaluated by means of a pass/fail system with assessments based on student portfolios. GSU is an upper-division school consisting of junior, senior, and graduate programs. There are approximately 6,000 students who are mostly part-time and a faculty of approximately 250. The school’s mission is to be accessible to under-served minorities.

The academic calendar in 2000 was based on a trimester arrangement. There were two trimesters – fall and winter – with courses offered for sixteen-weeks, and each course met once a week for three hours. During the spring/summer trimester, however, courses were offered for eight-week sessions, and each course met twice a week for three hours.(1) Most faculty members taught ten months per year.

Since classroom instruction was the main obligation of the faculty, teaching loads were high. Most faculty members taught ten courses per year.(2) There was some institutional support for faculty members who wished to pursue scholarship activities, but that support was quite limited.(3)

In the fall of 2000, in an effort to be proactive with respect to organizational change, the GSU Faculty Senate formed a Scholarship Task Force chaired by one of the authors of this article. That group looked at the pros and cons of increased scholarship and developed a set of strategies by which this could be accomplished with limited financial resources. The Task Force also devoted considerable attention to the scholarship model of Ernest Boyer, which identifies four research concentrations: discovery, the generation of new knowledge; integration, the synthesis and summation of previously generated knowledge; application, the use of knowledge to solve real-world problems; and teaching, the development of pedagogical knowledge and innovative teaching methods. The Task Force’s general conclusion was that all these types of scholarship should be welcome at GSU.(4)

At about the same time, the new GSU president formed a Strategic Planning Committee (SPC) that had several components. One of the SPC’s subcommittees worked on rewriting the University’s mission statement, while another developed a new strategic plan. The Faculty Senate Scholarship Task Force was later invited to become part of the SPC’s Task Force on Faculty Research and Scholarship, which replicated the work of the Senate’s group and suggested strategies for greater institutional support. The Board of Trustees also played a role by meeting with members of the aforementioned groups in the context of a GSU planning retreat.

Preparing for Negotiations

While branches of the SPC were working on their charge, the faculty union – a chapter of the University Professionals of Illinois – began to conduct research in advance of upcoming contract negotiations with GSU. The existing collective-bargaining agreement was set to expire in August 2002. From the outset, the change in direction being orchestrated at GSU was clear to the union. Indeed, the GSU union president, an author of this paper, was on the presidential search committee and was, therefore, familiar with the direction the new president wished to take the institution.
The faculty union distributed a membership questionnaire that addressed the subjects of scholarship, the academic calendar, and faculty rank, pay and workload. The results indicated strong support for a calendar change, and less support for a change in the approach to faculty rank. In fact, the latter topic was highly controversial and divided the faculty, roughly according to seniority. Faculty members with the greatest seniority were almost completely against changing the existing approach to rank, which was seen as the hallmark of an egalitarian culture that they valued greatly. There was also concern that the university administration might try to reduce some salaries in conjunction with the introduction of new appointment levels. Moreover, some faculty members had come to GSU precisely because there were few research expectations.

Faculty members with less seniority had a different set of concerns. They noted that nobody at professional conferences seemed to understand the “university professor” label, and they believed the unconventional system put them at a disadvantage when applying for faculty positions elsewhere. In general, relative to senior faculty members, the junior faculty members were more interested in doing research (but were still committed to keeping GSU a teaching-oriented institution) and saw a need for greater institutional support of scholarship.

As a whole, the faculty supported the notion of giving more attention to scholarship, but on this subject there was a difference of opinion between the faculty and the GSU administration. The faculty wanted greater support for research and did not want scholarship to be a job requirement. The administration wanted research to be required of all faculty members, and saw the introduction of a new approach to rank as a way to implement that requirement.

Negotiating Change

The GSU administration opened contract talks with the faculty union by proposing to alter the university’s approach to faculty rank. The administration maintained that moving to a conventional faculty-rank system would foster the goal of increasing research productivity. Throughout the negotiations, the administration never defined the level of research productivity that it would expect. However, its proposal offered no teaching-load reduction and did not free up summers for research activity, as suggested by the Task Force on Faculty Research and Scholarship. In fact, the administration did not propose moving to a nine-month academic calendar because it argued such a change was not affordable.

The union leadership rejected the proposal on rank and stressed to the faculty that such a system would involve a substantial increase in workload. There would be new research expectations without any reduction in teaching load. As a result, even those interested in research would find it challenging to meet tenure requirements, union leaders observed.

There were also other reasons for union resistance to the proposed change. Many faculty members strongly supported the principle of egalitarianism. A majority of the senior faculty had not done significant research in many years and did not believe that conducting research was necessary for one to be a good teacher. It was also widely recognized that economic resources were severely limited, which meant that little money would be available to reduce teaching loads or increase support for research.
Nevertheless, the administration believed it had the faculty on its side. After volleying proposals that included other issues such as grievance language, overload, as well as the Rank issue for almost a year, the administration made a “final offer.” In response, the union asked its members for the authorization to strike.(5) Approximately 80 percent of the membership voted, and 89 percent of the ballots supported an authorization to strike. The administration was shocked, and immediately became more flexible.

Both sides quickly agreed to meet with a federal mediator since federal mediation is a free service offered by the federal government. After working with that neutral third party for six months, the union and administration produced creative solutions to vexing issues and reached an agreement in February 2004. A faculty rank system would be introduced, but not be implemented until 2005. That would allow sufficient time for new promotion and tenure guidelines to be written jointly by the faculty and administration. Tenured faculty would be given the choice to remain a university professor or enter the rank system as an associate or full professor (with rank to be determined according to a clearly delineated set of performance criteria). Untenured faculty hired before 2003 were given the choice of being evaluated against standards in place at the time of appointment or against new standards giving more weight to scholarship.(6)

While the faculty came to accept a need for new research expectations, the administration conceded that new support for scholarship was also needed. Each faculty’s teaching load would be reduced by approximately one course per year. In addition, faculty members would be able to apply for additional course reductions, and/or teach in two trimesters rather than three, with approved research projects.(7)

Results and Lessons

At this time, it is too soon to calculate the full impact of the organizational changes that took effect in 2005 at GSU. According to university reports and a 2006 survey of the faculty, about 70 percent of the tenured and tenure-track faculty felt it was important to increase the opportunity for scholarship at the university However, measurable gains in research output have not yet been observed (which is understandable given that many research projects require a few years of work). Moreover, survey respondents emphasized that contractual changes (that is, workload reductions and the ability to teach during only two trimesters) were vital in enabling them to devote more attention to research (approximately 50 percent).(8) The authors are preparing a follow up study to assess further gains in research productivity.

Two major lessons can be gleaned from the GSU experience. First, fundamental organizational change requires a problem-solving approach that involves joint exploration by all parties.(9) When the GSU administration sought to impose change, most notably in the form of a take-it-or-leave-it “final offer,” faculty positions hardened and opportunities for mutual gains were missed. With the help of the federal mediator, however, all parties were able to give some ground and still enhance their underlying individual and collective interests. Attempting to change the teaching-research-service mix at any university is a dangerous undertaking; attempting to do so unilaterally (even via the process of collective bargaining) is counterproductive.(10)

In fact, joint problem solving is highly desirable for a number of reasons. For example, it builds trust between the parties, which is essential for mutual acceptance and successful implementation. It also helps generate innovative solutions. (Of course, both of these are deeply intertwined since the “devil” is almost always in the details, such as when a university determines what will – and will not – “count” as scholarship.)

The other lesson learned from the GSU experience is that scholarly engagement is a behavior that responds favorably to a nurturing environment. When given the opportunity and institutional support, teaching-focused faculty will often engage in increased scholarship. The challenge for a university administration is to resist the temptation to raise performance expectations for scholarship without providing support (funds, equipment, facilities, etc.) and reducing expectations in other areas.(11)


1. In the very early days, all courses were offered in eight-week sessions. Students typically took one or two classes per session throughout the year, and faculty members taught five of the six eight-week blocks per year.
2. This was the course load under the 1996-1999 and 1999-2002 collective-bargaining agreements. Prior to that, the load was 12 courses per year.
3. For instance, the Alumni Association awarded grants annually to professors with approved research projects. In addition, some faculty members received a reduction in their teaching load for scholarship activities.
4. Ernest L. Boyer. 1990. Scholarship Reconsidered Priorities of the Professoriate (Princeton, New Jersey: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching). See also Lydia A. Morrow Ruetten, Marsha Katz, and David A. Parmenter. 2004. “The Implementation of a New Scholarship Initiative at Governors State University,” Proceedings of the American Society of Business and Behavioral Sciences 11 (1), 1272-1286.
5. The contract had expired over six months earlier.
6. In the end, senior faculty members concluded that it was in the best interest of the university to establish rank because it would help the junior faculty. They were convinced that teaching would remain the institution’s first priority, even as scholarship became necessary as well.
7. Work responsibilities are measured by Credit Unit Equivalencies (Cues). For each class, a faculty member gets 3 or 4 cues. They may get additional cues for service or research. According to the contract, research cues may be used as a course reduction or overload at the faculty member’s discretion (program needs are not supposed to be considered in awarding the cues). However, for the teaching in only two trimesters, program needs are considered.
8. Marsha Katz, L.A. Morrow Ruetten, and David A. Parmenter. 2006. “Implementation of Increased Scholarship in a Unionized Teaching-Oriented University,” International Journal of Knowledge, Culture & Change Management 6 (6), 29-35.
9. Blackard, Kirk, 2000. Managing Change in a Unionized Workplace: Countervailing Collaboration. Greenwood, Connecticut: Quorum Books, 185- 188. See also Cooke, William, 1990. Labor-Management Cooperation: New Partnerships or Going in Circles. Kalamazoo Michigan: Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, 46, 109, and 145. See also Kotter, John, 2006. “Leading Change: Why transformation Efforts Fail,” Best of HBR. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press. See also Schuster, Michael H., and Weidman, Steve, 2006. “Organizational Change in Union Settings: Labor-management Partnerships, The Past and the Future,” Human Resource Planning retrieved July 23, 2008, from
10. Although collective bargaining began on an adversarial footing, GSU and its faculty actually began the change process in the right manner. The opportunity for change came with the arrival of the new university president and his development of a new mission statement and strategic plan. Furthermore, prior to the start of bargaining, the administration approached the change process in a highly inclusive manner (involving the faculty and other constituents in its effort).
11. The authors wish to thank Charles Whalen and three anonymous referees for their comments and suggestions.

Lydia A. Morrow Ruetten is a professor of library science at Governor’s State University (GSU), where she works closely with the College of Business and Public Administration. She is active in the GSU faculty union and was active on the Faculty Senate when she chaired the Faculty Senate Scholarship Task Force.



Marsha Katz is a professor of management at Governor’s State University. She is GSU chapter president of University Professionals of Illinois, Local 4100, IFT, AFT, AFL-CIO.

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