University of Illinois labor education program may be in jeopardy

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By CARL GREEN

Illinois CorrespondentUniversity

Belleville – The University of Illinois is considering an organizational change that labor leaders fear would ruin its much-used and much-admired School of Labor and Employment Relations.

Labor unions and groups throughout the state send members to the program for leadership training, and its graduate programs turn out employment professionals who are well-versed in labor issues. It is considered the only one of its kind in the state and one of the top three in the nation.

The school is now an independent department within the university, but a plan now being discussed would fold it into the School of Business.

Opponents of the move say that could bring about the school’s demise, as decisions about the program’s future would then be made by financial academics who have little regard for labor issues.

“No business school is likely to value the Labor Education Program sufficiently to allocate the resources needed to retain the high-quality programming it now delivers,” wrote Prof. Thomas Kochan of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in a letter to Illinois President Robert Easter.

Kochan said he has seen several other labor/employment relations programs be absorbed into business departments.

“Almost all of them have abandoned the diversity of teaching and research that are hallmarks of a world-class labor and employment program,” he wrote. “No business school in the country any longer includes exposure to labor relations within its required core curriculum.”

LABOR COUNCIL JOINS OPPOSITION

The Southwestern Illinois Central Labor Council voted on Oct. 15 to add its voice to the protests against the possible change, in part because of how helpful the program has been to unions in this region.

“A lot of locals down this way have used that program,” said Eddie Caumiant, a member of the Council and regional director for AFCSME Council 31, based in Marion, Ill.

“U of I is really it,” he said. “They do a good job. They’re teaching in the trenches.”

Caumiant said the best way to support the program might be for more locals and their leaders to take an interest in signing up for its programs.

In his letter, Kochan cited the case of the University of Wisconsin’s renowned Industrial Relations Research Institute, which went into decline when its independence in hiring and resource allocation ended.

When key faculty members retired, the people left in charge had no incentive to replace them with equally qualified faculty. “This inherent vulnerability served as the death knell for the program,” he wrote.

Another leading professor in the field, Harry Katz of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University in New York, wrote to point out how his program has benefitted from its independent status, allowing a “multi-disciplinary nature” and “creative spirit” that have helped build a top faculty.

He also said he has seen what happens to labor schools that are folded into business schools.

“While many leaders and faculties at business schools profess an interest in human resource and labor issues, their actions demonstrate otherwise,” he wrote.

“Business schools, with very few exceptions, are dominated by finance faculty who in truth do not value the perspectives on conflict and organizational life provided by industrial relations programs and faculties.

“Unfortunately, industrial relations and human resource programs and faculties have withered when located in business schools.”

ONE OF THE VERY BEST

The Illinois program was created in 1945 by the Legislature with the understanding it would be carried out by both the university and the AFL-CIO.

On its website, university President Easter says the program is key to fulfilling the school’s commitment to providing education and training to the state’s working people.

Professor Katz also had high praise for the program.

“Your Labor and Employment Relations Program is one of the very best in the world,” he said. “Its faculty has been leaders in research and teaching on human resource, labor relations and labor policy issues for many years.

“It would be a pity if that asset was eroded as a result of a misguided organizational redesign.”

HOW TO HELP

Letters supporting the continued independent status of the University of Illinois School of Labor and Employment Relations may be sent to:

President Robert Easter

108 Henry Administration Building MC-346

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Urbana IL 61801 

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