01/23/2014 01:45 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2014

Faculty, Unions and the Future of American Higher Education

Recently, much attention has been paid to technology's effect on higher education. Many observers have commented on the increasing popularity of online classes, as well as the ability of MOOCs, flipped classrooms, and other technology-intensive approaches to revolutionize higher education. However, little has been said about how professors feel about this intrusion. At least in the short term, faculty views will greatly shape the expansion and limits of technology in the classroom. This reality is a reflection of faculty governance -- and the deliberative approach it supports.

The growth of technology in higher education is inevitable, but it will slow as faculty evaluate its impact on educational outcomes and the professoriate. Whether or not this is an effort to protect entrenched interests, it is driven by legitimate concerns about educational outcomes and faculty governance. At a time when pressure is rising to reduce costs, deploy technology and provide a 21st century experience for students, especially in public institutions, it is critical to avoid the creation of divisions between faculty and university leaders.

College professors have historically resisted union campaigns because academic governance structures fostered communication between faculty and administration and protected the voice and role of faculty in university decision-making. As the external pressures on universities grow, faculty may worry that their influence will diminish, making them receptive to union-organizing campaigns.

Indeed, in recent years, unionization efforts have increased in universities, albeit with a focus on graduate students and adjunct faculty members. A recent story of the life circumstances and death of an adjunct faculty member at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh has received widespread attention as part of a union campaign to organize adjuncts. The campaign's arguments for fairness and justice will resonate just as well with full-time faculty, especially if they feel threatened by technologically-imposed educational changes or other pressures.

Unions have historically been more successful at organizing faculty in public universities than private schools because of the rules created by state public employee labor laws. In addition, unions have had more success organizing at teaching schools than at schools whose faculty conduct considerable research. Some exceptions have occurred (for example, at top SUNY-system universities in New York); however, the most prestigious universities and virtually all private schools remain nonunion. This situation will change as technology intrusions expand and faculty become concerned that the working conditions and situations fostered in the past will not be facilitated in the future.

Beyond its effects on faculty unionization, technology's march into new territories within higher ed has three important implications for universities. First, it has the potential to cause a realignment of reputation in higher education, as universities in dire straits -- lesser ranked or financially-strapped schools -- and for-profit universities aggressively adopt technology, while well-regarded schools sit idle. The cautious approach of the latter, which will be greater in today's well-reputed schools, can potentially reduce the fortunes of the late adopters. While faculty governance may facilitate resistance to change out of concern that technology-enhanced education is a poor substitute for the techniques honed over the past 500 years, student demand for new approaches will move the market.

Second, and ironically, the situation will likely increase the number of universities believing that there will always be students willing to pay a premium to attend a high-quality residential college. However true the statement may be, it will decrease differentiation among the colleges expressing it and will serve primarily as a vehicle for administrators to delay painful discussions about technology's proper role and the extent to which faculty are allowed to resist. Once the typical midmarket major university accepts this view, competition among these schools will grow dramatically as the technology-adopting universities (nonprofit and for-profit) gain market share. The resulting pressure will cause a variety of effects, including an increase in unionization efforts by university faculty.

Third, the combination of academic governance conventions and potential unionization will further slow the response of universities to technological advances in education. This, in turn, will pose a significant challenge to university administrators. Those who attempt to move too rapidly will not survive the onslaught of faculty complaints and use of governance processes to undermine leadership. Those who respond too slowly or fail to anticipate the interactive effects of academic governance processes and unionization will facilitate a process in which costs remain uncontrolled and faculty and faculty unions have substantial control of organizational outcomes. Either way, universities will be affected substantially. While I leave it to readers to conclude whether the effect is good or bad, there is no doubt that it will be substantial.

A period of discord will occur in universities at the point that faculty become concerned that government, university administrators or others are advocating too much change or reducing the social contract expected by professors. This has the potential to cause the United States' higher education system to become stuck. Debates over MOOCs and other changes to the delivery of education are only symptoms of the underlying battles to come.