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 role 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. 

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, a period of discord will occur in universities. 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. 



Honoring Nelson Mandela with A B-School New Year’s Resolution

On December 5, 2013, with the death of Nelson Mandela, the world lost a true leader and inspiration. While a complex and sometimes controversial man, Mr. Mandela’s dogged persistence led to the demise of a prejudicial policy and the transformation of a nation. Much has and will be written about Mr. Mandela and observers more expert than I will provide new insights into his psyche, successes, and impact on the world.

On the other hand, I am interested in a mundane question that is probably not going to be raised by those experts, or for that matter at any business conference. Specifically, could B-School produce a Nelson Mandela? While the question may seem odd or misplaced, it is intended as a simple query to assess whether business education somehow screens out, discourages, or chokes off those who are different – in terms of their values, goals, views, or concerns. If our educational approach does so, we will not produce a Nelson Mandela. We likely won’t even attract individuals with characteristics resembling a Mandela to apply to B-School.

While I see this possibility as a loss for B-Schools, some observers may wonder whether it is a waste of time to address such a question. After all, individuals need to select the paths that conform to their views – and B-School is not for everyone. Ironically, however, if B-School cannot produce a Nelson Mandela, it inadvertently precludes potential leaders from gaining skills relevant to business, entrepreneurship, and job creation. Should we be surprised if those leaders turn to different approaches to guide nations? And for those who wonder about this as a theoretical exercise, recall that B-Schools are comprised of a smaller proportion of women than most other professional programs – e.g., law, medicine, pharmacy, dentistry, etc. I would not be surprised if clerics and pastors were similarly underrepresented in B-School. It is difficult to characterize these enrollment gaps as a good thing.

Is there something about our programs that repels people like Mandela? Do we unknowingly encourage uniformity, in its worst case driving a herd mentality that leads students to seek the same pots of gold at the end of the rainbow – investment banking, consulting, and other high-paying jobs? Do we overemphasize monetary outcomes, fueling yearly blog stories on the highest paid MBA graduate across all schools? Do we devote too little attention to poverty, inequality, and other societal issues – making it appear that we desire such results?

Because it is easy to count dollars, we measure many of our outcomes that way – salaries of students, alumni, and faculty, as well as the size of the gifts given to a school. We accept the value provided by markets. We skip metrics that are different as if we assume that it is bad for a business student to choose to become a Teach for America volunteer, set up a nonprofit serving veterans, decide to accept a lower paying job in order to make a difference in the community, and so on. Sadly, even if B-Schools embraced these alternative metrics, it would hurt our rankings because the “experts” who rank us generally weigh dollar measures above all others. That means that alumni, university presidents, current students, and faculty who seek top rankings will look poorly at B-School leaders who choose to suggest nontraditional opportunities to students.

Nelson Mandela stood up and suffered for his principles and goals. His determination and perseverance contributed greatly to his success. Did those attributes come from his education, upbringing, or innate character? Although I can only conjecture an answer to the question, I am certain that elements of a B-School education would be valuable to a future Nelson Mandela.

For B-Schools to produce a Nelson Mandela, we must capture the imagination of today’s young people and demonstrate that business thinking can change the world in positive ways. This requires a focus on more than the salaries that students will earn, a celebration of markets that ignores inequality and externalities, and the glorification of the wealthy. We must tolerate a different orientation and support idealistic thinking. We must recognize our vulnerability and admit that easy solutions rarely exist to the significant problems faced by mankind. For example, how will we solve the challenge of climate change, the problem of over-fishing, the lack of potable water for an ever increasing number of people, and the operation of a modern economy using less fossil fuel? B-Schools must help tackle such challenges, yet the students interested in these generational problems do not generally see business education as an asset. If those individuals see us as ignoring such foundational problems, we will lose the next generation of students.

As we enter the New Year, we must vow not to forget Nelson Mandela and what his movement achieved. We must also reflect on what B-Schools need to do to recapture the central issues and problems of our day. Otherwise, we risk becoming the trade of the wealthy and a less-important area of professional study. We must attract the next Nelson Mandela to business school. Although that will require us to change in potentially uncomfortable ways, it is a worthy New Year’s Resolution.


Global Experience Isn’t Just For Students: Why Professors Must Spend Time Overseas

The number of college students who participate in study abroad programs has nearly doubled in the past decade, according to Best Colleges Online.  These students participate for a variety of personal and academic reasons, but nearly all (90 percent) credit their experience abroad for their subsequent academic choices and 70 percent of students surveyed by IES agree that experiences abroad helped shape their career path.

The rational response of our students – to seek global options – gives rise to an important issue that is infrequently discussed today: the need for professors to have professionally oriented global experiences.  Professors with strong global awareness are better equipped to help students apply lessons within an international context and to develop international content and perspective within their courses.

As a business dean, I focus on business students and faculty, though I believe that my arguments apply generally to most disciplines and students. At traditional universities, the faculty job includes research, teaching, and service components, all of which can be enhanced by global experience. Research is strengthened if it can explain or address cultural differences that may influence outcomes such as productivity, brand loyalty, and ethics. Scholars engaged in theoretical work benefit from comments made by individuals with different cultural backgrounds. Professors doing empirical work benefit from data obtained from different nations, cultures, and organizations. Team-based research projects involving authors from varied backgrounds and nationalities offer potential to generate stronger results. All of this is true because comparisons across nations or cultures allow researchers to place results in context. It is also possible to speculate more effectively. For example, a study of the nature of accountants’ audit opinions in the U.K., where auditors must sign their name to the report, provides insight into what might happen if another nation were to adopt a similar legal requirement for the audits reported by companies.

Teaching benefits from global exposure as professors use examples from different cultures to illustrate concepts or demonstrate how specific approaches are similar or different across nations. It is especially valuable to place students in a situation in which their normal or expected response does not appear to succeed in a different environment. This requires thinking and learning as opposed to confirming what students assume is the case based on their background and experience. While some benefits can occur if a class has international students, the onus is on the professor to be mindful of unproductive behaviors that may occur in the classroom. For example, when U.S. students complain that the international students form cliques and don’t interact with domestic students, experienced professors can offer the students the strategies that they used, perhaps based on their own experience in an exchange program, for breaking down the cultural walls.

A professor’s service in professional settings is also enriched by global experience. Given that professional organizations include an increasing number of members outside of the U.S., it is important for faculty to meet and become familiar with foreign members of an organization. In turn, the exposure may enable them to identify best practice examples that have arisen in other places and could be applied in a U.S.-university setting. Global experiences allow faculty in policy-related areas to understand more robustly the way that certain approaches may aid or hinder business or government in the U.S.

Global faculty development programs, such as the Fulbright Scholars Program, give professors and scholars the opportunity to travel to other countries, visit international companies, meet local politicians and businesspeople, teach and conduct research in other settings, and engage with people holding different cultural norms. This is especially important for business schools, as corporations are increasingly global, shifting to new markets in Africa, Asia and South America, and employees need to understand these international audiences and the intricacies of doing business abroad. Faculty can better serve their profession, school, and community when they have broader experiences.

Colleges and administrators should take it upon themselves to promote faculty development programs abroad. In my role as Dean, I travel internationally to meet with alumni, executives, and political leaders.  I always seek to engage people and create opportunities for our faculty, alumni, and students, and I encourage my faculty to be opportunistic themselves in their global travels, by using the new connections they make while abroad for future projects and class experiences.  This has led to trips including faculty development projects in Africa and Russia, as well as others combining student coursework with an international experience, including trips to Israel to study innovation in practice in the “startup nation.”

While colleges are expected to emphasize international student opportunities today, little mention is made of the concurrent need to support and promote global faculty experiences. For a variety of reasons, many outstanding professors may have had little global exposure in recent years. Despite the availability of technologies that make the world smaller and closer, a lack of experience by faculty may cause students to get less from their global experiences than they might. Since we insist that students be prepared upon graduation to work with people from other cultures and understand international competition, we must ensure that professors have significant exposure to global business too.