Understanding Collegial Relationships within Academic Departments

In a mixed-methods study, Meghan Pifer, assistant professor in the Academic Development and Counseling Department at Lock Haven University, looked at the dynamics of informal intradepartmental relationships in two departments to determine how networks can affect faculty members’ access to resources, and ultimately their career success and satisfaction.

“I’ve been studying the faculty career and university administration and thinking about how a network perspective can help us think about the formal and informal relationships in professional settings and how resources are exchanged, tenure decisions are made, funds are allocated, and all these different formal things that happen in higher education that, like everywhere else, often happen through informal relationships and exchanges,” Pifer says.

The study
The study combined online social network surveys and qualitative interviews to explore faculty members’ perceptions and behaviors within the context of their departments. The online survey asked tenured and tenure-track faculty in two departments (a business department and a social behavioral sciences department at the same institution) to indicate which colleagues they interacted with in the department for the following purposes: teaching, research, and service activities; departmental policies and politics; institutional policies and politics; disciplinary policies and politics; and general support and friendship. She then interviewed each participant about their individual experiences with networks within the department.

Pifer found that the departments had much in common. Both were very well regarded in their disciplines and had a “highly competitive but highly supportive culture.” She also found that the faculty in these departments were highly engaged in forming positive relationships within their departments. “Faculty members are really interacting a lot with colleagues in their local department from day to day and over the course of their careers, and for all of those different types of relationship and functions that I was asking people to think about, they indicated that by and large they were highly involved in relationships with their fellow faculty members for collaborative purposes. That was often driven by their own career goals. That’s one thing that jumped out at me right away—there are lots of positive side effects of these relationships,” Pifer says. “By and large people were very deliberate about career success, research productivity, earning tenure, being effective administrators within their departments, and exchanging resources through those ties.”

Pifer found that senior faculty were aware of the benefits they gained from interactions with colleagues and were deliberate about being supportive of junior colleagues by providing resources, which Pifer defines broadly as to include things such as funding, advice, support, friendship, collaboration, teaching feedback, and access to people in other networks. Senior faculty in the study continued to rely on each other throughout their careers. “We like what we do because there are always opportunities for growth, development, and change. As we find ourselves in the role of assistant dean, director of a research center, or serving as department chair, we rely on our colleagues to help us understand those roles,” Pifer says.

Networks provide a means for formal and informal exchange of resources. For example, a formal exchange might be a classroom evaluation of teaching. Informal exchanges can include things such as a supportive friendship. “I had people say things such as, ‘She and I are really good friends, and that’s been meaningful to me because last semester I had a really rough day in the classroom. She took me out, we had a glass of wine, and she gave me some really good advice, and that really helped me pull through.’ In general, we’re thinking about any career-related resources that help faculty members understand their jobs, to be successful and satisfied in their work, but specifically it’s all these incidental tasks that are exchanged through these friendships, through these collegial relationships.”

While study participants had a clear understanding of their relationships within the department, they were uncomfortable thinking about those relationships in terms of “strategic networking.” “Faculty members are very bright, very capable people,” Pifer says. They are pretty methodical about the way they get things done and manage their careers and their lives. I would show them a roster of their colleagues or a map of their network and they would instantly say things like, ‘He has access to a lot of grant money, but I don’t want to have to be his underling. We’re friendly, but I don’t want to collaborate with him.’ Or ‘Oh, that reminds me, I need to take her out to lunch. She’s the chair of the tenure committee, and I haven’t introduced myself to her yet.’

“Most people were very comfortable conceptualizing their relationships in this way, but they were much less comfortable articulating that strategic behavior, self-serving behavior, networking behavior. I think that makes sense when we stop to think about it because I think we still like to think of higher education faculty as very independent and motivated, where we’re all supportive, bright people capable of earning success based on merit alone. I don’t think that’s an accurate perception of the faculty career today. Yes, of course, that matters, but what also matters is the access that people have to the opportunities and resources through their relationships.”

Pifer found that relationships within departmental networks are complex and are often based on professional similarities such as methodological preferences or research interests or on personal similarities such as gender, marital status, race, or sexual orientation.

“I did see that faculty are reaching out to people who think they are similar to themselves, but I also found that that’s a very complex process that includes professional similarities as well as personal similarities. One of the next big questions is, is there potential that somebody is being unintentionally left out, and if so what do we think about that? What does that mean for equity? What does that mean for career success? Where do we go from there?”

An important consideration is whether everyone within a department has access to a network that can help them in their careers. For example, if there is a lot of networking going on in the locker room in a small department with six men and one woman, what is that woman not being granted access to because of her gender? By considering a networks perspective, departments can begin to understand who may be excluded and why.

“One of the key findings was that departmental culture is sort of the collective communication of the norms, behaviors, and relationships that are common and expected within the department. I also found that the role of the department chair is crucial in both departments. Participants were very satisfied with the department chair in both departments. The chairs were very articulate and intentional about making sure that the faculty members got the resources they needed. I found that when these chairs created a culture of support where expectations were clearly communicated and resources were clearly provided, that seemed to be enough. It was something [the faculty] internalized, and without much prompting from me they would say quite frequently, ‘You know, I really have to thank the department chair for his leadership in this.’ Every person in the network contributes to the culture and the outcomes of that network, but formal leaders and informal leaders absolutely have significant influence on what that looks like,” Pifer says.

Networks are complex, constantly changing, and cannot be manipulated to suit the vision of an academic leader. However, Pifer recommends that academic leaders and faculty try to understand their networks and address inequities if they exist. “Ask people to think about it. You can formalize it as much or as little as you like. You can go so far as to bring somebody in and do an external assessment, or you can say to the faculty, ‘Before our next faculty meeting I want you all to take a look at our website or a roster of our colleagues and think seriously about your relationships with them according to these three, four, or five purposes.’ Ask faculty members to think about their own needs and their own contributions to others’ career development.

“Using this as a conceptual tool to help people understand that their relationships can be mapped out, we can think about them logically and systematically and we can identify any potential problem,” Pifer says. This is a difficult analysis for a chair to conduct individually through observation, because the complexity of these relationships is not always apparent. Encouraging faculty to map their own networks or guiding a discussion to determine whether some faculty do not have access to resources. Another approach is to at look things such as office allocation, teaching loads, and research productivity to look for factors that might indirectly indicate faculty members’ access to departmental resources.

“Physical space matters. When departments are organized in ways where people have reasons to interact with each other frequently and informally, that can do a lot to support the development of informal relationships that can lead to formal career outcomes,” Pifer says.

As with anything involving highly independent faculty members, a top-down approach to changing behavior is unlikely to succeed, Pifer says. “If you walk into a room full of people, let alone academics, and say, ‘Good news! I’m going to perfect your interpersonal behavior,’ you’re going to be run out of town. So the conclusion is not that we can or even should change behavior, but that we want to understand the difference between preference and personality and unintended inequity or unfair differentiation and access to resources.”

For more on this research see http://etda.libraries.psu.edu/theses/approved/WorldWideIndex/ETD-4994/index.html.

Reprinted from Understand Networks within Academic Departments Academic Leader, 27.5 (2011): 1, 7.