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Volume 2, Number 1, Oct 2001

A Partnership Paradigm:
A Case Study in Research Assistant
and Faculty Interaction*

by Meredith Miller and John B. Stephens, 1998

*Reprinted with permission from the Journal of Staff,
Professional and Organization Development
, Vol. 15, No. 3, pp. 111-119
Student research assistants (RAs) often encounter a game of "Russian roulette" when working with faculty members. Sometimes professors ask students to undertake the brainless job of photocopying; others give substantive research projects to RAs that stretch their skills and understanding But almost always the RA can count on a subordinate working relationship with the faculty member. In this article, we offer a case study of our intentional effort to change the typical power relationship between most RAs and faculty members. We believe this approach, which we call the partnership paradigm, provides an opportunity for effective and mutually enriching experiences for both faculty and students serving as research assistants.

We will describe the partnership experiment we undertook as professor and student in a professional degree program at a state research university. We developed a partnership paradigm that includes aspects of mentoring and a power structure characterized by exchange rather than authority. After reflecting on our work relationship, we came to understand that this model exists on a continuum. TABLE 1 depicts four models of potential RA-faculty work arrangement. We classify our effort as "partnership light." We judge that structural factors prevented a working partnership evolved over the span of stronger partnership arrangement. Table 1 summarizes the issues that affected how we consciously restructured our relationship into more of a partnership.

In this article, we describe the challenges we faced, delineated limitations for creating a truly equal working relationship, and offer recommendations for others who want to apply all or part of this paradigm to their working relationships.

Background

In August 1996, we were assigned to work together through the Master of Public Administration (MPA) program at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. John is a faculty member at UNC's Institute of Government, and Meredith was a graduate student in the Master of Public Administration (MPA) program. MPA students regularly are placed as research assistants with faculty of the Institute of Government. The idea of a working partnership evolved over the span of Meredith's assistantship with John (August 1996- May 1997). During our first meeting we discussed working styles and determined that we were both interested in a more collaborative and less hierarchical work relationship. Over time, we realized that the structure of our working relationship was different from the traditional research assistantship.

John's desire for a more collaborative working relationship arose from two factors: the value he places on mutual learning and his discomfort with hierarchy. His interest in structuring mutual learning relationships was heightened by a workshop on facilitation and organizational development he took from Institute of Government colleagues shortly before meeting Meredith. He was exposed to Chris Argyris' research on executive decision-making and the distinction between unilateral control and a mutual learning model of management. Specifically, the workshop instructors challenged participants to apply mutual learning principles in their work and personal decision-making.

John realized that revising the relationship between him and a research assistant was risky, and could be time consuming. However, he pursued the project with Meredith for three reasons. First, the faculty-RA relationship was a good setting to apply a mutual learning, more equal decision-making model. The projects open for collaboration with Meredith were under John's control, and offered a way to test how he would work with future research assistants from the MPA program. Second, a partnership approach was consistent with John's values and expertise in cooperative forms of conflict resolution, i.e. seeking common interests and integrative solutions among people who have different needs and interests. Third, designing as equal and collegial a relationship as possible with Meredith would recognize her experience, knowledge and ability to make significant intellectual contributions to joint projects. A final benefit, recognized in hind sight, is that a partnership approach to RA faculty work is consistent with changes in the structure of workplace relationships to more team-based, cooperative models of decision making. Even if the effort took more time and effort, it posed a useful intellectual challenge and a learning opportunity that could be applied across John's academic career.

Meredith was interested in a partnership approach to her research assistantship be cause of her previous positive experiences with supervisors who worked collaboratively and allowed a high level of participation in decision-making. As a student in the MPA program, she also had an interest in applying aspects of her classroom learning to the assistantship. In a fall 1996 semester course, she read an article by Chris Argyris and was exposed too the theorists and researchers on more collaborative, less-hierarchical forms of group interaction and employee management. Her RA assignment with John (8 hours per week on average) became an ideal Situation to put such management and leadership theory into practice.

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