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Volume 2, Number 1, Oct 2001

A Partnership Paradigm:
A Case Study in Research Assistant
and Faculty Interaction (page 3 of 4)


Some other specific ways that we achieved a more equal power structure included: dividing up leadership responsibilities for work tasks (such as conducting research for a case study); rotating the responsibility of forming our meeting agendas and maintaining our project task list; occasionally meeting outside John’s office in a more neutral setting (such as the library, a lounge, or outside); and assigning each other background reading material for a monthly discussion about public disputes, conflict resolution and mediation. On the lighter side, we occasionally switched chairs in John's office so that Meredith was behind the desk. The reaction of surprise and curiosity from people walking by John's office was illuminating.

Challenges of the Partnership Paradigm

Power Imbalance

Inherent in any faculty-research assistant working relationship is the difference in each person’s expertise and in the long-term stake in the faculty member's work. For these reasons, it is often appropriate for the faculty member to be more directive. This structural difference can easily result in a power imbalance. It is a challenge for a student to take the initiative with a professor, due to strategic reasons grounded in acculturation to be deferential in a student-faculty relationship. If a research assistant comes across as pushy or unbending, such an impression could have negative consequences if he/she takes a course from the faculty member or if the negative impression is shared with other teachers. It is important for the faculty member to understand that a student may have limits on his/her time and other professional development priorities. In a partnership, these limitations must be both recognized and respected. Mutual respect is an important way to create a balance in power.

We deliberately worked on this power issue. John's faculty position allowed him to learn of and begin developing new projects in public dispute resolution before talking with Meredith. These new efforts necessitated joint discussion on whether to shift resources (research time and writing) from one project to another, or to work outside of the RA-faculty arrangement (i.e., by John alone or by John and other colleagues). Although we mate these changes openly, the imbalance of John's greater background information and his responsibility for the long-term development of research, teaching ant writing limited the mutuality of our partnership work. This left John feeling at several points that he was being more directive in the relationship and undercutting partnership paradigm values. While Meredith felt this was not a barrier, it is important to be aware of the structural limits of a partnership approach to RA-faculty work.

A colleague noted that a difference of perception could complicate a power imbalance. For instance, if a RA-faculty pair commits to work more in partnership, and the faculty member believes it is being accomplished but the RA does not share that impression, the RA is in a doubly difficult position. Thus, one of our recommendations relates to how RAs have opportunities to share their impressions of their work arrangements.

Another fruitful question from a RA colleague was "What's in it for faculty?" Her observation was that it seemed while there was great benefit to the student RA (increased power, learning and challenge), the benefit to the professor would be moderate at best. Indeed, if a faculty person is concerned about sharing/giving up power and is more interested in gaining limited assistance on particular projects, a partnership paradigm is not worthwhile. For John, his interest was to express principles of work relationships in general, to try a new arrangement in a low risk setting, and to educate himself.

Time Investment

The creation of the partnership took significant time. Once the faculty-driven model is abandoned, many large and small decisions are open for discussion. True joint decision making is time consuming We kept an openness to revise priorities, handle new information, and decide who took the lead on a particular task or project. While some of the time for joint decision-making could have been telescoped (e.g., making larger decisions earlier on so that fewer procedural questions needed to be decided later), we did not consider making hard definitions of roles early on.

We found that our flexibility made us more productive, but we both sometimes felt pressed to set clear deadlines for specific tasks and work products for each other's review. The central challenge for John was how best to balance the exploration of and learning about a partnership paradigm with the specific short-term demands for teaching, research, writing and program development required by his department. Meredith initially had to spend more time learning about John's area of expertise so she could feel confident writing and making decisions in a new subject area.

One benefit we think we can offer is our experience (above) and recommendations (below) to reduce the planning time needed for other faculty-RA pairs. For instance, in a seminar at UNC-CH before our colleagues, they confirmed our sense of being "trailblazers" and we sensed that offering some guidelines from our experience would make it easier for others to apply and adapt our model.


As much as we think we have made our RA-faculty relationship more equal, there were several structural factors which limited a truly equal partnership. Some have been mentioned above: the faculty member having greater expertise; faculty having more time and more responsibility in the long run; and the RA's needs for academic development. John's larger array of interests and needs were not all brought into the partnership. For instance, while John informed Meredith of his teaching schedule, and encouraged her to observe and give feedback, there were no teaching elements brought into the partnership.

Similar Social Backgrounds

Heterogeneity of personal backgrounds and attributes could be a challenge for enacting a partnership approach to RA-faculty work. We believe our relatively similar backgrounds and personal characteristics made our experiment easier. We share the same racial and socioeconomic class background, and both of us had experience working in government positions in Washington, DC. We are very culturally similar, which may be an important factor in the ease of initiating a partnership paradigm for RA-faculty work. While Meredith did not see public dispute resolution as being of special interest for her degree and career development, she saw it as complementary to her substantive interests in education and youth. Specifically, she already had a positive regard for John's substantive area through a friend who worked in the dispute resolution field.


Our experiment in a partnership paradigm was formally completed in April, 1997 when Meredith’s research assistantship ended. However, we agreed to continue to prepare this article, and have conducted presentations on this topic both to the MPA program, and to a University-wide audience. Despite our modest experience, we will boldly offer recommendations for other RA-faculty pairs interested in a partnership working relationship. We offer our recommendations in a general form to make them applicable across a range of academic disciplines and professional studies. Specific steps are summarized in Table 2.

Table 2

Steps in Making a RA-Faculty Partnership Work

1) Determine if a more equal working relationship is important for academic and professional development.

2) Establish a policy of voluntary RA-faculty assignments.

3) Hold an orientation/ exploration session on effective RA-faculty working relationships with an option of working in a partnership arrangement.

4) Individual RA-faculty pairs determine their procedural and content goals for a working relationship.

5) In a partnership relationship, each RA-faculty pair should hold periodic feedback sessions on the effectiveness of their working relationship separate from the content of their work. We recommend such sessions twice a semester.

6) At least once a year, assess the experiences of all RA-faculty pairs working in a partnership arrangement and share the assessment with all faculty and students.

Determining Whether to Create a Partnership: Will it Achieve Pedagogical and Professional Goals?

The potential benefit of a partnership paradigm fits neatly with many professional graduate programs in general and changes in the workplace in particular. Because the UNC-CH MPA program combines classroom teaching, formal and informal seminars with practitioners, internships and a major research project, a partnership paradigm enhances the student's educational and professional development. Since more workplaces are less hierarchical and more team oriented, experience in a partnership paradigm enacts collaborative values and offers experience relevant to career-long needs. Similarly, a more collegial working relationship is realistic for MPA careers involving cross-function coordination; problem-solving involving public servants, citizens and private interests; and multi-agency cooperation to address interrelated needs or problems. The paradigm also challenges faculty to embody the values of cooperation or CO-management that are now dominant in management and organizational development today.

Other graduate and professional programs may have different goals and more traditional postgraduate work environments. Thus the relevance of a partnership paradigm for RA-faculty work depends on the goals and values of the graduate or professional degree program.

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