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Volume 2, Number 1, Oct 2001

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

Setting the Stage for a Partnership: Assuring Free, Informed Choice

The core of the partnership paradigm for RA-faculty work is joint decision-making. Greater equity in decision-making extends to whether a partnership approach is appropriate for a particular faculty member and research assistant. In short, it should be easy for the RA, in a traditionally less powerful position, to say "no" to a faculty invitation of a partnership working relationship without negative repercussions.

The first step for setting the stage rests in how RAs and faculty members are assigned. Following our presentation of the partnership motel to fellow MPA faculty and students, the assignment process for 1997-98 was revised. Faculty projects and interests were posted, and RAs contacted the faculty members with whom they wanted to work. The MPA Director made the formal arrangements, but followed the negotiated interests of RAs and faculty almost without exception. RAs and faculty are now more actively involved in the selection process, and therefore can more consciously choose to work with one another based on their interests and working styles.

Second, both as part of the potential assignments, and definitely once an RA-faculty pairing is set, there must be a discussion about the overall working relationship, separated as much as possible from the content of the work. Communication styles, RA background and skills, and kinds of tasks on work projects envisioned by the faculty member, need to be explored to clarify interests and capabilities by the RA and faculty member to enact a partnership work relationship. There should also be a clear discussion of alternative working relationships, i.e., traditional hierarchical vs. more of a partnership (see Table 1) It is important to understand at this early stage that a partnership paradigm depends on the interest and ability of a RA to take more responsibility in conjunction with faculty flexibility and commitment to alter a traditional faculty-RA power relationship.

There is a conundrum from the beginning: who raises the idea of working in a partnership arrangement? If the faculty member does so, the whole effort could begin with the RA deferring to him/her in order not to raise the skepticism or discomfort of the faculty member at the very beginning of the work relationship. For instance, even if the faculty member is open to a partnership, the RA may not be interested (due to different interest in substantive areas of the field, a heavy course schedule, or limited compatibility with the faculty member) and may prefer a more traditional work relationship. However, it is counter-cultural for a RA to come in and suggest a particular way of working, especially when the whole structure is for the student to assist the faculty member. Therefore, the culture of the department or professional program must be safe and positive for a RA and his/her faculty member to discuss their desired working styles and then to make an informed choice about how they will work together.

Conduct Mutual Feedback Sessions on the Work Relationship

What we found most valuable in our experiment in a partnership work relationship was to set aside specific occasions to assess our working relationship. We conducted these sessions separate from our regular meetings on projects. It was important to us to have a designated session devoted to work process, instead of content. We heartily recommend the same for others enacting a partnership model. Finally, we believe as more RA-faculty pairs intentionally work in a partnership manner, that sharing their struggles and successes will enhance learning.


We offer our experience and reflection about working in a partnership paradigm because it was exciting, challenging and sometimes frustrating. Moreover, our thinking points to areas of research on mentoring which need to expand to RA-faculty relationships. As noted above, most mentoring literature looks at junior faculty-senior faculty relations, or faculty-student relationships where there is not a pre-structured exchange relationship. Our experience indicates ways mentoring can be included in a RA-faculty relationship, but also how the structure of the exchange-relationship limits "pure mentoring." We call for mentoring advocates and evaluators to test their theories by examining RA-faculty relationships.

Finally, we believe our experience is transferable. First, it is transferable within the university, to other professional and graduates degree programs utilizing research assistants. Second, we judge our experience is transferable outside the university, where most students completing their professional or graduate degrees apply their knowledge. In this way, we hope this case study inspired others to reexamine and reform how the working relationships within academia prepare or hinder people in their professional development.


We wish to thank the Journal's two anonymous reviewers and our colleagues who reviewed an earlier version of this article: Peg Carlson, Kimberly Cartron, Anne Davidson, Ed Neal, Gordon Whitaker, and Michelle Woster. We appreciated the discussion with the 15 participants from the UNCCH MPA program at a February 25, 1997 seminar on the Partnership Paradigm.

Meredith Miller received her Master's of Public Administration degree from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in May, 1998. Her specialty is education policy and program implementation. John B. Stephens is an Assistant Professor of Public Management and Government at the Institute of Government, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His specialty is public dispute resolution.

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