Digest No. 06 - June 2019

How Culture Shapes Faculty Members’ Experiences—for Good or Ill—at Liberal Arts Colleges

Pifer, M. J., V. L. Baker, and L. G. Lunsford. 2019. “Culture, Colleagues, and Leadership: The Academic Department as a Location for Faculty Experiences in Liberal Arts Colleges.” Review of Higher Education 42 (2): 537–564.


“We have a lot of dysfunctional departments, because the administration allows them to be so. I’ve been chair for six years. Ever since I got tenure. There are no tools that I’m given; no training on how to deal with conflict or how to make it a better place. I’ve tried everything I can think of, and we’re still dysfunctional. It’s taken a toll on me and not been made any better. But there’s absolutely zero support from the administration in trying to create a decent working environment at the departmental level, and there’s no way for us to punish or reward people who behave poorly or well. God, I desperately want out, but I don’t see any way. There’s no one else to do it.” (p. 554)

As the quotation above indicates, this study examined faculty members’ work at liberal arts colleges (LACs) and the role departments play in shaping their experiences. Grounded in theories of positive organizational behaviors, the authors adopted a phenomenological approach to data collection, control, and analysis and interviewed 55 faculty members at liberal arts colleges, including Albion College, Allegheny College, Denison University, DePauw University, Earlham College, Hope College, Kalamazoo College, Oberlin College, Ohio Wesleyan University, Wabash College, and the College of Wooster. The interviews were structured to ascertain “faculty work and experiences within LACs” (p. 544). Findings provided information on department cultures (for example, positive and challenging department cultures), department colleagues (such as positive and challenging collegial relationships), and departmental leadership (challenging experiences with chairs, positive experiences as chairs, and challenging experiences as chairs). Among the many important implications, the authors suggest that institutional leaders need to do a better job of selecting, training, and supporting department chairs, who inevitably shape the culture in which faculty members work and students learn.


The authors categorized findings into three areas: department cultures, colleagues, and leadership. In the area of cultures, 14 of the 55 participants had positive department experiences, expressed by “cultural indicators within their departments such as traditions and rituals that helped socialize new faculty members into the institutions and fostered positive cultures over time” (p. 548). Examples of these include traditions of using department meeting times to celebrate the academic and personal achievements of faculty members and for issues related to problem-solving. Frequently, the authors used examples of faculty members’ exchanges with each other and with their chairs to illuminate department culture. Challenging department cultures were mentioned by 12 participants who spoke of seeming mismatches between faculty members’ expectations of working in a liberal arts environment and their actual experiences. For example, one faculty member reflected on a conversation about research productivity with the department chair: “‘You know, if you’re interested in this, you should’ve gone to an R1 institution’…So, I kind of had to go underground. I just never mentioned research in the department” (p. 549).
Turning to colleagues, the authors divided findings into those that reflected positive collegial relationships and those that were more challenging. Thirty of the 55 participants spoke about the importance of department colleagues in shaping their impressions and experiences within a liberal arts community. For these faculty members close friendships within the department were important, as they noted relying on their colleagues in times of “illness and life events” (p. 551). Nine participants mentioned challenging collegial relationships. Although their stories varied, the faculty members mentioned department size as a contributing factor. “If you’re in a small department where not everyone gets along, I’m sure that’s very challenging. I don’t know what the university—if and what—the university should do about that” (p. 551). Regardless of department size, the presence of challenging colleagues led to department reassignments, office relocations, and/or refusals to work on campus.


Finally, faculty members spoke about the importance of departmental leadership, and the problems challenging experiences created in that regard, in helping them achieve success. The evidence of challenging experiences with chairs was idiosyncratic to the participant’s experience, with stories ranging from department chairs’ general lack of support to even a chair’s “meltdown” (p. 553). That said, negative experiences with chairs made large impressions on faculty members and were often articulated as reasons for general workplace dissatisfaction. As the authors summarize: “Particularly within LACs, there are often not many steps between chairs and provosts or presidents, which can add to the harm caused by ineffective chairs when they have influence at the highest levels of LAC leadership” (p. 553).

In addition to interviewing faculty members about their experiences with chairs, the authors interviewed faculty members who had served or were serving as chairs. Positive experiences as chairs typically included comments about administrative support, both in terms of mentorship from the top and staff support within the department. As the only offered “unanticipated finding from the study” (pp. 553–554), given its principal focus on faculty members not serving as chairs, the authors addressed challenges regarding the role of being a department chair: “The three main ways in which these roles presented challenges seemed to be an inability to effectively manage difficult departmental colleagues and mitigate the negative effects of their behaviors on the department, frustration with trying to chair a department of more senior colleagues and/or prior to receiving tenure, and a lack of administrative training and support for their work as department chair” (p. 554).


One faculty member remarked, “I had no concept of what that meant to be a chair in an academic institution. I know I did a horrible job” (p. 555). At CIC colleges and universities, administrators should not assume that exposure to the work of colleagues as chairs necessarily results in faculty members knowing how to perform the job themselves. What are administrators doing to support chairs? Beyond course buy-outs and staff support, faculty members may need some sort of coaching as they assume the role of department chair. Providing mentorship programs might help them create a more positive department culture.
The authors found that effective leaders used meetings well, including providing an appreciative environment for their colleagues and addressing departmental problems. Using meetings solely to communicate information can undermine faculty success. Faculty members want to develop strong relationships with colleagues and work on building solutions together; the personal interactions that come with meetings are opportunities for achieving these objectives. Squandering such opportunities by merely communicating information—something that could often be done over email—erodes faculty confidence in leadership and may contribute to more negative feelings about the department culture.
As a reminder, CIC offers an annual series of Workshops for Department and Division Chairs to provide training for new chairs and a listserv for chairs to share resources and programmatic ideas as well as to seek support from colleagues.

About the Author

Meghan J. Pifer is an associate professor of higher education at the University of Louisville.

Vicki L. Baker is a professor of economics and management at Albion College and instructor of business administration for the World Campus at Pennsylvania State University.

Laura Gail Lunsford is a professor and chair of psychology at Campbell University.

Literature Readers May Wish to Consult

Baker, V. L., R. G. Baldwin, and S. Makker. 2012. Developing Faculty in Liberal Arts Colleges: Aligning Individual Needs and Organizational Goals. New Brunswick: New Jersey University Press.

Twale, D. J., and B. M. DeLuca. 2008. Faculty Incivility: The Rise of Academic Culture and What to Do about It. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.