Understanding Faculty Involvement
in Residential Learning Communities

Chris M. Golde
Dean A. Pribbenow

Department of Educational Administration

University of Wisconsin-Madison

Journal of College Student Development

Through interviews with faculty members in two residential learning communities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we explored the experiences and motivations of 15 faculty members who became involved and stayed involved in these programs, and we shed light on the role that academic culture plays in such involvement. We also explored implications for collaborative efforts between student affairs and academic affairs.

Integrated undergraduate education, which helps students to synthesize what they learn in different courses and to connect in- and out-of-classroom experiences, has been the clarion call of high profile reports. Most notably, the Boyer Commission said: "Research universities have too often failed, and continue to fail, their undergraduate population. . . . What is needed now is a new model of undergraduate education at research universities that makes the baccalaureate experience an inseparable part of an integrated whole" (Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University, 1998, p. 5, 6). Providing truly integrated learning involves the partnership of many people on campus, not just faculty. Student affairs professionals have recognized the need for partnership with faculty; indeed, leading thinkers in student affairs have called for the systematic and intentional integration of academic and out-of-classroom aspects of student life (ACPA, 1994; Association of College and University Housing Officers-International, 1996; Chickering & Gamson, 1987; Kuh, Douglas, Lund, & Ramin-Gyurnek, 1994; NASPA), 1987). Although these are recent initiatives, they hearken back to the traditional underpinnings of the student affairs profession articulated in the Student Personnel Point of View (NASPA, 1987).

Residence halls are one venue for integrated learning initiatives that specifically involve faculty members. Although many of these efforts have been successful, planners--often student affairs professionals--are frequently frustrated by an apparent lack of faculty interest. Still, some faculty do become involved and make sincere commitments to such programs. Why do they do so? How can their experiences inform efforts to include more faculty in such efforts?

Who benefits when faculty and students interact outside of the classroom setting? Students certainly do. Research has shown that contact with faculty members outside the classroom has benefits for students. Both student learning and personal development are positively affected (Kuh et al., 1994; NASPA, 1987; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991; Sorcinelli, 1991). Personal contact with faculty produces positive changes in students' values such as altruism and political liberalism; increases students' interests in pursuing a career, particularly in scientific or scholarly directions; and positively correlates with increased cognitive skills, such as problem solving and the ability to evaluate materials. Measures of achievement, such as grades and degree completion, are also positively affected by increased interaction (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991). In addition, interactions with faculty lead students to be more satisfied with their college experience overall (Astin, 1985).

Although the benefits for students have been clearly documented, less is known about how faculty benefit from their involvement in students' out-of-class learning experiences. This research has focused on faculty interaction with students in learning communities, many of which are not residentially based. Faculty involved in learning communities value working with colleagues from different academic departments (Gabelnick, MacGregor, Matthews, & Smith, 1990). Programs with a residential component also offer faculty the opportunity to work with colleagues in student affairs, bridging the academic and student services divisions of the university (Kuh et al., 1994). By getting to know students better, some faculty report improvements in their teaching (Kuh, Schuh, Whitt, & Associates, 1991).

Residence halls are particularly fruitful settings for efforts to integrate academic and social life by bringing students and faculty into regular contact with one another (Schroeder & Mable, 1994). When faculty enter residence halls, even just for an evening meal, they cross an unofficial cultural divide between faculty-controlled academic time and space and student-controlled social time and space. Models of faculty involvement include: faculty in residence, assigned faculty fellows who coordinate regular programs, classes that meet in the residence hall, freshman-year programs, students living in proximity and taking the same courses, and theme halls with affiliated faculty. Some of these approaches were integrated into the living and learning centers of the 1970s and 1980s (Blimling, 1993). More recently we have seen efforts to create residential learning communities (Kuh et al., 1991; Schroeder & Mable, 1994). Many current residential learning communities attempt to recreate some aspect of the British "Oxbridge" residential college system, which promotes the educational value of community life and encourages the development of the whole student (Ryan, 1992). Difficulties occur, however, when attempts to duplicate the English-based system are confronted with "the organizational mainstream of American higher education" (Duke, 1996, p. 8).

Residential learning community leaders face significant challenges, regardless of the model of involvement they embrace. One challenge is to recruit and retain faculty members to the program. Low levels of faculty interaction with students testify to the uphill nature of this struggle. For example, in 1993, the average faculty member spent less than 5 hours per week in informal contact with students (Finkelstein, Seal, & Schuster, 1998). To address this challenge some research has been done on the characteristics of faculty who typically become involved in residentially-based education programs. Faculty involved in residential colleges usually define themselves primarily as teachers, and often have broad multidisciplinary research and teaching interests (Hart & Smith, 1993). Faculty involved in cluster colleges demonstrate a commitment to the institution's mission and to the idea of innovation (Martin & Wilkinson, 1970). Some successful strategies for identifying faculty include seeking out tenured faculty who regularly interact with students, who are teaching or service award winners, or whose children have just begun college. Still, the relatively few faculty who do engage in such activities are prone to burnout because they are called upon repeatedly, which threatens efforts to retain them.

To return to Duke's point, what is it, we wondered, about mainstream American higher education that hinders the development of such programs and, in particular, faculty involvement in them? Two explanations for faculty members' apparent unwillingness to enter residential learning communities predominate--the faculty reward system and differences between faculty, administrative, and student cultures. Most commonly, the blame for low levels of faculty involvement is assigned to the faculty reward and tenure system. On many campuses tenure, resources, and prestige are accorded on the basis of research activities, not on the basis of campus service--which is how out-of-class interactions with students is usually categorized (Wagener & Lazerson, 1995). The clear message to faculty is that their time is best spent on research and publication, whereas service activities are to be kept to a minimum, and should ideally augment research, such as service to a professional association. In fact, junior faculty are routinely "protected" from service by well-meaning senior colleagues. This institutional value towards research and away from campus service causes faculty members to isolate themselves from students, further perpetuating the belief that academic and out-of-classroom aspects of students' lives are separate and distinct (Kuh et al., 1991). As a result, faculty and students "have struck an implicit bargain that says, in effect, 'you leave me alone and I will leave you alone'" (Kuh et al., 1994, p. 82). This problem particularly plagues large campuses, which do not have the historical tradition of faculty members living with and working closely with students that is common at liberal arts colleges (Finkelstein, 1984). By and large, faculty-student interactions at large campuses are usually limited to formalized class-related situations (Boyer, 1987).

A second explanation is that faculty have different values, communication styles, and personalities--a different culture--than student affairs professionals, who are usually the ones to initiate out-of-classroom programs and to recruit faculty to participate (Blake, 1996; Mitchell & Roof, 1989). These cultural differences, or perceptions of differences, sometimes stand as barriers between faculty and their collaboration with student affairs professionals (Brown, 1988; Creeden, 1988; Reger & Hyman, 1988). The culture gap may be even greater between faculty and students. For example, Moffatt (1989) explains that most faculty "had never heard of some of the commoner terms in undergraduate slang. . . Almost all of them would have been confused and uncomfortable in the average dorm talk session" (p. 26). This explanation suggests that student affairs administrators do not know how to ask faculty to participate in campus activities in a way likely to garner a positive response. Furthermore, faculty are unlikely to be able to talk easily with students if they do participate in activities. These cultural differences are barriers to the success of these interactions.

We find both of these explanations unduly simplified and unable to account for those faculty who do become involved in residential learning communities and similar efforts. We believe that faculty who are involved with residential learning communities can teach us important lessons about faculty involvement and about efforts to create and sustain these types of programs. Furthermore, understanding their experiences and motivations can be useful for understanding the changing context in which today's faculty work.


Our approach to understanding faculty involvement in residential learning communities is anchored in qualitative methodology and guided by an interpretivist perspective, which has the "goal of understanding the complex world of lived experience from the point of view of those who live it" (Schwandt, 1994, p. 118). Thus, we sought to understand faculty involvement from the perspective of the faculty members. This approach provided us with the ability to "uncover and understand what lies behind any phenomenon about which little is yet known"(Strauss & Corbin, 1990, p. 19).

Before describing our methods in detail, we want to describe the backgrounds and assumptions we carried into this project. Chris is currently a Higher Education faculty member at UW-Madison, and was the Student Activities Director at a small college. During the time we conducted this research, she was also closely involved with the Chadbourne Residential College, serving on the Steering Committee, and as advisor to the Facstaff Involvement Mission Group. Now the Director of the Institute for Service Learning at UW-Milwaukee, Dean is a doctoral candidate in Higher Education from UW-Madison, and was a Residence Life staff member at several institutions. Thus we both see these issues from the multiple perspectives of student affairs practitioners, higher education scholars, and faculty members. One of us was an insider in one residential learning community, the other was not; thus our analysis benefited both from the contextual information available to insiders and the critical distance available to outsiders.

Turning now to the details of our project: we used interviews to understand the motivations and experiences of faculty who are participating in new residential learning communities at a large public research university. We believe that such institutions are often ill-equipped to foster integrated learning because of the number of students and because the faculty reward structure is heavily skewed in favor of research. Thus, these settings serve as particularly interesting and illuminating cases (Yin, 1991). We believe that by gaining a better understanding of faculty involvement at these institutions, we will be better able to develop residence hall communities in which faculty are full partners at all institutions (Schroeder & Mable, 1994).

The University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison) is actively engaged in trying to change the culture of residence halls. To that end, it has recently initiated two residential learning communities. Neither offers a special academic program nor faculty residing with students, thus they do not meet traditional definitions of residential colleges (Duke, 1996; Smith, 1993). Nonetheless, consistent with contemporary definitions of residential learning communities, each has an explicit mission of enhancing and connecting to the academic program, thereby encouraging the integration of curricular and cocurricular experiences (Astin, 1985; Brower & Dettinger, 1998).

The Bradley Learning Community (BLC) began in 1995 and houses 250 first-year students in a four-story low-rise building. This program incorporates a dozen Faculty Fellows from various disciplines who devote 1 or 2 hours per week to students in the residence hall. Examples of activities include faculty-student dinners, theater events, and current events workshops. One core BLC experience is a one-credit journal-writing course led by a Faculty Fellow. Over half the residents enroll in this course. The BLC is also supported by and connected to several interdisciplinary academic programs.

The Chadbourne Residential College (CRC) began in 1997. It is housed in an 11-story high-rise and is home to 700 students, two thirds of whom are first-year students. This program incorporates numerous faculty and staff at various levels of involvement rather than designating a specific core group of faculty. Examples of CRC events include small-group discussions during orientation, monthly dinners with faculty, activities with faculty families, and presentations on topics of faculty expertise. Three of the interview subjects came from CRC, which is a newer program. None of the faculty in either program receives monetary compensation or release time from classes or committee work. In that sense, their residential learning community activities are performed in addition to their other research and teaching responsibilities.

Prior to beginning our interviews, we reviewed documents, web pages, and assessment data that described the residential programs, the faculty, and the students involved. This review allowed us to gain a broad understanding of the institutional context within which each program is situated. We conducted the research in the spring and summer of 1998; thus we refer to the status of the programs in the 1997-98 academic year.


We used purposeful sampling strategies to identify the faculty members interviewed for this study (Bogdan & Biklen, 1992). We obtained the list of faculty most closely involved in initial and ongoing activities of the learning communities from the residence life administrator who oversees these programs. Of that list, 1 faculty member had retired and another declined to be interviewed. We interviewed the remaining 15. Three were faculty leaders who had assumed a primary role in the development of the program and in the recruitment of other faculty participants. Two of the 3 faculty leaders were faculty directors of each of the programs. Another 3 faculty had left the program after 1 or 2 years of involvement. These 3 faculty were well situated to inform our understanding of decisions to stay or not stay involved in these programs and as such, served as negative cases (Bogdan & Biklen, 1992). All but 1 of the 15 faculty had obtained tenure, nearly all had previous experiences in interdisciplinary curricular programs or learning communities, and most had previously been involved with students outside the classroom and enjoyed such involvement. This matches many of the characteristics described earlier.

We first interviewed the 12 current and former participants (as distinguished from the faculty leaders) to obtain an understanding of the range of their involvement and experiences, and then conducted interviews with the 3 faculty leaders. Conducting the interviews in this order allowed us to check our initial findings with faculty leaders who had historical and insider perspectives on the programs. Furthermore, the leaders were closely involved with the recruitment of other participants and could reflect on what we found in interviews with participants.

Data Collection and Analysis

Our interviews were semistructured, about 1 hour long, and included questions that focused primarily on the nature of each person's involvement. For example, we asked: "You are a Faculty Fellow at Bradley. Could you begin by telling me about the nature of your involvement and how you came to participate?" We also asked about why people chose to get and stay involved, by asking questions like: "As you think about when you got involved in the first place, what were some of the benefits of participation that you considered?" and "As you think about your ongoing involvement, what are some of the negative aspects of your involvement?" We probed for details and for the meaning people attached to their experiences. We asked: "How were your initial expectations met and not met?" and "What do you gain from your involvement in Bradley?" Finally, we asked about their plans for involvement in the future and their thoughts about the future of faculty involvement in residential learning communities. Our semistructured approach allowed us the flexibility to ask follow-up questions and probe for clarification, examples, and meaning (Glesne & Peshkin, 1992). Each interview was tape-recorded and partially transcribed.

Our approach to data analysis is consistent with the iterative nature of analytic induction (Huberman & Miles, 1994). We transcribed relevant sections of each interview, and coded the responses to each question. We grouped these coded responses according to common themes. We also looked for counter-examples to be able to describe the range of opinions on each issue. Data were analyzed throughout the collection process, which enabled us to compare our initial assumptions with emerging themes and new insights, which then could be explored in subsequent interviews.

Trustworthiness of the data was achieved through various strategies. Triangulation occurred as we each individually analyzed the tapes and field notes, and then exchanged and critiqued each other's perspectives. Member checks ensured the accuracy of our interpretations--faculty participants received a draft of this paper and had an opportunity to provide feedback. An audit trail was developed, consisting of tapes, field notes, partial transcripts, protocols, codes, and products capturing the stages of our interpretations (Glesne & Peshkin, 1992; Lincoln & Guba, 1985).


Our findings are grouped into two broad categories. The first category is our findings about the initial and on-going involvement of faculty members in residential learning communities. The second category that emerged from our data identifies what we learned about the challenges of genuinely integrating faculty into residential communities, which over the last quarter century have evolved into student territory managed by student affairs administrators. These findings provide insight into the nature of roles and relationships within the university. The paper concludes with our explanations for the difficulties of involving faculty in student life outside of the classroom. We are hopeful, however, that the lessons we learned can make such interactions more common, particularly at large research universities.

Initial and Ongoing Involvement

In framing the interview questions and analyzing the data we assumed that faculty members make relatively free decisions about how to spend their time--such autonomy is a hallmark of the academic profession (Clark, 1997). Most faculty are besieged with far more requests for their time than they can comply with, so each faculty member must carefully select they activities they will spend their time on. We further assume that faculty use some kind of rational decision-making process: weighing the appealing aspects (pros) and their concerns (cons) about agreeing to participating in a particular activity. Accordingly, we arranged our findings according to this framework.

Initial Involvement. Factors that appealed to faculty when deciding to become involved fell into three categories: (a) a chance to know students better, (b) an opportunity to act in congruence with their beliefs about interdisciplinary and innovative education, and (c) a commitment to the residential learning community idea and purpose.

First, and of primary importance, was that most faculty held a deep concern for the education of undergraduate students and a desire to know students better. Rebecca (all names are pseudonyms) told us:

I'm an educator and that's more than just putting in time in the classroom. I teach material to them in the classroom that has a particular function. . . . I think outside of the classroom I can help them become better educated in the broader facts. We can talk about issues that I don't have the freedom to talk about in the classroom. . . . I do this because I'm trying to make education more holistic.

A number of faculty recognized of the formative nature of the freshman and sophomore years. Daniel described his fascination with students at this stage: "Freshmen are both a little more puzzling and perhaps a little more interesting than upperclassmen. They really are still putting themselves together." It was with this "putting themselves together"--dealing with both personal and academic issues--that many interviewed faculty felt they could make a difference in the lives of students. Indeed, most indicated that they would continue to stay involved as long as they felt that they were having a positive impact on students' undergraduate experiences.

Second, participation in a residential learning community represented an opportunity to act in line with beliefs about interdisciplinary and innovative education. Alan spoke of the importance of learning that occurs outside the classroom: "The idea of involvement with students and student involvement in things that transcended the classroom was always very important to me." Others espoused a belief in interdisciplinary and alternative forms of education--challenges to traditional notions of teaching and learning--that lead to "blurring the lines" between disciplines. Anne, a lifelong proponent of alternative models of pedagogy, reported that "it remains a deliberate choice, both in teaching and research" to refuse affiliation with a single disciplinary department. For her, BLC represented a way to practice her belief in integrated learning.

A third appealing aspect for faculty was simply the idea of the residential learning community. Consistent with many of their previous educational experiences, involvement in the residential learning community represented an opportunity for faculty to rediscover or recreate an educational experience that had significantly affected them. This was especially true for faculty with liberal arts college backgrounds who spoke of a desire for a collegial environment and closer relationships with students. Brad, a faculty leader who recognized this, told us:

Another draw [to the program] is the idea of it, being able to be part of this community that stands for how the university should be. . . . When [many faculty] came to academia, what drew them were their own idealized thoughts about what a university is. Then they come here and find out that it doesn't measure up in many ways. And so [some think], "Gee, maybe [the program] will be the place where I can find that again."

Others discussed the feeling that comes from being part of a group that stands for what the university could or should be. Several faculty explained that they would stop their involvement if they felt that they were no longer making a difference or meeting these goals. Oliver summed it up as having the opportunity to be a part of a community that acknowledges that it is "okay to be troubled by the anonymity and mass culture of this university" and that "being involved with undergraduates is not a bad thing."

To be sure, faculty also described concerns about becoming involved. Not surprisingly, the primary barrier was time. Faculty leaders responsible for recruitment indicated that time constraints was the most common reason given by faculty who chose not to become involved. Louis echoed the thoughts of most of the faculty we interviewed: "The biggest problem that I see is that almost anything that's good to do in our society, including learning communities, you must always do in addition to what you're normally doing. . . . It comes at great expense." In many cases this meant taking time away from other personal commitments such as family. Two of the 3 faculty who left Bradley cited time constraints and competing commitments as a primary cause of their decision to stop participating.

Continuing faculty have found ways to resolve time conflicts. Rebecca, a recently tenured faculty member, acknowledged that finding time is a challenge, but that she has to make time for both her "family life and participation in BLC work because one enriches the other." Because she sees these two parts of her life as mutually reinforcing; she finds time for both.

A second concern for faculty was their acceptance into the learning community. Many faculty worried about being welcomed by the students and fitting into the learning community environment. Their fears ranged from what they would talk about and whether students would find them interesting to whether they would be intruding on the students' territory. Jay felt troubled by his interactions: "I found it difficult to join tables of undergraduates that I didn't know. I had a feeling it was not really working, perhaps because I had no pedagogical contact with them." A few faculty, including Jay, attributed the difficulty in connecting to the age gap between students and themselves. Interestingly, some feared being too old and others worried about being too young. Carl, who is in his 30s, explained that "the students don't know what to make of me. . . . It comes down to what the students want and expect out of this relationship with the faculty. They like the idea of the sage and the mentor, and I don't look like a sage or a mentor."

We also found that faculty new to a program were concerned with whether they would feel welcomed into the existing circle of faculty. This concern was primarily a BLC issue, where incoming faculty members join an established core of Faculty Fellows. Carl, a new BLC Faculty Fellow, expressed concern that "there's a difficulty in coming in as a new person and trying to connect to the ongoing interactions and finding a niche." Victor, a veteran BLC Fellow, acknowledged that "it's a real challenge to get new faculty to come in. It's a question of bonding because we've all been on [board] from the beginning. If you bring someone into an existing small group of people, how do you mesh?" The extent to which faculty can feel accepted both by students and by the existing faculty group appears to be a factor in both the decision to become involved and the decision to stay involved.

Continued Participation. As we analyzed the interviews, four themes concerning continued participation emerged: the quality of relationships with students, a sense of collegiality among the faculty participants, the experimental nature of the program, and the impact on their teaching.

The primary benefit identified by faculty members was that being involved allowed them to get to know students better--both as students and as people--by engaging in meaningful, personal relationships. This is consistent with the primary reason they got involved in the first place. Anne felt like she had developed some "wonderful relationships with students" that extended beyond their involvement at BLC. Some of these students enrolled in classes with her; others stayed in contact with her over time, discussing ongoing decisions in their lives. Many faculty indicated that these relationships allowed them to see students as more real, that they were able to recognize students on campus, and that they gained a better understanding of students' experiences. The use of journal groups with students provided a means to develop these relationships. Louis described his experience:

When we had our first [journal group] sessions . . . I had close relationships with about 18 students. The journal group got together weekly and read what we had written to each other. I was open to the students writing anything they wanted to in their journals. . . . Often times what came up in our discussions were issues that had to do with life and death, parents, families, transition to a very new environment. . . . As these journal entries were read, we discovered that practically everybody was going through these same feelings. I know that virtually no faculty member would even think of these things as they're teaching their course.

Indeed, nearly all of the faculty that we spoke with indicated that the enhanced relationships helped to close the gap between faculty and students that exists on many larger campuses.

To be sure, not all faculty were able to develop--or desired to develop--personal relationships with students to the same degree. Richard, who decided to stop participating in BLC after the first year, struggled to "find a point of reference" from which he could connect intellectually with the students; he realized that he was not prepared to deal with the more personal aspects of students' lives that were being shared. He said that he was "shocked at the journal entries," and explained that the students were "so naive, so young" that he was unable to find a point of contact with them. The topics that students wrote about in their journals--romantic relationships, roommate conflicts--often embarrassed him, and left him unable to respond.

The second, and unexpected, benefit of participation identified in the interviews was a sense of collegiality that came from working with faculty from different departments. While most faculty acknowledged enhanced relationships with students to be the primary benefit of their involvement, interacting with colleagues from other disciplines--and simply being a part of a committed group--was nearly as important and, for some, equally important. Charles, a faculty leader, claimed that being a part of a committed group allowed faculty members to expand their identity from being associated only with their department to being affiliated with the mission of the institution:

If you find faculty who find it fulfilling to be a part of this, it allows them to think better of themselves. That's a very powerful human motivator--to give people an opportunity to do something they think is good, so that they feel they're performing their professional job in a way that's an extended enhancement of what they normally do. . . . It's pure education when you're working with somebody you have no official link with, but you're just there because you share a common idea and it's self-rewarding.

Interacting with other faculty represents an opportunity to interact, learn, and develop collegial relationships across traditional disciplinary boundaries. Faculty enjoy the collegial relationships that develop with learning community peers; the faculty can have a "freer kind of relationship than working with people [within your department] who are always judging you for merit pay or people you're always arguing with over a tenure case." Brad, a faculty leader, fondly recalled the time when he began to form these collegial relationships:

The first meeting we had of all Faculty Fellows was at Lori's house. We ordered in East African food and sat around talking about what we wanted to do. I thought "This is it--this is what academia is all about." . . . Here I was with all these people that really knew things and it was so fabulous. to hear [other faculty] make jokes about ancient Greek literature. It was fabulous.

A third benefit, we learned, was that faculty were intrigued by the experimental nature of the residential learning communities. They enjoyed working through the puzzles of what the community could look like. Richard, one of the original planners of BLC, recalled, "When it started we didn't know what it was. . . . All people had was the phrase 'faculty-student dorm,' and then the [question] was, 'What exactly are we going to do here?'" The challenge of "getting it right" and of keeping a "permanent revolution in place" represented a motivating factor in keeping faculty intellectually engaged in the program. In addition, some faculty saw their own participation as an experiment. Alan noted that although he has been interacting with students outside the classroom for a number of years, he was still looking for a "niche where I can be most effective" and most comfortable.

The fourth benefit we found was that some faculty said that their involvement in a residential learning community had affected how they teach, another outcome they had not anticipated. In their regular classes they were able to use examples, analogies, and frames of reference that were more relevant to students. They became more aware of issues that affect the "ebb and flow" of students' lives: homesickness, relationship issues, career concerns. Louis said that he "now looks out into the classroom and sees whole people rather than just note takers." In this sense, their involvement did not necessarily affect what they taught, but rather it encouraged them to explore why and how they taught. Anne shared, "It has really made me look again at what I do as a faculty member . . . why I [teach], and why I think it's important." In many cases, this reflection resulted in a greater sense of awareness and a greater sensitivity to the needs of first-year students in their classrooms--an awareness that enhanced the learning environment for all students, not just residents of the residential learning communities. Elizabeth directly cited her conversations with BLC students as helping her change her teaching strategies:

[Hearing their ideas] makes me look at the world differently, gives me ideas about [my discipline], and about the kinds of work that I'm doing, and how I teach. . . . We've had nice interactions where I've asked them "I want to do this, what do you suggest?" It's been very informative.

Roles and Relationships

At UW, as at other institutions, the successful implementation of residential learning communities requires the coordinated and collaborative efforts of student affairs professionals and faculty (and occasionally students). But many obstacles and tensions exist that make collaboration difficult.

First, we found that prior to their involvement in the residential learning community, many faculty had little awareness or understanding of the student affairs operation on campus. In fact, Oliver, a faculty leader, indicated that many of the faculty he approached about becoming involved had never been inside a residence hall. Several faculty were surprised to discover the number of people working for University Housing and related areas who provide services to students outside the classroom. Rebecca confessed, "I had not realized that there was this echelon of people in Housing who were around constantly and did things. . . . I found this interesting, that all the time the goal was to create an environment that will help students grow." Others, like Lori, remained unconvinced: "I'm still very skeptical about the way universities are working, putting all this time and effort into student services. . . . All those people and all those services take away from money for scholarships, or books in the library, or for professors." The number of people and scope of services focused on students out-of-class experiences was a surprising discovery.

Once they became more familiar with this group of employees, the faculty we spoke with seemed to value student affairs professionals for their role in facilitating the development of students' self-esteem and providing student services--assisting with the "process of socializing" students. Some faculty, however, did not believe that student affairs professionals played a key role in the university's core educational mission. Lori outlined the distinction:

[Faculty] are interested in questions, ideas, setting up paradigms for solving problems, and getting [students] out of themselves into a universe that is much broader than the University of Wisconsin. The Residence Life department is interested in making them real comfortable that they're at the University of Wisconsin . . . and that they love each other. Well, I think they should love each other, but I think they should also love literature.

Even after becoming involved, some faculty still struggled to understand the role of student affairs in the learning enterprise.

A second tension underlying these collaborative efforts was misunderstandings on the part of student affairs staff of the roles that faculty could best play in the residential learning communities. In the planning and implementation of these programs, the faculty we spoke with indicated a need to feel that their ideas were given strong consideration. Similarly, faculty often resisted ideas formulated by others that were predicated on predetermined notions of the nature of faculty involvement. Charles recalled how, early on in the planning, a few student affairs professionals "just wanted faculty to come in and go where they told them to go." Jay, a faculty member no longer involved, described with frustration his attempts to implement two ideas for increasing faculty-student interaction, both of which were dismissed. The ability and willingness of student affairs staff, who see themselves as the experts about residential life, to share control and to be open to challenging and innovative ideas seemed to be critical to faculty involvement. Indeed, faculty leaders acknowledged an ongoing need to resist reverting to traditional roles, where student affairs professionals respond to the housing-related tasks and faculty concern themselves only with the academic component of the residential learning community.

Still, faculty members generally conceived of "faculty involvement" as including a significant intellectual component. Many were willing to be "friends" or "wise grown-ups" in the lives of students, but most were primarily interested in bringing intellectual life into the residence halls. They wanted their work in the hall to provide a venue in which they could both learn and share their passion for their discipline--something that "connects to one's academic work." Daniel, a tenured professor, recalled being invited by students to present a talk on Tibetan Buddhism and on the history of Tibet and China before the group and he went to see a movie about the Dalai Lama. He gladly agreed, enjoying the challenge of "thinking and organizing materials in ways I hadn't done before. It's like being asked to write a paper you're not quite up on." Like Daniel, many other faculty mentioned that their involvement challenged them to look differently at their work, at students, and at learning.

From the faculty's perspective, this desire stood in stark contrast with the views of some student affairs professionals involved in the planning process, who felt that faculty members should act like older students (playing games) or like student affairs staff (concerning themselves primarily with the emotional development of students). Some faculty were quite opposed to engaging in any activities understood to be gamelike and felt that if they were going to spend time with students, they "wanted them to learn something." As described earlier, others admitted feeling completely unprepared to deal with the emotional aspects of students' lives.

A third underlying tension surrounded the different expectations held by students and faculty about the nature of their relationship. Charles recalled the following "revelation" about the journal writing groups:

We found that our sense of what this was about and the students' sense was completely different. Faculty thought students would want another class for free, that they'd love to write and talk about academic and intellectual subjects, and that they'd be capable of abstracting their freshmen learning experiences and writing about them. This was completely wrong. Only a faculty member would have dreamed that. . . . Students wanted to get to know faculty on a personal basis. . . . They wanted to talk about their personal feelings and they wanted us to listen. This was a revelation to us.

He decided upon reflection that "this was for [students], not for me." Consequently, he approached the journal class with a different set of expectations the next year and enjoyed himself greatly.

Oliver, a faculty leader, offered an explanation for the conflicting views of faculty and student affairs staff. He explained that "many faculty want this passion for their discipline to be the center of encounters with students, but discover that their discipline is too hard for undergraduates to connect to." Instead, many faculty become uncomfortable with the "silly, sprawling space" of residence hall life. According to Oliver, those faculty who do not mind "playing, being silly, and having fun" are those who will do best in residential learning communities. By having fun and engaging students, "magical things happen," which then make possible the more serious discussions. Similarly, Charles observed that some faculty adapted to the environment, wheras those who were uncomfortable with this type of relationship with students did not return to the program. In this way, then, the priorities of faculty and staff become merged: student affairs staff see play as a necessary part of faculty-student interaction, and faculty see intellectual growth as the purpose. For faculty, building trust and community serves as the entrée to learning.

These three tensions--ignorance on the part of faculty about student affairs, misconceptions on the part of student affairs staff about the roles faculty members could play, and conflicting expectations between faculty and students about the relationships they could build--all illuminate faculty members' perceptions of the roles and relationships that operate within the university. The common core of these tensions is the level of structure and purpose attached to faculty members' roles. We found that faculty appreciated a clearly defined role within the residential learning community program. A title (e.g., Faculty Fellow) communicated the necessary symbolic value. More importantly, the structured role that accompanies such a title provided faculty with an entry into interactions with students and with others in the program. Rebecca explained that after participating in the planning stages for CRC, things "fell apart" for her because she then did not have a specific role. She believes that "to get faculty involved you need to give them a prescribed role. Then they will burst those barriers and do more than anything you write down." For Rebecca this structure was necessary in order to feel a part of the program and to plan for the amount of time required to make the program successful.


Although all of our findings are useful for those planning residential learning communities, our findings about roles and relationships have implications for efforts to establish collaborative relationships between academic affairs and student affairs divisions. The Joint Report on Powerful Partnerships (American Association for Higher Education, ACPA, & NASPA, 1998), emphasized the importance of collaboration: "Only when everyone on campus--particularly academic affairs and student affairs staff--shares the responsibility for student learning will we be able to make significant progress in improving it" (p. 2). Our study provides insight into the difficulty of creating true collaborative relationships between faculty and student affairs professionals.

Collaboration, as distinct from cooperation, means that participants are mutually respectful, and that all participants cede some power and control to empower others (Senge, 1990). A few faculty we interviewed viewed their efforts as a "model for collaboration," whereas others acknowledged the temptation to fall back into traditional roles where faculty concern themselves with the academic aspect of the programs and student affairs professionals focus on students and nonacademic aspects. The desire for efficiency conspires with habit and often results in those with greater expertise in certain areas assuming greater responsibility for those aspects of the program. But true collaboration--two groups coming together to synergistically create one program--requires a willingness to engage in the ongoing work of examining existing roles of those involved. It often requires setting aside cherished beliefs for the good of the program.

For faculty collaboration means welcoming student affairs professionals into conversations about the academic mission, the learning process, and the role student affairs staff might play in contributing to the intellectual development of students. Furthermore, collaboration means exhibiting a willingness to learn from the experiences that student affairs professionals have gained through their interactions with students. Clearly, even those faculty who believe in integrated learning found collaboration difficult, and several were unconvinced that student affairs professionals had much to offer to discussions about learning.

For student affairs professionals collaboration means establishing an environment in which faculty feel welcome and have genuine input into initial and ongoing planning. This collaboration also means setting aside predetermined notions of faculty involvement and the roles that faculty will be expected to play. Again, our interviews revealed that, from the perspective of these faculty, some student affairs professionals were unable to do this. Together, both groups must continually pay attention to the collaborative relationship. Oliver captured this idea best:

If you can just build a community among the [faculty and staff] where they recognize that they bring very different skills and talents to the table and that they need each other, that they can't do it without each other, then you have respect. There are ongoing challenges to keep this going. . . . Trying to create a space in which our respect for each other and our commitment to a common project allows us to hear each other is the [challenge].

If, on the whole, our findings are not all that surprising, what do they tell us? We believe they speak to the deeply cultural nature of the university context in which faculty life is embedded. Faculty work is located in the cultural context of the university and the academic profession (Austin, 1990). The choices that faculty make about how to spend their time are largely freely made, but the choices are constrained by the culture in which they are made. The actions of faculty are much more understandable from that frame of understanding. In a sense, faculty at research universities who engage in these activities are performing a counter-cultural, even revolutionary, act. Understanding why these faculty members make the choices they do, despite the dominant cultural context, tells us about leverage points to be used to enlarge the circle of involved faculty, and, ultimately, to change the dominant culture.

In this way, we agree with the line of argument described at the outset of this paper: that the reward structure at American colleges, which is particularly strongly adhered to at research universities, makes the decision to participate in activities like this one very difficult. Interacting with students out of the classroom can be interpreted as a sign that a faculty member is not dedicated to research. The fault does not lie the tenure system per se. Rather, we believe that the tenure and reward structure are the outward symbol of underlying cultural norms of the research university. These values include the importance of the creation of knowledge (research) over the dissemination of knowledge (teaching and service). Another value is the importance of external rewards and accolades (international reputation as a researcher) over local reputation (as a person who affects students' lives). These values are emulated by other types of colleges and universities, which has the effect of changing the culture of those institutions as well.

Moreover, we agree with the second explanation advanced to explain low levels of faculty involvement in out-of-classroom experiences. This explanation suggested that there are subcultures on campus--students, faculty, and student affairs administrators--and that cultural differences make communication across groups difficult. Our findings support this contention as well. For example, we learned that most of the faculty involved in CRC and BLC were invited by a faculty colleague, not a student affairs professional. Charles, a faculty leader, half-joked that his "principle was to push my friends into the corner and make them sign up." The faculty participants clearly believed that respect for and a prior relationship with a faculty leader was critical to the faculty participants' openness to hear the "pitch" about the idea of involvement. All too often, student affairs administrators lament that their efforts to encourage faculty members to participate in such initiatives are failures. We believe that faculty members are much better recruiters and advocates: They can convincingly speak to their colleagues about the realities of the experience, allaying fears about the time commitment or fears about being rejected by the student community. This is simply an acknowledgement of the different cultural context from which faculty and student affairs professionals act.

We end this paper with recommendations for practice. Which faculty should be recruited for residential learning communities? Certainly we learned that faculty who possess particular values about undergraduate education and who enjoy participating in experimental initiatives are likely recruits. Conventional wisdom says not to target untenured faculty members. Accordingly, several of the faculty we interviewed said that they would not encourage untenured faculty to make such a commitment. Although most shared this view, a few faculty acknowledged that untenured professors can become involved. Elizabeth noted that "when you're untenured the dilemma is determining where to put your time that is not devoted to the things you have to do. . . . I think even an untenured faculty member could do this. As an untenured faculty member I advised a group of people in a co-op." Similarly, Rebecca, who was untenured when she began her involvement, echoed the belief that untenured faculty can participate as long as they can account for their time on their tenure report.

We remain skeptical about the advice that untenured faculty members should not be invited to participate in initiatives such as this one. To the contrary, we believe that new faculty members are often ideally suited to such endeavors. First, they are new to the academy and may still hold idealistic views of the university. As such, they will be able to act in line with these beliefs. Second, and more importantly, we believe that protecting even the willing from such activities before tenure has the effect of socializing and training these faculty not to make such commitments. The habits of time allocation are hard to break, and actively discouraging faculty members from engaging in service and civic roles on campus is not in the best interests of students nor by extension for universities themselves.

We close on an optimistic note. We learned that faculty-student out-of-classroom interactions matter, not just to the students, but also to the faculty. The impact of these interactions should not be underestimated. Brad characterized his work in BLC as "the single most rewarding thing I do as a faculty member." Similarly, Charles declared that his involvement was:

A chance to do what I'd been born to do. When I retire and look back on my career, [one of] the two most important elements of my career will have been chairing . . . the faculty group that worked at BLC. All my teaching and all my scholarship will be dust. . . . For me it's been extremely satisfying; it's been the best thing that's happened to me in my years at the campus.

For many faculty the value of their involvement goes beyond simply interacting with students outside the classroom. It's about cultivating a sense of place within the campus community; it's about finding a deeper sense of meaning from one's professional work. Indeed, by encouraging faculty involvement in efforts like these, the potential exists for creating campuses where service and citizenship are recognized and valued.

Residential learning communities and other efforts that encourage similar integration are successful in bringing closer together those who have led distinct, parallel existences: students, faculty, and student affairs professionals. Programs such as residential learning communities can provide models for sharing existing resources for the enhancement of student learning at large research institutions. The benefits of doing so accrue not only to students but also to the faculty.


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