Local Cultures in Institutional Contexts: The Functions of Academic Departments in Liberal Arts Colleges

Meghan J. Pifer, Vicki L. Baker, Laura Gail Lunsford
Journal for the Study of Postsecondary and Tertiary Education  •  Volume 1  •  2016  •  pp. 233-252
The academic department remains understudied as a context of faculty work, particularly in institutional settings beyond the research university. In this article, we report findings from a study of faculty experiences within academic departments in liberal arts colleges, through analysis of interviews with 55 faculty members representing a 13-member consortium of liberal arts institutions in the mid-western U.S. Through inductive analysis and deductive coding from existing models, we identified five functions of departments in liberal arts colleges, including: (a) faculty hiring, retention, and promotion; (b) new faculty socialization; (c) informal interactions, mentoring, and network-building; (d) establishing and communicating institutional and departmental policies, practices, and procedures; and (e) the structuring of academic work. Findings suggest that departmental functions in liberal arts colleges are generally the same as those in other institution types, but play out differently and thus have different consequences for academic careers. Across functions, liberal arts colleges seem to be undergoing an evolution, or perhaps revolution, that has implications for academic work in such contexts.
liberal arts colleges, academic departments, faculty careers, professoriate
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