In Search of a Break in the Clouds: An Ethnographic Study of Academic and Student Affairs Cultures

Open Access
Arcelus, Victor John
Graduate Program:
Higher Education
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
February 18, 2008
Committee Members:
  • Patrick T Terenzini, Committee Chair/Co-Chair
  • Lisa Lattuca, Committee Member
  • James Fredericks Volkwein, Committee Member
  • Edward Paul Durrenberger, Committee Member
  • Peter Magolda, Committee Member
  • higher education
  • college
  • university
  • academic affairs
  • student affairs
  • collaboration
  • partnership
  • enthnography
  • learning-centered
  • intragroup dialogue
  • intergroup dialogue
  • case study
  • culture
  • climate
  • leadership
This study investigates the cultures of the academic and student affairs divisions within one selective residential liberal arts institution. Specifically, the study investigates how faculty and student affairs personnel perceive their own and each other’s roles as educators on the campus and how these perceptions influence the potential for collaboration between the divisions that will optimally benefit students. In response to a steady flow of research studies that call for educational reform, institutions of higher education are re-evaluating their goals for the future and many aspire to create a learning-centered environment within an organizationally and programmatically seamless campus community. The goal is for students to develop an appreciation for the interconnectedness among components of their lives, strengthen their intellectual development, and cultivate a disposition toward life-long learning. This ethnographic study explores the tension between academic and student affairs staff members’ roles on campus by exploring people’s perceptions that influence the potential for a synergistic relationship between the divisions. At Crossroads University [pseudonym], I immersed myself in the campus culture for a complete academic year employing a three-pronged approach to data collection (interviews, participant observation, and artifact analysis) in order to understand the institutional culture, the divisional cultures, and their interactions. I conducted 154 formal interviews with 96 faculty, administrators, and students, and observed roughly 250 separate meetings and events. The Crossroads case presents a comprehensive collage of perspectives shared by faculty and staff that reveal underlying perceptions, biases, and stereotypes that influence people’s interpretation of the campus culture, climate, and staff members’ roles within the organization. The Crossroads case analysis advocates that cross-divisional partnership should begin with meaningful and comprehensive intragroup and intergroup dialogue in order to examine people’s roles, values, priorities, perspectives on student learning, and ultimately to discuss the areas where academic and student affairs staff can identify philosophical overlap. The Crossroads case explores a campus debate that informs researchers, practitioners, and graduate students of the various competing issues and perspectives of which they should be aware as they grapple with their own discussions and planning for a future in higher education where learning-centeredness is the goal.