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Elizabeth M. Higgins, Mary Anne Peabody, and Helen Gorgas Goulding, University of Southern Maine

Beth Higgins.jpgAcademic advising plays a critical role in the college experience—not the advising that unfortunately is often associated with course registration, but advising as a relationship. The relational aspect of advising is gaining momentum as higher education continues to wrestle with student retention while simultaneously juggling technological advances, decreased funding, and the digital advances of a global society. Although the development of a relationship between the advisor and student is imperative, the advising structure/model also plays a role in the relational aspect of advising.

Mary Anne Peabody.jpgMany institutions have advising programs that utilize both faculty and primary role advisors. The challenge is leveraging the expertise of each to enhance the student advising experience. Institutions that offer a dual advising program create an opportunity to work through this challenge. In a dual model, students work with two advisors: a faculty member within the major and a primary role advisor within the centralized advising department (King, 2008). This structure also provides an opportunity to align academic advising with the teaching and learning mission of the institution, providing visible evidence of advising as an extension of teaching by promoting a community of practice centered on student learning and success.

Helen Gorgas Goulding.jpgThe relational collaboration between faculty and primary role advisors offers an opportunity for institutional colleagues to work together to design and implement an academic advising experience that supports student growth, development, and attainment of their educational and professional goals. The collegial partnership between primary role advisors and faculty members can be a new way of thinking for some as university cultures are complex. Universities’ cultures have an embedded hierarchical structure, whereby multiple professionals are divided by specialization and training and often work interdependently to deliver student learning experiences. The somewhat siloed higher education environment at times interferes with the relational growth between faculty and primary role advisors.

In some institutions with traditional siloed structures, relational networks may exhibit strong ties within departmental functions and weak ties across departmental functions, often resulting in fragmentation and poor handoffs at transitional points (Gittell & Suchman, 2013). For example, a centralized advising department may have strong processes within the team of primary role advisors, yet the transition from a primary role advisor early in a student’s academic journey to a faculty advisor in their later semesters may become fragmented.

The theory of relational coordination states institutions with structures that foster relational coordination build cohesiveness, so that professionals are more aware of cross-functional roles within teams and create boundary-spanning roles that support networking while still honoring the benefits of differing roles (Gittell & Suchman, 2013). Relational coordination theory further suggests a redesigning rather than a replacement of institutional structure, specifically to reinforce and strengthen relational processes that contribute to a higher performing work culture (Gittell & Suchman, 2013).  

The dual advising partnership model can be a structure that helps foster collegial relationships through meetings, professional development opportunities, and interactions focused on student advising needs and student learning. In addition to being institutional colleagues, faculty and primary role advisors are academic advising colleagues. That said, the level of responsibility for academic advising varies with each type. For example, primary role advisors have academic advising as their primary role in addition to program development, committee work, workshop presentations, etc. On the other hand, faculty members have academic advising as a part of their role responsibilities that fall in the areas of teaching, research/scholarship, and service. This partial advising role for faculty creates variances in priorities, availability, knowledge, training, and focus. In fact, within the context of faculty responsibilities, depending on the message, advising may be an implied or a clearly stated position expectation.

Whether implied or clearly stated, given the mutually shared interest in academic advising, it makes sense for faculty and primary role advisors to collaborate and coordinate with each other. In some, if not many cases, this would require that a working relationship be developed between individuals who may view themselves on different levels within the institution. Acknowledging this unspoken or, at times, whispered culture divide is a first step in developing a partnership that is respectful of the expertise that each brings to the organization. Exploring how to capitalize on this wealth of expertise and build successful student-learning centered relationships is an important next step in building a community of colleagues all of whom are focused on the academic advising experience. The building of this relationship, as with the building of the relationship with students, takes effort and time. 

Still, an exploration into interpersonal relational theory highlights time as a necessary factor in developing dyadic relationships through interactions, knowledge sharing, and goal attainment (Peplau, 1997). Agreement on goals and a common mission creates the foundation for building successful partnerships (Wagner & Muller, 2009). It is not the commonalities between the two advisors, but the common mission of student learning and success that motivates the advising partners to engage in conversation regarding student learning outcomes and opportunities within the advising process. This common mission assists in providing clear reasoning for the existence of the advising partnership and the need for ongoing interactions.

As a collaborative pair, faculty and primary role advisors actively interact around the common mission and begin to get to know the other in an authentic way. The experience of authentic sharing allows the advising colleagues to understand each other’s roles, interests, current projects, and areas of expertise. As both parties gain a better understanding of one another, a level of trust begins to gain momentum in the relationship. In essence, it is the familiarity that supersedes dissimilarity, creating a partnership of acceptance focused on each other’s strengths and trust building (Wagner & Muller, 2009).

Taking the risk to trust one another is one of the first steps in building trust-filled collaborative partnerships—a topic not openly discussed in the workplace. Trust is identified as the “linchpin of a partnership,” an essential element that strengthens the relationship, allowing partners to focus on their own responsibilities while being confident that their collaborator will accomplish their own (Wagner & Muller, 2009, p. 77). According to Lencioni (2002), trust and the ability for partners to get to know each other and show vulnerability is the critical foundation of any team. Once trust is established, partner teams feel more comfortable engaging in healthy constructive debates leading to team commitment regarding important decisions. Respect for each other builds as partners work together to maximize individual strengths toward high standards for the team. The necessity of trust within collaborative advising partnerships makes it important for institutions to provide faculty and primary role advisors opportunities to work together to strengthen the student academic advising experience. 

Although it is the advising colleagues that take the risk to authentically interact and trust in the workplace, it is the institution that needs to state the value of academic advising as an integral component of the student experience. While changing institutional messaging is a critical first step, institutions must also directly support efforts to change relational patterns. Given the importance of interaction among primary role and faculty advisors, addressing collaborative partnerships through the dual theoretical lenses of both interpersonal relational theory and relational coordination theory will translate into the strongest change efforts.

As institutions promote collaborative partnerships between faculty and primary role advisors, five vital questions need to be explored.

  • What does an advising relationship between colleagues look like at this institution? 
  • What opportunities can we provide that will promote collegial relationship building between faculty and primary role advisors? 
  • How can the relationship be sustained in the current state of higher education? 
  • How will relational success be assessed? 
  • How can institutional leadership mobilize faculty and primary role advisors to transform cultural gaps to build mutually beneficial relationships focused on student learning and success?

Institutional leadership needs to support this collaborative advising partnership through adaptive capacity. Adaptive leadership is the practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges to thrive (Heifetz et al., 2009). Recognizing that in fact the work cultures of faculty and primary role advisors are different and embedded with differing group norms of how people relate with each other is an adaptive challenge. Adaptive challenges are difficult because they usually require people to change their ways, to invent new ways of working together across these work cultures. Successful adaptive change builds on what is already working well within the culture and experimenting with new strategies. Adaptive leaders anchor change and improvement in the values, competencies, and strategic orientations that should endure in the organization.

A university’s organizational culture influences students’ overall educational experience. One critical aspect of a positive campus cultural experience is the strong sense of community largely established by a constructive working relationship between faculty and staff. Research shows that when the two groups feel content with their working environments, the institution is productive and students feel drawn to it (Florenthal, 2012). Establishing professional development opportunities to build functioning faculty/staff advising teams is directly related to student satisfaction and persistence. As the development of faculty and primary role advisor relationships is embraced by institutions of higher education, it will be important to make a conscience effort to create an academic advising community through engaged conversations and professional development focused on student learning and success. 

Elizabeth M. Higgins, Ed.D.
Director of Academic Advising
University of Southern Maine
[email protected]

Mary Anne Peabody, Ed.D., LCSW, RPT-S
Associate Professor and Chair of Social and Behavioral Sciences
University of Southern Maine
[email protected]

Helen Gorgas Goulding, M.Ed., M.A
Senior Associate Director and Coordinator of Professional Development for Academic Advising
University of Southern Maine
[email protected]


Florenthal, B. (2012). Organizational culture: Comparing faculty and staff perspectives. Journal of Higher Education Theory and Practice, 12(6), 81–90.

Gittrell, J. H., & Suchman, A. L. (2013). An overview of relational coordination. Relational Coordination Research Collaborative. https://www.rchcweb.com/Portals/0/Documents/Summary%20of%20Relational%20Coordination%20Research.pdf?ver=2015-10-27-164728-460

Heifetz, R. A., Linsky, M., & Grashow, A. (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership: Tools and tactics for changing your organization and the world. Harvard Business School Publishing.

King, M. C. (2008). Organization of academic advising services. In V. N. Gordon, W. R. Habley, & T. J. Grites (Eds.), Academic advising: A comprehensive handbook (2nd ed., pp. 242–252). Jossey-Bass.

Lencioni, P. (2002). The five dysfunctions of a team: A leadership fable. Jossey-Bass.

Peplau, H. E. (1997). Peplau's theory of interpersonal relations. Nursing Science Quarterly, 10, 162–167.

Wagner, R., & Muller, G. (2009). Power of 2: How to make the most of your partnerships at work and in life. Gallup Press.

Cite this article using APA style as: Higgins, E.M., Peabody, M.A., & Gorgas Goulding, H. (2021, September). Faculty and primary role advisors: Building a relational partnership. Academic Advising Today, 44(3). [insert url here]


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Academic Advising Today, a NACADA member benefit, is published four times annually by NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. NACADA holds exclusive copyright for all Academic Advising Today articles and features. For complete copyright and fair use information, including terms for reproducing material and permissions requests, see Publication Guidelines.