As instructional partnerships continue to develop, we wonder: (How) might partnership be embraced as an ethos and culture within the institution of higher education, while continuing to push on the traditionalist fabric of these institutions?

We see a tension between SaP’s theorization as a transformational, outside-of-the-mainstream practice that promises to deliver fundamental changes in higher ed and the need to create institutional support systems for both faculty and students in order for this practice to be successful and sustainable. What exactly do we mean by transformation and/vs institutionalization?

Institutionalizing is the process of weaving something into the very fabric of higher education, i.e. working within the existing system and making smaller steps towards the desired change, while receiving financial, cultural, and/or structural support for it. For example, while not all institutions might be open to the idea of having a teaching center focused on partnerships (such as one at Bryn Mawr), would it be possible for many to support, financially and logistically, partnership initiatives done by individuals and/or communities of practice on a relatively small scale? Or to find existing systems of support through which to develop these initiatives?

Transformation, on the other hand, can be seen as disruptive. A flipping over of the normal patterns, a turning wheel. It presupposes that the existing forms are ineffective, inappropriate and/or obsolete. As we move towards the democratization of higher education, aspiring to make access and inclusion a new priority (see, for example, the American Council on Education Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education Report), the argument in favor of radically transformative changes is that  higher ed institutions themselves must change to better support students, faculty and other stakeholders and, consequently, promote more egalitarian and just societal structures. Dr. Alison Cook-Sather, who has continuously engaged in student-faculty partnerships and has conducted extensive research around it, argues that partnership can  be a model and method for such transformative process (2017). In their recent article Cook-Sather and Felten (2017) suggest that student-faculty partnership is a paradigm-shifting practice with an ethics of reciprocity which goes against the dominant model(s) of western higher education system. Partnering with students in instructional design radically transforms several aspects of current higher education systems: its dependence on hierarchical relationships in the academia in which relatively wealthy white men have historically enjoyed the most privileged status; its business-like neoliberal model, once again privileging and incentivizing exclusion on the basis of wealth; and, goal or end-oriented view of the process of education. SaP proposes that we view the relationship between student and professor developed through partnership as one based on respect, responsibility and reciprocity (Cook-Sather et al., 2014); one that is dialogic in nature, as well as open-ended, in which the learning and teaching are co-conceptualized and co-created between equal partners (Bovill & Bulley, 2011; Werder et al., 2012; Healey et al., 2014; Matthews, 2016).

Horseshoe Bend Antelope Canyon, by Pixabay (

And so, we would like to open up a conversation about the ways in which partnership could exist and even thrive within the institutions of higher education, while continuing to subvert the traditionalist fabric of this system. If partnership is a model that destabilizes and even subverts the current neoliberal, business-like model of higher education institutions (Matthews et al., 2018), can it possibly accomplish this transformation from within? In other words, can partnership as a pedagogy and as a fundamentally different philosophy of education take over and supplant the current system or is it to remain on the margins of this very system and try to change it slowly and step-by-step?

If Students as Partners were to transform the system from within, what would this transformational process look like? Where does one start: from faculty initiatives? Communities of practice? Conversations with the administration? In order for some of the bold proposals of partnership to be successful, it will require considerable support from all the stakeholders – students, faculty, and administration, in short the entire university community. Whether we want to work against the consumerist model or are trying to overcome all sorts of inequality, is there enough support even within the faculty, students and administrators for making transformative changes of this kind? Aren’t the forces that ‘manage’ current system – business-driven model of education and hierarchy-based structure of the academia – strong enough to resist such transformation? Students will most likely have to continue paying for education. Will shifting language about student-faculty relationships be enough to transform those relationships given this continued transaction?

On the other hand, if partnership remains in the margins of the system instead of supplanting it, how effective will it be? Would it be more realistic to emphasize other, perhaps less radical promises of partnership in order to more effectively institutionalize it and occasion change from within and in a slower manner? For example, SaP develops a better sense of belonging and inclusion in students, especially underrepresented student populations (Cook-Sather, 2015); through partnership, both students and faculty develop better awareness of the process of teaching and learning and become more engaged teachers, as well as learners (Cook-Sather et al., 2014). Hence, could we use inertia or slow erosion (like water on rocks) to change the system from within?


  • Bovill, C., Bulley, C. J., & Morss, K. (2011). Engaging and empowering first-year students through curriculum design: perspectives from the literature. Teaching in Higher Education, 16(2), 197–209.
  • Cook-Sather, A. (2015). Dialogue Across Differences of Position, Perspective, and Identity: Reflective Practice In/On Student-Faculty Pedagogical Partnership Program. Teachers College Record, 117 (2).
  • Cook-Sather, A., (2017). Working Toward Greater Equity and Inclusivity Though Pedagogical Partnership. Exploring Teaching and Learning Partnerships in Higher Education Conference. McMaster Innovation Park, Canada.
  • Cook-Sather, A., Bovill, C., and Felten, P. (2014). Engaging students as partners in learning and teaching: a guide for faculty. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass.
  • Healey, M., Flint, A., & Harrington, K. (2014). Engagement through partnership: Students as partners in learning and teaching in higher education. York: Higher Education Academy. Retrieved from
  • Matthews, K. E. (2016). Students as partners as the future of student engagement. Student Engagement in Higher Education Journal, 1(1) 1-5. Retrieved from
  • Matthews, K. E., Dwyer, A., Russell, S. & Enright, E. (2018). It is a complicated thing: leaders’ conceptions of students as partners in the neoliberal university, Studies in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2018.1482268
  • Werder, C., Thibou, S., & Kaufer, B. (2012). Students as co-inquirers: A requisite threshold Concept in educational development. Journal of Faculty Development, 26(3), 34–38.

Sophia Abbot is the 2018-2020 Center for Engaged Learning Graduate Apprentice and a student in the Masters of Higher Education program at Elon University.

Ketevan Kupatadze, Senior Lecturer in Spanish in the Department of World Languages and Cultures, is the 2017-2019 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. Dr. Kupatadze’s CEL Scholar project focuses on student-faculty partnerships.

How to cite this post:

Abbot, Sophia, and Ketevan Kupatadze. 2019, March 19. Pedagogical Partnerships: Transformational or Institutional Change? [Blog Post]. Retrieved from