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From the Faculty Perspective: Defining, Earning, and Maintaining Legitimacy Across Academia

by Leslie D. Gonzales & Aimee LaPointe Terosky - 2016

Background: Research shows that the academic profession is largely held together by cultural rules and norms imparted through various socialization processes, all of which are viewed as sensible ways to orient rising professionals. In this paper, a critical perspective is assumed, as we utilized the concept legitimacy and legitimation to better understand the implications of various socialization tactics within academia.

Purpose: Specifically, the purpose of this paper was to study how faculty members, employed across different types of institutions, defined legitimacy and what it takes to be deemed legitimate in the context of the academic profession.

Research Design: A critical qualitative research design guided this study. Specifically, we collected fifty in-depth, semistructured, conceptual interviews from faculty members employed across two community colleges, two regional comprehensive universities, one liberal arts college, and one high activity research university.

Data Analysis: Our analysis of interview transcripts was largely guided by Saldaña’s suggestions for affective, pattern, and elaborative coding.

Findings: We found that all faculty members, regardless of institution type, discipline, or tenure status, held ideas as to what constitutes legitimate work/legitimacy within academia. We interrogated these findings further through the lens of New Institutionalism and determined that professors spent most of their time describing professional legitimacy, “an endorsement conferred by [one’s] professional [colleagues]." Professional legitimacy seemed to be contingent on (1) research and (2) institutional type. However, faculty also described what can be understood as normative legitimacy, which is an endorsement granted when one conforms to implicit cultural rules and ideals held by any community of relevance (e.g., governmental leaders, administrators, tax payers/public). Normative legitimacy seemed to be granted to professors who presented themselves as selfless, ideal workers who could account for and maximize their productivity.

Conclusions/Recommendations: A number of specific policy and practice related recommendations are gleaned from this work. In terms of faculty preparation and socialization, it is imperative that faculty members acknowledge that both processes are steeped in relations of power, as they engender notions of who and what fits into academia. Several specific questions and small adjustments in terms of practice are noted in the paper. Also, in terms of faculty evaluation, a return to Boyer’s work and newer iterations of Boyer’s work by Henderson could be helpful.


Like any other, the academic profession is held together through established norms and controls: implicit and explicit cultural rules for determining who and what fits, and often where one fits, if at all (Abbott, 1988; Gonzales, 2013, 2014; Jencks & Reisman, 1968). Research into the profession has shown that such lessons—about who and what fits—are imparted through various socialization processes, including graduate school (Austin, 2002; Gardner, 2007, 2008, 2009), informal and formal interactions with one’s colleagues (Lamont, 2009; Stanley, 2007; Turner Kelly & McCann, 2014; Wright, 2005), and during tenure and promotion (Delgado-Bernal & Villalpando, 2002; O’Meara, 2011; Rosch & Reich, 1996; Tierney & Bensimon, 1996).

Although such socialization processes are typically accepted as sensible ways to orient rising professionals to new work places and to the profession, overall, determining who and what fits is not a simple matter. Indeed, such socialization processes tend to foreshadow one’s sense of belonging within a department, a university, and/or the profession at large. For example, in their work on faculty preparation, Austin (2002) and Quinn (2011) found that graduate students, especially women, were opting out of academia because they did not want to engage in the “publish or perish” culture, which they believed was necessary to a successful academic career. Relatedly, Gardner and Blackstone (2013), Terosky, O’Meara, and Campbell (2014), among many other scholars attribute the early departure of women and women/men of color to tensions related to: (1) idealized (e.g., White male) conceptions of academics and academic bodies embedded in professional norms; (2) informal and formal institutionalized practices that unfairly position underrepresented scholars outside of key mobility networks and opportunities; and (3) tensions between professorial commitments to teaching, mentoring, or community service in an institution that privileges research productivity (also see Baez, 2000; Fox, 2010; Gappa, Austin, & Trice, 2007; Gardner, 2013; Gonzales, 2012, 2014; González, 2008; Martinez, 2014; Misra, Lundquist, Holmes, & Agiomavritis, 2011; O’Meara & Bloomgarden, 2011; Turner, González, & Wong, 2011; Turner Kelly & McCann, 2014). Although these tensions have often been cast as functionalist matters of institutional fit, we assume a more critical position, and suggest that these are matters of defining, granting, and maintaining legitimacy inside academia, which, for the purposes of this study is understood as “a condition reflecting cultural alignment, normative support, or consonance with relevant rules or laws” (Scott, 1995, p. 45).

As it stands, there are numerous references to legitimacy and legitimation in the scholarship on the academic profession (Niemann, 1999; Sallee, 2014; Stanley, 2007; Sulé, 2011). However, legitimacy as a condition or as a process (legitimation) has not been systematically studied through the voice of faculty (see Gonzales, 2013; Morphew, 2000; Rusch & Wilbur, 2007, for exceptions). And although some scholars might suggest that the tenure and promotion process is emblematic of legitimation, as we further discuss in the literature review, legitimation is an ongoing, iterative process rather than a static, permanent pinnacle (O’Meara, 2011). With this in mind, the goal of this paper was to analyze how faculty members, employed across different types of institutions, defined and understood what it takes to be deemed legitimate in the context of the academic profession. To do this, we conducted “conceptual interviews” (Kvale & Brinkman, 2009, p. 151) with 50 faculty members employed across two community colleges, two regional comprehensive universities, one liberal arts college, and one research university. Next, we discuss literature concerning the academic profession.


Over the last two decades, stakeholders, inside and outside of academia, have voiced concerns about the bent of faculty socialization, including doctoral education/faculty preparation, faculty orientation and mentoring programs, and faculty evaluation systems (Austin, 2002, 2011; Boyer, 1990; Fairweather, 2005; O’Meara, 2002, 2011). Generally, these scholars suggest that graduate students and early career faculty are oriented towards narrow and outdated ideas as to what it means to be an academic (Austin, 2011; Sallee, 2014). For example, Ann Austin (2011) noted that doctoral programs must begin to place increased emphasis on teaching because most doctoral students—future faculty—are likely to work in institutions where teaching will be a large part of their work. Austin also pointed out that current faculty members would do well to recognize that although today’s graduate students “are committed to seeking meaning in and bringing passion to their work . . . [they also] articulate some perspectives that vary considerably from the single-minded commitment to work that typically has characterized those in the academic profession” (p. 153). Austin’s argument holds several important insights for doctoral education faculty, but especially noteworthy is the proposal that doctoral preparation should help students develop an identity and a skill for teaching, and that future professors will likely desire—and expect—more support for balancing work lives and home lives.

Austin is not the first to address these issues. As president of the Carnegie Foundation, Ernest Boyer (1990) initiated a national conversation concerning faculty reward systems. Boyer found that most reward systems heavily favored research productivity—even institutions whose primary mission was teaching and/or in institutions that did not have resources to support high levels of scholarly productivity (also see Fairweather, 2005; Henderson, 2009, 2013). Of this, Boyer wrote:

According to the dominant view, to be a scholar is to be a researcher—and publication is the primary yardstick by which scholarly productivity is measured [yet] evidence abounds that many professors feel ambivalent about their roles. This conflict of academic functions demoralizes the professoriate, erodes the vitality of the institution, and cannot help but have a negative impact on students. (p. 2)

As Boyer noted, professors, who believe that they are out of sync with what it means to be a professor, are likely to experience an emotionally ambivalent and unsettling professional journey. A few scholars have explored what such journeys look like. For example, Terosky (2005) and Wright (2005) both described how faculty members with a preference for teaching carefully navigated their research university setting in hopes of establishing community with  likeminded colleagues who were also committed to teaching. Similarly, Urrieta (2008) and González (2008) noted how their commitment to community engaged, social justice scholarship seemed to be at odds with many facets of their academic career since such scholarship can take longer, did not necessarily speak to disciplinary audiences or priorities, and often resulted in fewer and distinct types of publications (e.g., practice or policy briefs) (also see Cupples & Pawson, 2012; Jaeger & Thornton, 2006; O’Meara, 2002). Finally, women of color within academia have reported intense feelings of marginalization and are often concerned that their scholarship, especially when it addresses equity issues concerning race, sex, or sexuality, does not receive a fair assessment from colleagues (see Niemann, 1999).

Along these lines, O’Meara (2011), a leading scholar on faculty evaluation and reward systems, argued that most faculty feel a constant sense of evaluation shaped by written and unwritten rules. In a sophisticated synthesis of literature concerning faculty evaluation, O’Meara stressed that scholars who study faculty experiences in relation to evaluation should keep in mind that success in academia does not conclude with tenure. Instead, success and feeling as if one is valued is an ongoing process of being “considered, respected . . . or taken into account [by one’s colleagues]” (p. 162). In other words, although being hired, or earning tenure and/or promotion are major milestones, they do not promise that one will permanently be held in regard. Following O’Meara’s lead on these ideas, in this study, we asked faculty members to discuss their understanding of legitimacy and what it takes to be deemed a legitimate scholar, not only within the context of their work place, but in the profession at large. The theoretical foundations that informed our work are discussed next.


There are several definitions of legitimacy that exist across the social sciences, but in this paper, we began from the understanding that “legitimacy is not a commodity . . . but a condition reflecting cultural alignment, normative support, or consonance with relevant rules or laws” (Scott, 1995, p. 45). From this perspective, it is clear that defining, assigning, and/or earning legitimacy are not independent decisions, but social processes informed by history and taken-for-granted conventions passed along through interactions. This definition fit our research goal well because we are interested in exploring how faculty believe legitimacy is defined and rewarded in the profession, not necessarily how faculty members, on a personal level, have defined legitimacy for themselves. Given the social and cultural anchors of this definition of legitimacy, it is important to set the processes of legitimation in its relevant contexts. For this, we turn to New Institutionalism (NI), introduced below.


To understand the behavior of organizational actors and organizations, New Institutional (NI, hereafter) theorists argue that one must first ascertain whether one is dealing with a technical or cultural field (Scott, 1987). In short, technical fields are akin to the car industry, where output can objectively and quantitatively be calculated and measured, and cultural fields are akin to art or education, where outputs are not so easy to measure, and where cultural and social subjectivities guide appraisal. NI theorists specialize in understanding behavior within cultural fields, and most NI scholars agree that post-secondary education operates, primarily, as a cultural field, since teaching, learning, and the general experiences to be had inside college or university spaces cannot be measured in the same way one measures automotive production.

Because of this, the work of colleges and universities—which is inherently the work of faculty, staff, and students—is assessed not for its economic profits, but mostly for the cultural resources that it attracts and maintains. Such cultural resources include legitimacy, prestige, and status (Deephouse & Suchman, 2008; Morphew, 2000, 2002, 2009; Morphew & Hartley, 2006; Toma, 2012). Indeed, Meyer and Rowan (1977) positioned legitimacy as the most fundamental resource for organizations and organizational actors embedded in cultural fields because legitimacy allows one to be recognized as belonging in that field to begin with (see Brint & Karabel, 1989; Gonzales, 2013; Morphew, 2002, 2009; Morphew & Hartley, 2006). Only upon gaining legitimacy can valuationthe more nuanced assessment of one’s value—take place (see Lamont, 2012, for an extended discussion on the relationship between valuation, evaluation, and legitimation).

However, an immediate question might be, who defines legitimacy and what is legitimate? The NI response is that taken-for-granted notions of legitimacy are developed and reproduced by multiple, interrelated entities and actors that have an interest in the field, or more specifically, in maintaining historical, and thus familiar, arrangements of a field. Writing specifically about the field of higher education, Gonzales (2013) theorized that peer colleges and universities, disciplinary associations, accrediting agencies, ranking bodies, and the general public are all organizations/entities with an interest in defining legitimacy for higher education matters (also see Morphew & Hartley, 2006; Weerts, Freed, & Morphew, 2014).

However, NI not only helps one situate legitimacy/legitimation in its specific field context, but a distinct vein within NI theory has focused on understanding the nuances or various dimensions of legitimacy. Scholars who work in this vein stress that organizations and organizational actors (colleges/universities and faculty, for example) are likely to confront various, and thus different, and potentially competing notions of legitimacy in doing their work (Aldrich & Fiol, 1994; Deephouse & Suchman, 2008; Scott, 1995; Suchman, 1995). These NI scholars discuss four different types of legitimacy and suggest that each stems from different audiences, organizations, or stakeholders. Accordingly, these scholars, especially Deephouse and Suchman (2008), urge researchers to study legitimacy with the following differentiating schema in mind: (1) cognitive, (2) technical/legal, (3) moral/normative, and (4) professional. Cognitive legitimacy/legitimation is described as the subjective sense-making or mental work carried out by individuals as they recognize something as appropriate (or not). Technical/legal legitimation is awarded by governmental and legal entities through legal processes and formal, technical audits. Normative legitimacy, which was once called “moral legitimacy” (Suchman, 1995), is defined as acceptance awarded upon adherence to a community’s norms. Initially, normative legitimacy was referenced as moral legitimacy, but Scott (1995) replaced moral legitimacy with the referent normative legitimacy because, as he argued, individuals and organizations are part of various communities (beyond moralistic ones), and all communities have norms (e.g., racial and ethnic communities, special interest communities, political communities) that lead to (or not) one’s legitimation. Finally, professional legitimacy is an “endorsement” (p. 53) unique to a professional field made (or withheld) exclusively by one’s professional colleagues. The addition of professional legitimacy came from Deephouse and Suchman (2008) due to a concern that contemporary scholars were wrongly suggesting that professionals were the only or most important source of legitimacy. Similar to Scott, Deephouse and Suchman reminded scholars that there are many communities, outside of professional ones, that cast appraisals of legitimacy. However, Deephouse and Suchman also recognized that professionals do have a unique opportunity to legitimize in the context of their profession. The different types of legitimacy and respective (potential) sources/processes are outlined in Table 1.

Table 1: Types and Sources of Legitimacy

Type of Legitimacy

Cognitive Legitimacy

Technical/Legal Legitimacy






Cognitive legitimacy/legitimation is described as subjective sense-making or mental work carried out by individuals as they recognize something as appropriate (or not).

When legal or formal entities provide a technical or official approval.

When any audience, including but not limited to professionals, confers legitimacy based primarily on normative grounds (values, ideals, or taken-for-granted expectations).

When a professional audience/group/ colleague confers professional endorsement where the endorsement is only relevant inside the boundaries or context of that profession.

Potential Sources

Individuals mentally process ideas and examples learned through social interaction to “recognize” and “name” something as legitimate.

Governmental entities, including legal or civic courts, lawyers, and sometimes unions or associations employ legal, technical, and contractual definitions to assess legitimacy.

Society writ large, specific communities, like racial/ethnic communities, faith based communities, or even a circle of friends who have tacit rules and expectations that they expect participants to conform to.

Professions, including lawyers, professors, doctors, teachers, veterinarians have implicit and explicit rules and unique expectations about what professionals should or should not be doing, and they use these rules to assess or “endorse” others in the profession as legitimate.

Taken together, our work was informed by the scholarship on faculty preparation, socialization, and evaluation, all which point to the cultural, ongoing, and multisourced nature of earning legitimacy within academia. Theoretically, New Institutionalism helped to stabilize our thinking on legitimacy for this work.


This paper is drawn from a larger critical qualitative study (Pasque, Carducci, Kuntz, & Gildersleeve, 2012) where, broadly stated, we explored how faculty members (N = 50) employed across two community colleges, one liberal arts college, two regional/comprehensive universities, and one research university learned about and navigated the norms and expectations related to their careers. The specific aim of this paper is to address how faculty member interviewees understood legitimacy and how they believed legitimacy is granted within the academic profession.


There are various approaches to interview research, but conceptual interviews are appropriate when a researcher wants to study “a subject’s or group of subjects’ conceptions of phenomena (e.g., fear, fairness, respect)” (Kvale & Brinkmann, 2009, p. 151). Often, the goal of conceptual interviewing is to explore phenomena that can be difficult to explain, emotionally taxing, and, generally, deeply personal. Because legitimacy, along with other ideas that we explored are powerful concepts, we felt conceptual interviews were an appropriate way to approach this work.

Therefore, following the conventions of conceptual interviewing, we conducted our interviews as to accommodate for interviewee comfort and understanding of major concepts. For example, when we posed a question, we listened and watched carefully to see how the participant understood and reacted to key concepts. When we explained to interviewees that we were interested in understanding legitimacy within academia, we watched to see if this concept resonated with interviewees. If there was some signal that the concept of legitimacy was unfamiliar or unclear, we offered the following clarification (or a close iteration): “Legitimacy” is like the idea of “fitting in and feeling accepted.” On the occasion that a participant substituted a key concept, such as replacing “legitimacy” with “feeling accepted,” we used the participant’s language throughout the remainder of the interview, as this is best practice in interview research (see Kvale & Brinkmann, 2009, p. 167).

The interviews were structured to reflect four distinct segments, which we outlined for interviewees at the beginning of the interview (see Appendices). In the first segment, we asked faculty to describe how and why they chose a career in academia. We also asked professors to tell us about their work context. In the second segment, we reminded professors that one of the goals of the study was to explore expectations and conceptions of legitimacy within academia. In this section, we asked what their departmental, university, and disciplinary colleagues expected of them, and what constituted the recognition of someone or something as valuable. The third segment of questions asked faculty to reflect on how any or all of these expectations aligned or detracted from their personal aspirations, and to discuss how they navigated any tensions. In the fourth and final segment, following Kvale and Brinkmann’s (2009) guidelines for ethical interviewing, we asked professors if they had comments or questions about the topic or the study.

Forty-nine of the 50 interviews were audio recorded and transcribed verbatim. Notes were taken during one interview when the recorder malfunctioned. Interviewees were emailed a raw and/or edited transcript(s) based on their preference. When we sent faculty their transcript(s), we asked them to review it and ensure that it accurately reflected the exchange. We also invited them to annotate or revise any part of the transcript they felt required clarification or elaboration. We received and incorporated annotations from four interviewees.

Interviewee Recruitment

Interviewees were drawn from six post-secondary institutions, including two community colleges, two regional comprehensive universities, one liberal arts college, and one research university that is defined as a “high activity institution” per the Carnegie Foundation Classification Standard Listing (2010). That we included multiple types of institutions is an important contribution of this work because, as it stands, most research concerning the academic profession has been conducted at elite, well-resourced research institutions. By focusing exclusively on well-resourced, selective research institutions, researchers have offered a limited, and, indeed, skewed window into the world of academic careers and experiences. Thus, wanting to explore faculty perspectives of legitimacy across different types of institutions, we identified institutions where we had “interpersonal networks” (Hammersly & Atkinson, 2007). These networks provided insights about how to facilitate recruitment on each campus, which we used to develop our project timelines, electronic invitations, etc. Initially, our goal was to recruit at least 10–12 faculty members from each institutional type. Our final sample of participants was constituted by 14 community college faculty, 17 comprehensive university faculty, nine liberal arts college faculty, and 10 research university faculty for a total of 50 faculty interviewees.

In terms of participant recruitment, we utilized a non-probability quota sampling strategy, which means that we attempted to recruit equally across the following categories: academic field/discipline, tenure status, and gender (Vogt, Gardner, & Haeffele, 2012). First, we developed a list of all tenure-line faculty members serving in the fields of social sciences (e.g., Psychology, Sociology), liberal arts/humanities (e.g., English, History), and sciences (e.g., Biology, Chemistry) on each of the campuses. Then, we invited an equal number of professors from these three academic fields. Throughout the sampling process, we attempted to keep a balance of tenured men and women and non-tenured men and women professors. Ultimately, 19 humanities professors; 15 social science professors; and 16 science professors participated. However, as a measure of confidentiality, in the presentation of findings, we do not disclose professors’ specific disciplinary association; thus, a sociology professor is described as a social science professor, a chemistry professor as a science professor, etc. In terms of tenure status, more tenured professors (38) than tenure-track professors (12) participated. However, several (18) of the tenured professors had earned tenure within the last few years, and could easily recall their pretenure experience. In terms of gender, 32 women and 18 men participated. Although, when considered against national demographics, the number of women in our study means that women are overrepresented, there is extant evidence, as noted in the introduction, that women report several barriers with regard to mobility, being fully accepted, and access to key networks (Gappa, Austin, & Trice, 2007; Gardner, 2013; Misra, Lundquist, Holmes, & Agiomavritis, 2011; Turner et al., 2011; Turner Kelly & McCann, 2012), which means that our sample provides a critical opportunity to learn about women faculty members’ views on legitimacy and legitimation. Finally, and unfortunately, the faculty demography at these institutions mirrored national faculty demography in that racial and ethnic minority faculty were underrepresented. Consequently, we had few (eight) faculty interviewees whom identified as underrepresented People of Color (e.g., Black, Latino/a, Native American), but we hope to remedy this limitation in future studies as there is much to learn from professors of color who report distinct experiences of marginalization within academia.


In line with qualitative inquiry, data collection and data analysis ensued almost simultaneously. Early on, our analytical conversations were generic in that we discussed our interview guide, how participants seemed to be reacting to our key concepts and questions, and comments that seemed to be similar in nature. When the member checking process was complete, we began a more systematic analysis, reading and organizing our data by institutional type. We began by independently reading each transcript in order to establish a sense of familiarity with our interviewees and their narratives. Then, still working independently, we conducted “first-cycle affective coding” (Saldaña, 2012, p. 58).  According to Saldaña, “affective coding methods investigate subjective qualities of human experience (e.g., emotions, values, conflicts, judgments) by directly acknowledging and naming those experiences” (p. 105). In terms of application, this meant reading the transcripts to identify where an interviewee talked about how they, their work, or academics, in general, are recognized, judged, or accepted within the profession. All 50 interview transcripts offered at least one, but usually more than one comment that we coded during first-cycle coding. In Table 2, we provide a few exemplary quotes from our first-cycle coding.

Table 2: Exemplary Quotes from First-Cycle Affective Coding

“I wasn’t real marketable. I mean no major research university was going to hire me because it would take a couple of years until my major publications came out, so I wasn’t real marketable.”

       -Bob, tenured, male social scientist at a comprehensive university

“To be fair and honest, a lot of people are here because they couldn’t get a job anywhere else.”

       -Chad, permanent status, male humanities faculty at community college

The next step in our analysis was “second-cycle pattern coding” (Saldaña, 2012, p. 260), where we classified and integrated similar or loosely connected, already-coded data points into more robust bundles or as Saldaña (2012, p. 205) calls them “themes.” We began by organizing our coded data points in light of the literature on the academic profession. We asked if our initially coded data points suggested that faculty conceptions of legitimacy were related to familiar aspects of faculty work, such as teaching, research, and service. The goal in this round of coding was to determine if, when faculty talked about legitimacy, they related it to any or all of these tenets of faculty work. After integrating data in relation to these questions, we worked to identify other discernible patterns, which yielded two additional findings: (1) professors talked about legitimacy in relation to a professor’s ability/willingness to work endless hours and (2) professors mentioned that the type of institution where faculty members are employed impacts legitimacy. Table 3 displays exemplary quotes for the results of our second-cycle pattern coding as well as the number of transcripts where we identified the code.

In the final coding cycles, we considered if New Institutionalism, and more specifically, the legitimacy scholarship, could help us further communicate how faculty members understood legitimacy and how it gets assigned within academia. Specifically, we asked ourselves if the transcripts (and specifically our already coded data) reflected any of the types of legitimacy defined by NI scholars. Given the nature of this study and our specific research questions, we were not in a position to identify cognitive legitimacy (e.g., how someone mentally processes and identifies legitimacy), and we found very few references to technical/legal legitimacy. The vast majority of our coded data points pointed to what Deephouse and Suchman (2008) term normative and professional legitimacy. As a reminder, professional legitimacy is conferred by professional colleagues, which in this study, includes other faculty members, while, normative legitimacy can be conferred by numerous communities.

Table 3: Second-Cycle Pattern Coding—Contingencies of Legitimacy Identified by Faculty



Qualifying Logic

Exemplary Quote(s)

No. transcripts where code was applied

Legitimacy & research

The scholar suggested that research and related issues/activities (e.g., one’s approach to research, publishing) are related to legitimation (being recognized as valuable).

“There is the cultural division inside the academy, inside the discipline, that the people who do [the] two-years and community colleges, they are not really academics. They are certainly not scholars. Then, there are the four-year [institutions]: oh they are the scholars. They do the real academic work because the people in the community college are so busy grading . . . they don’t have time to study journals, to do research, to churn out articles.” – Darlene, permanent status, humanities professor at community college


Legitimacy & teaching

The scholar suggested that teaching is related to legitimation (being recognized as valuable).

 “I think the first thing [the public] thinks about is we're here to train students, right, to get jobs. If you talk to the person in the grocery store, that's what we do. We're just here to teach students about things.” – Yvette, tenure-track, science professor at research university

“And every time we tried to explore [innovative pedagogic] possibilities…we were immediately shut down by senior members of our department and administration saying, ‘Students won't like it. It's not going to look good. You're not going to get tenure.’ I am so glad that we found our way out of a funk and decided to give it one more try because we found a much more open-minded department whose goals in terms of teaching and research are very much in line with ours.” - Donna, permanent status, science professor at liberal art college


Legitimacy & service

The scholar suggested that service work (e.g., university, community, or field service) is related to legitimation.

“So, I think right now, in personal terms, I'm most valued for my service contributions.” - Sara, tenured, science professor at research university


Legitimacy & work style

The scholar suggested that particular work styles (e.g., ideal worker, selflessness) are related to legitimacy.

“I didn’t admit [not working on weekends]. I mean, I remember one time telling one of my colleagues – one of my friend-colleagues from away – we were working on a paper together, and I was like ‘Don’t tell anybody, but I don’t work at night or on the weekends.’ I mean, I was like ‘Don’t tell anyone!’” – Miranda, tenured, social science professor at research university

“They expect lots of things that are not required contractually and they criticize faculty members who choose to work according to the requirements of the contract. I try not to bring the union into this, but we have a contract that stipulates work conditions, what's expected of us . . . but the college does expect that we do more than the contract requires. They can’t formally do anything, of course, but it certainly makes a difference with things such as promotions . . . for things like class times . . . stuff like that.” – Chad, permanent status, social science professor at community college


Legitimacy & inst. type

The scholar suggested that research universities, are related to legitimation.  

“there’s definitely a perception that you need to get to an R1 institution… if you’re not, if you are at a comprehensive university, that’s because you couldn’t get an R1 job… because people don’t choose to go to a comprehensive.”- Janie, tenured, science professor at comprehensive university


Note: After bundling first-cycle codes, we conducted pattern coding and assigned each bundle a “theme” name, reflected in column one. The second column provides the rationale used to qualify data points into bundles. The third column provides an exemplary quote(s) for each respective pattern. The last column displays the number of transcripts where we this pattern applied.


Critical and interpretive paradigms provide the epistemological and ontological anchors for this work, meaning we are interested in advancing a knowledge that rests on the experiences and views of the faculty interviewed for this project, and our sense-making of their experiences and voices. Thus, we employed measures of trustworthiness that honor this epistemological and ontological foundation. First, multiple investigators (the two co-authors plus graduate students) were involved in this project since its inception. Each co-author carried out 25 interviews and each of us analyzed the transcripts to ensure that we were elevating faculty voices even while making our analytical interpretations. Second, we maintained a shared research journal where we logged our analytical hunches, and our subjectivities on this topic. Our journal was helpful to us as we talked through our analytical decision points, and helped us reflect carefully on our coding and theming process. Third, two graduate research assistants, who transcribed the interviews and located relevant literature subjected our work to a critical reading. We also invited a critical qualitative methodologist to review our work, especially our analytical process. We talked openly with this methodologist about our data set, the existing literature, the theories that informed our early thinking, and our emerging analysis. Fourth, as noted earlier, we employed member checking with all interviewees and have since provided an executive summary of the major findings from our project. Fifth and finally, we display extended quotes from the participants in order to allow readers to develop a sense of the data and participants.


The goal of this study was to learn more about faculty members’ conceptions of legitimacy, or more specifically, how faculty members believe that legitimacy is earned and maintained inside academia. As noted above, to interpret our data, we moved between the interview transcripts, the higher education scholarship, and insights provided by NI theorists, especially Suchman (1995) and Deephouse and Suchman (2008). In the space below, we present our findings according to institutional type so that researchers, institutional leaders, and other stakeholders might easily access material of most interest to them while simultaneously developing a comparative sense of our findings. However, first, we begin with an overview of our findings.

Our analysis revealed that all 50 faculty members, regardless of institution type, discipline, or tenure status, held ideas as to what counts or constitutes legitimate work/legitimacy within academia. We did not find any professors who lacked ideas about what it takes to be considered legitimate within academia nor did we find any individual who felt immune to or unaffected by legitimation processes.1 As might be expected, when faculty talked about legitimacy, they tended to make references to research and teaching. We also found that professors said legitimacy is granted based on the kind of institution in which one works, and when faculty members display a unidimensional commitment to work as well as ability to maximize and account for their work.  

When we took these findings and juxtaposed them to the definitions of legitimacy located in New Institutionalism, we determined that professors spent most of their time describing what Deephouse and Suchman specify as professional legitimacy: an “endorsement conferred by [one’s] professional [colleagues]” (Deephouse & Suchman, 2008, p. 195). Examples of professional legitimacy included suggestions that legitimacy is contingent on one’s research, the kinds of research that one does, and the kinds of dissemination outlets that one might use for their work, or the type of institution in which one works. Some faculty members also discussed how, within the context of their department, teaching was considered legitimate work. We labeled these examples as professional legitimacy because they are not likely to matter a great extent outside the academic profession, and they yielded endorsements and acceptance that is highly unique in a professional sense.

On the other hand, we also identified several examples of normative legitimacy: an acceptance granted by any and many kinds of communities awarded on normative grounds or for conforming to various community’s norms. We argue that normative legitimacy rested on just one major set of contingencies: a professor’s ability and willingness to perform as selfless ideal workers who can account for their work. We labeled this example as a normative form of legitimacy because it was an evaluation that stemmed from multiple groups—administrators, local and state legislators—and sometimes colleagues, and it was awarded when faculty conformed to larger cultural ideals about the value of work/workers and what kind of work counts in contemporary society. We unpack these findings in the following sections by institutional type.  


The 14 community college professors in this study consistently described how legitimacy is granted more readily to faculty who are engaged in research, who work in institutions that focus most heavily on research, and those who can produce more work. Our findings are presented according to type of legitimacy.  


Ashley is an assistant professor in the humanities field. After moving from industry into an adjunct professor role, Ashley eventually landed a tenure-stream position at a community college. When asked to talk about legitimacy and recognition inside academia, she said the following about teaching at a 2-year college:

I guess, I feel . . . I'm at an age where, in a way community college can be a bit of a ghetto for teachers. . . . For a middle-aged woman who has very little research to my name, I don't feel that that gives me much credibility in the academic field. I feel like a four-year college would not look at my application seriously . . . because I know at 4-year colleges there’s such pressure to publish. So why would they look at somebody that has very little publications?

Ashley’s comment is telling for a number of reasons. First, when describing how credibility is given in the field of academia, her reference point is 4-year universities, and, second, it is clear that Ashley believes her lack of publications is an impediment to legitimacy. Ashley notes that community colleges are not the type of institution in which an academic usually works, but more like a “ghetto for teachers.” Quite similarly, Linda, a permanent (tenured), humanities professor, described how, from the perspective of her disciplinary colleagues, she was not really an academic. Consider the following dialogue, taken from Linda’s transcript:

Linda: I feel that as an academic I was expected to be more of a researcher and less of a teacher or at least half and half. I always feel like I'm not quite living up to my profession by being a teacher. That being a teacher is somewhat lower on the totem pole.  

Interviewer: Where do you get that perception?

Linda: I would say primarily from people I went to graduate school with, maybe even from how some of the literature is written. There is certain kind of jockeying for position that you find in academic writing that gives you the impression that you’re supposed to . . . make a space for yourself in that dialogue . . . or you’re not really that important. I feel that I’m expected to be a lot more intellectual than I am.

Like Ashley, and other professors in this study, Linda expressed how a teaching dominant profile falls short of legitimacy in academia.

Still, it is important to note that among our 14 community college professors, there were five professors that offered examples as to how to obtain legitimacy, in the context of their own specific department was viewed as legitimate work. To be clear, these professors, like the others, also suggested that research is the central contingency for legitimacy across academia, but within their own departments they felt that teaching was deemed as legitimate work. For example, Christopher, a long-time humanities professor noted that colleagues within his department are exclusively interested in teaching, and value those who prioritize teaching above all else. Ashley, who was quoted earlier for saying that she believes others look at teaching and community colleges as a “ghetto” within academia, went onto note that “there’s something in the language that we use with each other that suggests we respect each other as teachers . . . [that value] is just implied in the way we treat each other and the way we talk to each other.” Even if faculty comments about the relation between teaching and legitimacy were not as numerous or as great in magnitude as the comments where faculty related legitimacy to research and institutional type, the fact that some community college professors believed that their department colleagues legitimated teaching illuminates two points: (1) legitimacy, even professional legitimacy, gets defined by multiple constituencies and (2) professors might find that they deal with conceptions of professional legitimacy that differ based on location (within one’s department versus academia, writ large).


All 14 community college faculty members discussed how maximizing productivity (e.g., more course completions, more instructional credit hours generated) functions as a form of legitimacy for community college professors. For example, when asked to describe how faculty are recognized within her college context, Darlene said:

Productivity. Churning out lots of students . . . I think [the administrators] see us as a revenue stream. . . . And, so what they want is more productivity. Why can’t I teach more classes? Why can’t we raise the cap on writing classes? We’ve got rooms big enough to seat 45. Why can’t we put 45 in the class? We need more people to do advising. Why can’t you advise 65 students, instead of the 40 that you’ve been given to advise?  

Darlene, as well as Lorraine and Laura, all professors in the humanities, described how value is placed on faculty who are able to move students through coursework faster, and often through the use of technology. All three women lamented that, if they responded to these administrative preferences, teaching and learning became less dynamic and more scripted.

According to some community college professors, not only did it seem that legitimacy was granted to those who could produce more credit hours, but also to those who performed in a selfless fashion, and without complaint. For example, Chad, a tenure-stream humanities professor, explained:

I think society expects . . . a selfless dedication to the students. I actually feel that that's expected of us, and not just by society. I sit on the union negotiations team when we talk to the county. . . . [And although] I don't think it's completely unjustified to expect that someone who goes into the teaching profession [to have] a moral dedication to their students . . . the limits of that have to be tempered. It’s very, very difficult to convince the county [government] . . . that we are underpaid. . . . I don’t think it’s fair to expect selfless dedication.

In Chad’s community college, being selfless was interpreted as a sign of a committed and serious worker. Fred, a tenured humanities professor, offered comments quite similar to Chad’s.

[The administration] expect lots of things that are not required contractually and they criticize faculty members who choose to work according to the requirements of the contract. I try not to bring the union into this, but we have a contract that stipulates work conditions, what’s expected of us . . . but the college does expect that we do more than the contract requires. They can’t formally do anything, of course, but it certainly makes a difference with things such as promotions . . . for things like class times . . . stuff like that.   

In summary, community college professors connected professional legitimation within academia to research, institutional type, and sometimes teaching. On the other hand, community college faculty described how normative legitimacy is granted to those who produce more work in a selfless fashion.  


Liberal arts college faculty members, like other professors, had no problem articulating what it takes to be deemed legitimate within academia. As in the previous section, we present our findings by distinguishing between professional and normative forms of legitimacy.


Liberal arts college faculty repeatedly described research as a contingency of legitimacy. For example, Brad, a recently tenured humanities professor, described how, in line with the mission espoused by his liberal arts college, he focused on teaching, mentoring students, and establishing a campus-based presence. However, near the end of his probationary period, Brad explained that his tenure review took a tumultuous turn. Over time, Brad’s senior, departmental colleagues had increasingly become interested in establishing a national reputation for the department, which required that faculty members, including Brad, increase their research productivity. Brad suddenly and surprisingly found this tenure-bid at risk:

My sense is [that the department] used the new standards for scholarship [for my review]. . . . Since then, I have had four publications. I had two going into my tenure. So, I got the message, I can make that adjustment . . . It is what it is. . . . That’s why I poured myself into scholarship, even though I don’t see it being instrumental.

Brad’s story illustrates that legitimacy—being recognized and held as valuable—is not a stable concept. As his departmental colleagues aimed to raise the department’s national profile, research immediately rose as a priority, meaning that Brad’s colleagues believed that the only way to achieve prominence is to increase research productivity.

Bonnie, a tenured humanities professor who wanted to work at a liberal arts college in order to develop a more teaching centered portfolio and in hopes of creating some balance in her life, offered a story quite similar to Brad’s. Specifically, Bonnie noted how her disciplinary based peers (mostly graduate school colleagues) chided her from time to time because of a lack of research and her hesitancy to engage in professional conferences.

Richard, a tenured social science professor, worked at the liberal arts college for several years, and his case provides a counter story. During the interview, Richard noted that he knew his publication record allowed him to be viewed as a legitimate scholar among disciplinary peers, but within the college his research record was not as well received. Of this, Richard stated, “I have [published several works] in the [number of] years I’ve been here, but that has garnered me nothing more than an occasional smirk from administrators, and . . . a muted response from colleagues.” When asked to elaborate, Richard explained:

Colleagues think I’m trying to get out of here when I write. Administration is concerned that students are intimidated by what I do. I actually go out of my way to distance myself from my publication record because I feel it gives me more negatives that positives.

Although Richard also had a successful teaching and mentoring record, his publication activity did not translate well in his particular institution; it made administrators suspect and faculty colleagues as well as students did not believe he was as committed to teaching as he could have been. Thus, Richard’s case provides an example as to how one’s professional colleagues can legitimize in different and conflicting ways.

Donna, a tenured science professor, provided another interesting example that confirmed the two ideas presented thus far: (1) that faculty believe or see that legitimacy is granted on the basis of research and (2) that departmental context and colleagues can counter the privilege allotted to research in favor of teaching. Donna reflected on her experience at her previous institution, and said:

My work had just reached a great publication stage, but I was being told I wasn't doing enough research . . . the dean at our previous research institution [said], ‘If the students in your research projects slow you down, don’t take them. . . . You're here to get tenure.’ That was a really low point. . . . So, I'm so glad that I found my way out of that funk and decided to give it one more try because I found a much more open-minded department whose goals in terms of teaching and research are very much in line with my own.


Just like in the community college setting, professors within the liberal arts setting noted how legitimacy is awarded for performing in ways that exhibit great commitment and in ways that can be counted. For example, Heidi, a tenured science professor, explained that faculty who can do more with less and who can document it in some way, earn recognition. Specifically, Heidi described an increased emphasis on assessment and accountability reports, and explained that to be valued, faculty members were expected to be able to “prove” their worth.

[There is an] overuse of assessment. I'm not saying assessment is bad, but I think there is so much fear of assessment. “Oh, the accreditation agencies are going to do this. Don’t do this” . . . There's this kind of fear about how the outside perceives us. . . . So, if all that stuff would go away, it doesn't mean I wouldn’t do what I'm doing, but it just really takes up half my week, if not more.

Heidi’s perspective was quite similar to the perspective articulated by Laura, Linda, and others at the community college in that earning normative legitimacy was not only about doing more, but being able to measure, document, and report it out to government or governmental arms, like accreditation agencies.

Relatedly, liberal arts college faculty described how legitimacy seemed to be granted to professors who were “always available” and who gave lots of “face time” on campus—quite similar to the notion of being selfless academics that some community college faculty talked about. Returning to Brad’s story, he described how, in addition to increased research productivity, his institutional colleagues expected him (and other junior colleagues) to establish a strong, on-campus presence:

There was a very explicit statement that you need face time. You need to play the political game. You need to show up to faculty coffee. You need to come to faculty workshops. There's an expectation that you are known.

In summary, liberal arts college faculty had no difficulties explaining what is deemed legitimate within academia. Their narratives highlighted that there are different types as well as different sources of legitimacy, and that conceptions do not always seamlessly align.



Although all faculty members voiced concerns about legitimacy, professors at comprehensive universities seemed to express the most emotional strain in terms of earning and maintaining legitimacy.


Like professors in other settings, comprehensive university faculty tended to suggest that legitimacy is granted on the basis of one’s research productivity and an appointment in a research university. For example, when asked to talk about expectations for scholars at his institution, Bob, a tenured social science professor offered the following:

I’ve sat on tenure and promotion committees on all levels . . . and [we have had] really, really good people who didn’t do traditional scholarship . . . and they were made to feel less, some of them didn’t get tenure or get promoted. It seemed to me that that was wrong, that we were using the wrong kinds of standards for judging people and some of these people were just really excellent at what they did, they just didn’t fit the traditional evaluation mode.

Bob’s example provides further evidence of the role that research plays in the legitimation process within academia, but Bob’s comment also points to an issue that emerged only in the comprehensive and research university. Whereas community college and liberal arts college faculty noted rather generally that research is a contingency of legitimacy, in comprehensive universities, faculty talked more specifically about the nature of research and where one publishes said research. For example, when describing how one gains recognition as a scientist, Shannon, a tenured science professor, said “research that gets you grants, that gets you published in [names of specific, high-impact science journals]—not the kind of research, generally speaking, that you do with undergraduate students.” Shannon’s last comment is important because Shannon chose to work at a comprehensive university, rather than a research university, in order to work closely with undergraduate science students. Yet, Shannon clearly did not believe that her science colleagues—in her department or in the field at large—recognized her research program as legitimate science. Of this, Shannon said:

I think that there are a lot of people doing a lot of science literacy, but that is not considered the norm. . . . At this stage in my career, it is what I want to be doing [but] I think there have been some repercussions because we do still have quite a few people that think that scholarly activity needs to be in your specific discipline, not this cross-disciplinary sort of thing. If I was more focused . . . that might have helped my career advance more quickly.

Both Shannon’s and Bob’s stories highlight how legitimacy is granted not only on the basis of research productivity, but based on the kind of research that one does, the kind of funding one attracts, and how one disseminates that work.

When comprehensive university professors discussed research as a contingency of legitimacy, they almost always mentioned how legitimacy is also tied to the type of institution in which one works. Consider the following comments from Janie, a recently tenured science professor:

Janie: So . . . there’s definitely a perception that you need to get to an R1 institution . . .

Interviewer: So, an R1, that’s where a faculty member should be or aspire to be?

Janie: Well, if you’re not, if you are at a comprehensive university, then that’s because you couldn’t get an R1 job . . . because people don’t choose to go to a comprehensive.

Janie’s reflection was filled with some anguish, and she was not alone in her feelings. David, a recently tenured, social science professor articulated a range of complex feelings about the value of his contributions and his legitimacy as a professor:

I do think about making a move . . . I think that is one of the things that you do when you are at [name of university]. It’s just kind of viewed as a second-class institution. So, it kind of hurts your pride.

Throughout David’s interview, he moved back and forth from expressing a deep sense of commitment to his students and a deep sense of regret that he had not pursued a career in a research university. Timothy’s interview offered further evidence that, within academia, legitimacy is associated with institutional type. Timothy recalled that when he and a peer from graduate school informed their advisors that they had accepted positions at regional institutions, there was some disappointment:

I could kind of feel it.  A colleague of mine went to [a regional university] . . . not as well known for academics. I saw [disappointment] probably more with her [advising] faculty. It happened a little bit for me as well. For some . . . it’s kind of a letdown . . . a bit of a disappointment. Obviously, they want to send their students to the best possible schools because it helps their own reputation. . . . I had two professors that were real supportive . . . there were some others . . . that weren’t excited.

In the space above, it is clear that professional legitimacy hinges on recognition offered by one’s professional colleagues, but just as in other settings, comprehensive university professors described normative forms of legitimacy as well.


In the last two settings, faculty described how selfless commitment and the ability to do more with less was rewarded with legitimacy. This pattern held in the comprehensive university setting where Meredith, a recently tenured, humanities professor explained that faculty members are recognized when they are able and willing to take on more. Of this, she said:

I can’t provide the kind of education that I have seen [in other places] because I teach three classes plus [I am an] administrator. I have even taught 5 classes here at one point. . . . And now teaching an online class, we are doing more of that. . . . I [could] have 5 classes with these large numbers of students plus the administrative duties.  

Just as the community college professors suggested, Meredith explained that there is an implicit expectation that an academic should be willing to do more, especially when technology makes it possible to do. If a professor is not willing to, for example, teach larger sections or simultaneous sections via technology, then administrators wonder about their capacity. Sherri, a tenure-track social science professor, agreed and described how

Everybody is sort of spread very thinly . . . in highly divergent and often contradictory tasks. . . . The push is to be excellent at all of these things. . . . We have this open door culture with undergrads . . . [but] when you’re at home writing, your colleagues are angry that you are not there with students. . . . It’s frustrating at the end of the year, though, if you haven’t been productive enough [because] the questions are always about what you weren’t doing as opposed to celebrating what you did do.

According to Meredith, Sherri, and other comprehensive university professors, normative legitimacy hinged on the ability to perform across many areas, without boundaries, and in ways that could be documented and reported out to others.


Before presenting the findings related to our ten research university professors, it is helpful to note that these professors were employed at a public research university with a significant focus on regional economic development. This research university does not employ highly selective admissions, and much of the research and graduate education conducted at this institution was tied to regional and state needs. In terms of the Carnegie Standard Classification system, the university was identified as a “high” rather than “very high” activity institution. Like other professors in this study, these faculty members talked readily about what constitutes legitimacy or legitimate work within academia. We begin with a discussion of professional legitimacy.


Like others, research university professors suggested that both research and institutional type influence appraisals of legitimacy. For example, Kevin, a recently tenured social science professor said, “I know why I got promoted. It had nothing to do with my [teaching accolades]; those didn’t mean anything when I came up for tenure promotion. It was how many pages of peer-reviewed publications I had.” Mike, a tenured humanities professor offered a very similar comment, and noted that even if there is institutional support for improving one’s teaching (e.g., a center for teaching, workshops), it is clear that one will not be the “stars of the university” for begin a good teacher. Further confirming that legitimacy is contingent on one’s research productivity, Suzanne, a tenured humanities professor, explained, “I killed myself to become a publication whore and published and published and published” in order to “get out” of the teaching institution where she began her career. Suzanne’s comments clearly suggest that to be considered an academic, one must work at a research university, and one must publish a great deal.

Concerning institutional type or the importance of where one holds an academic appointment, these professors suggested that even among research universities, there is a hierarchy that lends to more or less legitimacy. For example, Sara, a science professor, explained that in order to be promoted, she had to obtain external reviews from faculty at “better ranked research institutions.” Sara noted, “[My university] really wants to be more of a research institution. So, they're holding [faculty] standards to more [research intense universities].” Sara went on to explain that although the external reviewers supported her tenure and promotion, they only did so because of her teaching record, and they explicitly stated that her research record would not be tenureable at their own institutions.

Clearly, Sara’s experience speaks to the notion that legitimacy within academia is often related to place; Sara’s example also showed how one’s institution can shape the kind of research that one is able to undertake. She noted that, in the context of a broad access, regionally focused institution, her science research incorporates a substantial undergraduate teaching component, which inevitably impacts the kind, amount, and quality of data that Sara could collect, and where she could publish. Of this, Sara noted:

If I don't think about my research, then I'm very happy. On the other hand, I look at some of my academic siblings . . . they’re incredibly successful. . . . I feel like such a loser, and that hurts. . . . I feel like I’ve just completely let my advisor down in terms of research potential. So, that hurts.

Sara’s reflection is important because it describing how one earns legitimacy or gets deemed legitimate within academia, she immediately discussed her shortcomings in terms of research productivity and the kind of research that she is able to produce. Also, discussing institutional type as a way to get at legitimacy, Mike qualified much of his commentary on research by saying, “Look, I know I am not at Harvard.” After framing his comments with this disclaimer, Mike discussed how the tenure and promotion process is increasingly, strictly about one’s research productivity as the university aims to achieve a stronger reputation as a research university.


As in the other sites, research university professors believed that legitimacy often followed one’s willingness and ability to display an unyielding commitment to work. For example, when asked how one goes about earning legitimacy among her colleagues, Amanda, a recently tenured social scientist, began by explaining that academics are expected to constantly work, and to be able to account for that work. Amanda elaborated by reflecting on a conversation she had shared with a colleague:

I remember, one time, telling . . . a colleague—from away—while we were working on a paper together, I was like, “Don’t tell anybody, but I don’t work at night or on the weekends.” I mean I was like “Don’t tell anyone!”  After that, I went to a talk where the woman presenter said the same thing, and I was validated . . . but it still kind of felt like a dirty secret.

Amanda believed that constantly working, or at least maintaining the image of someone who was constantly working, was one way to earn legitimacy among her colleagues. Similarly, Rhea, a tenure-track, humanities professor, said that she strives to communicate that she is always “[being] productive in terms of my research, so that I never give anyone a cause to look at me and think I was slacking off or anything like that.” At first, Rhea’s comment may seem unremarkable. Obviously, research activity is key to maintaining one’s position in a research university. However, when considered alongside Amanda’s quote, and the larger data set, Rhea’s comment further affirms that academic professionals understand that legitimacy is donned on those who are always working, always available, and always able to prove or document their work. For Katie, a recently tenured science professor, the need to always be working in order to achieve legitimacy loomed large, as she explained, “I hear people say that people with families take some time off or slow down, but in science, once you get on top, you have to keep up to stay on top.” Taken together, just like professors in other settings, the research university professors reported that legitimacy is associated with research and institutional type as well as the ability and willingness to constantly engage or produce work.  


The primary goal of this work was to gather a sense of faculty members’ conceptions of legitimacy, or more specifically, how faculty members believe that legitimacy is earned and maintained inside academia. As a reminder, in this study, legitimacy was defined as “a condition reflecting cultural alignment, normative support, or consonance with relevant rules or laws” (Scott, 1995, p. 45, italics added). Thus, to be clear, we were interested, not necessarily in how faculty members define or work to redefine legitimacy for themselves, but in how they believe legitimacy and legitimation are defined in the context of their profession, at large. When analyzing the data, we were mindful of the scholarship on academic careers and recent developments within the New Institutional (NI) legitimacy scholarship. Insights from NI theory were particularly helpful in labeling the distinctive ways that faculty talked about legitimacy. Distinguishing the nuances in faculty members’ conceptions of legitimacy, according to Deephouse and Suchman (2008), allows us to better illustrate the complex relations of power that flow through social and organizational life, and the multiple types and sources of legitimacy that faculty confront while doing their work.

Overall, we found that when professors talked about earning legitimacy, they talked almost exclusively about what Deephouse and Suchman termed professional and normative types of legitimacy. Following the definition of professional legitimacy provided by Deephouse and Suchman, when faculty spoke about how their professional colleagues—in their departments or in the field—appraised the fit of academics, we called this professional legitimacy. As displayed in our data, these professional endorsements were overwhelmingly connected to faculty research/productivity and the type of institution in which professors worked, although there were a few examples where professors described how their departmental colleagues positioned teaching as legitimate work. As Deephouse and Suchman suggest, professional legitimacy is underlined by judgments that are unique to the profession, meaning that this kind of legitimacy does not necessarily mean much beyond the academic profession, itself. For example, the type of journal one publishes in, whether or not one’s work is “too activist,” or whether one holds an appointment in a master’s granting institution or in a research university with a “high” versus “very high” activity are not likely to be the kinds of conversations with which people outside of academia concern themselves.  

On the other hand, faculty members also spent a good amount of time discussing how administrators, accreditation agencies, governmental entities, the public, and even colleagues go about granting legitimacy of a different nature; given its many sources, and the fact that it is reflective of larger cultural norms in the United States, we called this normative legitimacy. As illustrated in our data, normative legitimacy was often connected to professors’ ability and willingness to always be at work, to work without boundaries, and very frequently, to produce work that could be counted. Here, we discuss the implications related to these findings.


Professional legitimacy seemed to be constituted by two major dimensions: research and institutional type. In terms of research, we shared several data points where faculty connected research and research-related activities to legitimacy. This played out in slightly different ways at the different institutional types. Whereas community college and liberal arts college professors discussed the import of research at a rather general level, professors in the comprehensive and research university talked more specifically about the amount of research, the nature of one’s research program, and the dissemination of research. In terms of institutional type, professors across all settings, except the liberal arts college, provided several data points that suggested legitimacy is awarded based on an appointment in a highly productive, well-resourced research institution. Because these sorts of evaluations were described as evaluations cast by one’s professional colleagues, they fit Deephouse and Suchman’s (2008) notion of professional legitimacy.

These findings are not particularly ground-breaking or surprising. For years, scholars of the professoriate have argued that an implicit hierarchy of recognition and value operates within academia. Indeed, the privilege allotted to research was what drove Boyer (1990) to lead a national effort to reform faculty evaluation. Moreover, although some simply accept that institutional differentiation is real and that it is simply a functional way to organize the massive higher education system in the United States., Clark (1978) advanced a much more critical view when he wrote:

The differentiated structure [of higher education] is a mobilization of bias, a face of power . . . to study academic differentiation is not only to determine the academic division of labor in its specific operational settings. It is also a pursuit of the expression of academic values and the foundations of academic power. (p. 258).

In this way, while our findings are not new, they give voice and some empirical substance to Clark’s argument, which is an argument that has often been repeated and speculated about but never addressed so directly in the way that we have addressed it. Indeed, Pierre Bourdieu (1998) pointed out how rarely academics turn the lens on our own practice. In other words, although academics take up many topics for study, we rarely intentionally and critically consider the implications of our own worldviews and work. However, given the fact that professional legitimacy can only stem from within the profession, then it is within the purview of practicing professionals to broaden what it means to be an accepted member of the field, or perhaps to better communicate that indeed there is more flexibility than what meets the eye.  

To this end, consider that when community college faculty discussed legitimacy, they suggested that faculty peers out in the field do not really see them as academics at all. This view among community college faculty members highlights how narrow the views on scholarship and what it means to be a scholar have remained, despite Boyer’s (1990) national intervention. Although community college faculty members are, indeed, consumed by teaching responsibilities moreso than any other group of faculty in our study, we argue that the teaching and learning process does require one to grapple as a scholar. Indeed, one of the community college professors in this study summed up this argument well when he noted that he sees his students as intellectuals, which meant that he updated his reading lists and challenged both himself and his students to grapple with published work. In fact, 13 of the 14 community college faculty members in our study described how they invested in their continual professional development by participating in disciplinary reading, writing, and/or teaching groups.

Moreover, a number of the community college faculty conducted classroom or action research, and some conducted conventional research, although they did not always seek to publish in conventional research journals, as they were more concerned about distributing new ideas to their students and to smaller, local audiences. Some of the community college professors were not interested in publishing at all, but shared research findings informally with others on their campus. However, for all of the scholarly activity and capability that these professors engaged in on a daily basis, they believe that 4-year university professors viewed them as less than, or as Darlene said, “not as academics” at all. The major point that we would like to raise in relation to our community college findings is that, perhaps, we should revisit Boyer’s initial aim, and consider how to revise what it means to be a scholar.

Findings among the liberal arts college faculty were somewhat surprising when considered in the context of the larger paper, but less so in light of the fact that liberal arts colleges are supposed to nurture exceptionally distinct cultures in which issues of fit might be more salient at the organizational level than in other settings. In fact, if community college faculty seemed to be most focused on appraisals (or lack of appraisals) from colleagues outside their institutions, liberal arts college faculty talked extensively and almost exclusively about their institutional peers. Overall, the findings among liberal arts professors showed how faculty often face contradictory notions of legitimacy. On the one hand, some liberal arts faculty faced changing expectations and conceptions of legitimacy that privileged research over teaching; Brad and Bonnie provided such examples. Others, like Richard and Donna, described how their departmental colleagues prioritized and valued teaching above all other activity. For Donna, this orientation to teaching was a welcome one, but Richard acknowledged that the privilege allotted to teaching in his department ran counter to what his colleagues out in the field expected.  

Within the comprehensive university, 18 of the 19 professors explicitly stated that legitimacy in academia was tied to research, and more specifically that more or less legitimacy was granted according to the nature of research and the type of dissemination strategy that professors employed. It was also clearly and consistently evinced that comprehensive university faculty believed legitimacy was connected to institutional type, and more specifically, to an appointment in a research university.

Interviews with professors in this sector illuminated a great sense of ambivalence, and sometimes anguish or regret. Professors, like Shannon, Meredith, and Janice, reflected on the idea that their research did not fit conventional norms, and perhaps more difficult, they believed that their colleagues did not fully respect or understand their work or, perhaps most painful, why one would choose to work in a comprehensive university. The implications here are just as powerful as they were for our community college findings. First of all, the faculty in these settings often said that they elected to work outside the research university sector because they did not want to live the “publish and perish,” research dominated life that they had seen mentors and advisors live. And yet many of these professors still struggled with their decision, and a few described how attending conferences or interacting with their advisors caused a sense of anxiety that they had let important colleagues, like their advisors and graduate school peers, down.

In other words, although these professors exercised agency in choosing to work outside a research university, they remained unsure of themselves and were certain that others were unsure of them as well. This suggests that socialization has a deep, powerful, and lasting reach on academics. It is for this very reason that socialization, orientation, and related efforts cannot be framed as simple, matter-of-fact matters. Doctoral faculty, advisors, and colleagues must consider the impact of socialization, and must consider what is communicated when nothing or little is said about the value of academic work outside of research universities or in activities that are not necessarily related to research.   

Research university professors, like others, pointed to the import of research, and perhaps a bit surprisingly, they also talked about institutional type. For example, concerning research, professors detailed the importance of having large projects that attract money or having projects that follow the conventions of traditional research, including scientific or mainstream approaches. Of course, the implications here are numerous: when scholarship and the production of knowledge are so narrowly defined, our view of the world and the knowledge that is advanced are unnecessarily reduced. In turn, scholars who engage in different kinds of work, like Sara’s research, are marginalized. Interestingly, research university professors also, like others, highlighted how legitimacy is tied to institutional type. For example, Mike discussed how the university is pursuing greater status as a research university, which meant that the tenure and promotion process was increasingly like the tenure and promotion at other more research focused, and better resourced, research institutions. These comments further highlight how legitimacy is tied to a hierarchy of institutional type that can only be dismantled through intentional actions and revised socialization processes. We now turn to a discussion of normative legitimacy and its implications.


As a reminder, normative legitimacy consists of two main characteristics: (1) it stems from multiple communities and (2) it is granted when one conforms to implicit cultural rules and ideals. We argue that when faculty suggested that legitimacy is granted on the basis of one’s ability to show that they are productive workers with few, if any, boundaries, this is an example of normative legitimacy. Specifically, faculty members in every type of institution discussed how they were expected to work more and to account for their work and productivity, and they described how, administrators, governmental and accountability offices, and even their colleagues expected such commitment. This finding aligns well with the contemporary scholarship on the academic profession, which we draw from to argue that faculty are awarded normative legitimacy for performing as ideal workers (Austin, 2002, 2011; Cupples & Pawson, 2012; Gappa et al., 2007; Sallee, 2013).

The notion of ideal workers is not new to academia (or to the study of labor, overall). Typically, it refers to middle/upper middle class, White, married men whose spouses managed children and household matters. Without other responsibilities, men were allowed—or even compelled—to perform as ideal workers, committing limitless time and energy to their work, developing what Austin (2011) described as “a single-minded commitment to work (p. 153).” As women scholars entered academia, they found that ideal worker norms worked against them in two ways. First, because women dedicate more time to household and familial matters, women scholars found that they had to draw clearer boundaries around their time and energy, between work and home. For example, after-hours research meetings or professional social gatherings present distinct problems to women who might need to tend to household and familial matters in the evening, and, yet, these events also offer key opportunities for professional development. Second, because academia’s ideal worker is often conceptualized as a male deeply steeped in research, and because caregiving/service work have been feminized (Park, 1996), women have long reported that they are assigned more time, energy, and student intensive service responsibilities, which keep them from focusing on their research development (Misra et al., 2011; Turner Kelly & McCann, 2014). In this study, we apply, but also expand, the mostly sociocultural gendered notion of ideal worker to highlight the neoliberal bent embedded in this idea. Specifically, we argue that the ideal worker performance expected and legitimized within academia reflects current overarching expectations of workers, as dictated by the neoliberal turn (Harvey, 2007), which is defined as:

a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced . . . within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve the institutional framework appropriate to such practices . . . [to the point that] if markets do not exist (in areas such as . . . education, health care, or environmental pollution) then they must be created. . . . But beyond these tasks the state [interventions] must be kept to a bare minimum because, according to the theory, the state cannot possibly possess enough information to second-guess market signals (p. 2).

Keeping this definition of neoliberalism in mind, and hanging on to the classic notion of the ideal worker, consider the several comments that faculty made regarding their need to document, count, or account for themselves and their work in order to be viewed as legitimate. For example, in the community college, faculty believed legitimacy was granted when they were able to produce more students, but not necessarily for the content of their teaching. Additionally, a few of the professors stressed that administrators and local governmental leaders expected a selfless commitment from them, and disdained those professors who worked within the guidelines of their contract. Within the liberal arts college, faculty members were encouraged to provide extensive face time, signaling a need to “prove” their contributions and commitments. In the context of the comprehensive university, faculty were expected to produce more research and rake in research dollars, but also carry at least three courses, which seemed to grow larger through various technological formats. In research universities, faculty commented that legitimacy seemed to hinge on one’s ability and willingness to always be at work.

In a society that lives by the neoliberal turn, showing that one is working by putting in “face time,” or graduating more students faster, or adding more students to one’s online course to maximize productivity serve as the market signals described in Harvey’s quote above. In this way, accountability measures function as objectified markers of faculty work that have replaced the trust once instilled in higher education and in faculty, meaning the work of faculty is no longer outside or beyond the free-market, a trend that highlights one of the greatest insights from the legitimacy scholarship. Specifically, legitimacy scholars, anchored in the New Institutional tradition, insisted that all actors face multiple forces of legitimacy, and these multiple forces of legitimacy do not always align. In this case, professors confront a brand of normative legitimacy that challenges the very fundamental notion of what it has meant to be part of a profession.

In many ways, this is just one more piece of evidence that suggests the academic profession is increasingly vulnerable. In response, faculty members must develop better ways to communicate the complexities of teaching, learning, producing knowledge, and how these activities translate to practice and to the workplace. Because interviewees in the research university setting suggested that their professional colleagues are most responsible for ideal worker expectations, there is, as Ann Austin (2011) has long stressed and suggested, an opportunity for professors to revise this form of legitimacy. In the final sections, we present specific implications for practice.

Implications for Faculty Preparation and Socialization

It is imperative that faculty members acknowledge that faculty preparation and socialization are processes steeped in power, as they lead to notions of fit and value (Gardner, 2013; O’Meara, 2011; Rhoades, Marquez Kiyama, McCormick, & Quiroz, 2007). Thus, this work might be used to help doctoral faculty reflect on faculty preparation and socialization practices. Specifically, current faculty members might consider the following questions: (1) When hiring for a new position, are intentional efforts made to invite colleagues from diverse institutions to apply for positions, which is an acknowledgement that scholars, talent, and knowledge creators are present across all institutional types? (2) When advising students and teaching classes, are there measures to ensure that reading lists and syllabi includes various types of scholarship from scholars in various settings, from the community college to vocational schools to the Ivy Leagues? Relatedly, when developing workshops related to the job search, are scholars from various institutional types invited in order to demonstrate that every space within higher education is a space that matters? (3) In terms of conference planning, are there strategies and funding in place to ensure that scholars from underrepresented (and often under-resourced) institutions are asked to sit on planning committees, invited to serve as chairs or discussants, and presenters? On this note, conference and planning chairs have the latitude to ensure that equity (along many dimensions) guides decision-making for conference programming and content. Also, because several scholars noted the anxiety that they have with regard to conference-going, planners might consider developing networking opportunities according to institution types, or perhaps developing events based on institution types (e.g., science research among community colleges or literature studies in liberal arts colleges).  

Implications for Faculty Evaluation

In terms of evaluation, scholars might consider how they define scholarly work. A return to Boyer’s work and newer iterations of Boyer’s work by Henderson (2013) could be helpful. Tenure and promotion committees should reflect not only on official policy, but also on the signals that scholars implicitly receive, not only within the institution, but from the wider disciplinary fields. On this note, although each institutional type and setting has a unique culture and orientation, we believe there is always room for diverse forms of scholarship and faculty contributions. Gouldner’s (1957, 1958) classic work on locals and cosmopolitans suggested that organizations function best when there is a mix of organizational actors with a local and a cosmopolitan inclination. When this idea is applied to the role of faculty, locally inclined professors are those most engaged in teaching, service, and research on local problems while those that are cosmopolitan or (inter)nationally oriented, are probably more engaged in cross-institutional collaboration, research, and publishing.

Tenure and promotion committees, as well as administrators, should consider how they might evaluate faculty to achieve a balance between such diverse scholars because all contributions in all types of institutions can make for more dynamic teaching, learning, and knowledge producing atmospheres. On this note, we suggest that faculty senates and tenure and promotion committees should consider how to support faculty members in developing individualized work plans based on faculty members’ strengths and orientations. Individual work plans could allow departments to leverage the strengths of individuals in order to be a stronger whole, and at the same time, what would be recognized as legitimate would vastly be expanded. Finally, in terms of the tenure or promotion processes, tenure and promotion committees should, in light of this work, reconsider the criteria that are used to select external reviewers. By doing so, committees acknowledge that there are legitimate scholars who are able to formulate and articulate valid assessments of their faculty colleagues throughout all of higher education.

Implications for Faculty Professional Development

One of the most dominant findings suggested that legitimacy is granted to those who are able to perform as ideal workers in nonstop fashion. According to our faculty interviewees, this form of legitimacy came not only from colleagues, but from government or the public, writ large, meaning this is a deep ideological and structural issue, and thus, a difficult one to tackle. However, faculty professional development professionals and university mental health offices could come together to develop self-care plans with faculty. Although any time could be a good time to support faculty in developing self-care plans, key opportunities might be at new faculty orientation or perhaps at the common “mid-point” or “third-year” review. Finally, and importantly, college and university administrators should consider hiring or dedicating media relations experts to help faculty communicate the nuances and contributions of their work in an attempt to combat some of the seeming frustration and lack of trust that faculty are productive public employees.

Implications for Future Research

Finally, although this work has provided important findings, there is much more research to be done.  First of all, studies like this should be replicated and more specific examination of our thematic findings should be explored at a larger scale. For example, scholars might study the dimensions of professional legitimacy that we have advanced and examine if they hold up in future studies and in broader samples.

Another particularly fruitful line of inquiry might deal with faculty members’ health in relation to the pressures of legitimacy. We suggest that a multi-disciplinary team of scholars replicate Court and Kinman’s (2008) study of faculty members’ mental health, but expand on it to capture other measures of bodily and emotional health related to faculty members’ sense of legitimacy, and especially the perception that they must always be working. On this note, we believe that, given the deep cultural anchor of the ideal worker expectation, there is opportunity to examine to what extent the faculty experience matches with that of other employees in higher education, such as higher education administrators or student service professionals. By considering how experiences, especially taxing ones, are felt across the higher education field, the possibility for collective action becomes greater.

In closing, we want to stress that studying perceptions of legitimacy was a complex endeavor. In this paper, we have shown how we, faculty, are implicated (though not wholly responsible) for some of the hierarchy that operates within academia. Our findings show that faculty members do have deeply entrenched notions of what constitutes legitimacy, and although they often critiqued and struggled under the weight of these conceptions, they also sometimes implicitly and inadvertently reproduce them. We suggest that our findings are a powerful entrée for facilitating self-reflection and revising current approaches to mentoring and advising, but to fully leverage these insights, we must be willing to turn a critical lens onto our own practices.  



The purpose of this study is to explore your experiences as a faculty member, specifically in regard to ways in which you understand and navigate the normative contexts and pressures of your profession. You received an introductory email, but I realize you may have some questions about the study. I would be glad to discuss these with you. Before we proceed, is there anything more you would like to know about the study?

The interview consists of three major parts. First, I will ask you to tell me a little about yourself, about your background, how you came into academia. Then, I will ask you to tell me about how you learned norms and expectations relevant to your career as a faculty member. Finally, I will ask you tell me a little bit about how you have navigated and negotiated through your career, these norms, and so forth.  

Our interview will last approximately one hour. As I indicated in the introductory email, I will treat your data and your documents with the strictest confidence. I will not use your name or colleagues’ names in public reports of the study; rather I will use pseudonyms to refer to people.  I will also use a variety of editing and masking techniques to avoid divulging your identity and your colleagues’ identities. In addition, as we proceed through the interview today, please point out any issues that you may wish to keep “off the record” in published reports. Despite the care I take to avoid divulging identity, in a study like this, there is always the possibility that your confidentiality might be breached. Also, sometimes talking about our careers and lives is easy, but sometimes it’s uncomfortable to do. How much you say and what you choose not to say is, of course, up to you. I also want to clarify that your participation in this study is completely free and voluntary; you may refuse to respond to any questions; and you may discontinue with the study at any time.  

With your permission, I would like to tape record this interview, in order to have a comprehensive record of our conversation. Is that acceptable to you?



If at any time you would like me to turn off the recorder, please let me know and I will pause or turn off the recorder.

This consent form details what I just told you about confidentiality. Could I ask you to read and sign these at this time, and to let me know if you have any questions?  


Discuss any questions and concerns.


Request participants’ signature on the consent form.


Give participant a copy of the consent form.


Do you have any questions before we proceed?


Part One—Background Questions


Tell me about yourself.


Why did you pursue a career in academia?


How did you come to work at this university?


Tell me about your work. What is it like to work at this university, generally speaking?


What classes do you teach?


What does your research center on?


When asked, how do you describe your career for others?

Part Two—Learning About Expectations, Norms, How to Earn Legitimacy


I am really interested in learning about how you conceptualize the purpose of your career. Can you talk about this?

a.     Can you describe the contributions of your work? Or what kind of contributions would you like to make? What would you like to be known for?


How do you think others perceive [describe their goal/purpose/contributions] and how do you feel about those perceptions? How do your colleagues see you and your contributions?


Part of this study is trying to understand what is legitimate or what constitutes a legitimate contribution to academia. I would like you to think about how you have learned what is legitimate, what is expected or what is the “norm” for you as a faculty member. I will ask you to talk about this in different ways—by asking you to think about expectations that society holds, that your field holds, and that your university holds concerning the role of faculty members.


What expectations does society, broadly, hold for academics?


Probe: How do you know this? How did you arrive at this perspective?


What expectations does the level of your university hold for academics? What helps one fit here?  


Probe: How do you know this? How did you arrive at this perspective?


What expectations does academia have for scholars?


Probe: What is expected of a scholar, at this level? What helps one fit?


How do you know this? How did you learn this?


What expectations does your field or discipline hold for academics?


Probe: What constitutes a contribution, and helps one fit in your discipline?


How do you know this? How did you learn about this?


 What do your department colleagues expect of others, of yourself? What helps one achieve a sense of fit, so to speak, within your department?


Probe: How do you know this? How did you arrive at this perspective?

Part Three—Negotiating, Taking Agency


When all the wheels are turning or when the stars align for you, for your career, what does that look like? How do you work to ensure that you achieve this stride?


When things get in the way, how do you work to get things back on track?


Are there individuals/networks that were key to how you addressed this [describe misalignment to check for understanding].


Are there other resources or contexts that were key to how you addressed this [describe misalignment to check for understanding].


Were there repercussions for the way in which you addressed the misalignment?  [If applicable, are you ever curious if there will be repercussions or not?]

Part Four—Participant Feedback


Do you have any comments or questions?


1. In another paper, we discuss professors who refused to conform to the notions of legitimacy described in this paper.

2. Special thanks to the reviewers for helping us developing a stronger argument and to Dr. Cassie F. Quigley for serving as our qualitative methodologist consultant. Finally, our deepest gratitude to the faculty members who allowed us into their lives, and shared their perspectives with us. We learned so much from you.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 118 Number 7, 2016, p. 1-44
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 20805, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 10:27:16 AM

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About the Author
  • Leslie Gonzales
    Michigan State University
    E-mail Author
    DR. LESLIE D. GONZALES is an assistant professor of Higher Education/Educational Leadership at Michigan State University. Gonzales’s research agenda addresses the academic profession by asking questions related to: (1) legitimization within academia, (2) relations of power concerning the production of knowledge, and (3) the agency-structure dilemma as characterized by the current cultural and political-economic moment. Most recently, Dr. Gonzales’s work has been published in The Journal of Higher Education, The British Education Research Journal, and Educational Policy Analysis Archives.
  • Aimee LaPointe Terosky
    Saint Joseph's University
    E-mail Author
    DR. AIMEE LAPOINTE TEROSKY is an assistant professor of Educational Leadership at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, PA. Terosky’s research agenda addresses issues related to career management and agency among teaching and academic professionals across K–12 and post-secondary settings. Dr. Terosky’s recent work has been published in the Journal of Higher Education, Educational Administration Quarterly, and The Journal of Diversity in Higher Education.
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