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The Unique Dynamics of Academic Societies: Insights from Experience

Updated: Jun 28

By: Ginger Phillips, EdD, CMM - Arden Solutions' Founder

Academic societies possess distinct characteristics that set them apart from other professional organizations. With over 14 years of experience as a faculty director of continuing education at a graduate school and 13 years leading an association management company serving academic societies, I've gained valuable insights into the intricacies of working with academic professionals.

The Collaborative Nature of Academia

Collaboration is a cornerstone of academic work. Faculty members are encouraged to work together on research projects, co-author publications, and present at esteemed conferences. These activities are critical for career advancement, particularly for those teaching at the graduate level, where promotions hinge on contributions to refereed journals and conference presentations.

The Competitive Underbelly

Despite the emphasis on collaboration, the academic environment is intensely competitive. Tenure positions are limited, with only one or two openings available at any given time within a department. This scarcity fosters a fiercely competitive atmosphere where colleagues, who are supposed to be collaborators, often find themselves in direct competition. The politics within departmental, college, and university hierarchies add another layer of complexity to this dynamic.

Transitioning to Association Leadership

When these dedicated academics come together to lead an association, they must shift from the competitive mindset ingrained in their day jobs to a more collaborative approach. This transition is crucial for the effective leadership of nonprofit organizations (C3 or C6), where the focus must be on collective goals rather than individual achievements.

The Red Hat vs. Black Hat Approach

To illustrate this shift, I often use the "Red Hat vs. Black Hat" exercise. In their academic roles, faculty members typically wear the "Black Hat," characterized by competitive, individualistic thinking. However, for association leadership, they must don the "Red Hat," symbolizing collaborative and mission-focused thinking.

During a retreat with one society, I asked participants to consider decision scenarios first with the Black Hat mindset and then with the Red Hat perspective. This exercise was conducted in silence, allowing for introspection. The results were transformative. Participants began to consciously switch their thinking, leading to more collaborative and constructive discussions.

The Outcome

By the end of the retreat, it was common to see participants pause, metaphorically or actually don the Black Hat, and then offer more collaborative suggestions. This simple yet powerful exercise helped them understand the fundamental difference between their academic and association roles.


Academic societies are a joy to work with, but they require a nuanced approach that acknowledges the unique challenges and dynamics of the academic environment. By fostering a collaborative mindset and helping academics transition from competitive to collective thinking, we can enhance the effectiveness of these societies and achieve their shared goals.


This perspective, grounded in years of experience, offers a roadmap for navigating the complexities of academic societies. It underscores the importance of adaptability, collaboration, and a clear understanding of the different hats we wear in various professional contexts.

About the Author:

Ginger Phillips, EdD, CMM


Arden Solutions

With 25+ years leading non-profit organizations as well as over 200 academic conferences, Arden Solutions, now an accredited AMC, was a dream come true. Her background is in adult and professional education and nonprofit management. It was her vision to create our AMC and she makes sure that each employee continues to engage in their own professional development.

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