• August 29, 2015

10 Suggestions for a New Department Chair

On June 30, just three months from now, I will finish my third term as a department chair at Duke University. When people ask if I might continue, I paraphrase Chief Joseph: "I will chair no more forever." Of course, one of my law colleagues responded with a paraphrase of Chief Justice Holmes: "Three chairmanships of an imbecile are enough."

Few academics get a Ph.D. looking to go into administration, most likely because we would be terrible at it. I took a Myers-Briggs test back when I was an assistant professor, in the 1980s, and have never forgotten the result: "Dear INTJ: You are poorly suited for management." But there was a footnote: "Unless you are a university professor. You may be qualified for academic management because your colleagues are worse."

Universities are not very intentional or coherent in training administrators. Most of the rewards, and all of the prestige, go for publication and securing grants. And raises are more likely to reward those who receive outside offers, not the person who redesigned the undergraduate curriculum.

Nonetheless, the department chair's job is a crucial one. Our best hope, in a world where the position rotates, is to be able to pass on folk wisdom, to help the next generation avoid the mistakes that the old folks made. In that spirit, here are 10 things I wish I had known before I became a department head:

1. You will never have more friends than you have right now. When you first take over as chair, you should connect with members of the department you may not know well, or have considered aloof or even unfriendly. Don't make enemies by assuming they are not friends. Once you have lost a friend, it's hard to get that person back. Above all, never choose short-run gains at the cost of making enemies.

2. It's just lunch. Have lunch (or some other extended gathering) with every member of your department once a year, even with the ones who don't like you. If you want them to rise above petty dislikes, you need to do the same.

3. How can I help? Ask questions, and listen to the answers. Some of the responses will be simple kvetching, but even there your faculty will appreciate the fact that you listened. After you listen, ask, "What one thing could I do to make your work better, and your life easier?" There are lots of little problems that you as chair can fix in less than five minutes. There is a reason why successful politicians spend resources on constituency service.

4. Pay with honor. Most of us want respect from our colleagues. Giving out honors, rewards, and simple recognition has a bigger effect than it would in a more money-focused environment. Recognize book prizes, significant grants, or even interesting opinion essays written by your faculty members. Cultivate an atmosphere in which contributions to the collective good are honored, and you will get more contributions to the collective good.

5. If you take the job, do the job. If you can't make yourself do the right thing, resign. If you don't resign, do your job. That might mean firing that toxic staff person, the one who knows all the rules and constantly makes everyone miserable. Sure, firing someone can take six months of concentrated work, keeping track of things and talking to administrators. But the second biggest contribution I made to my department (faculty hiring was the first), in 10 years, was firing four toxic staff members at different times.

6. Never, ever say, "I am the chair, you know." Because they do know. You become the chair by acting like the chair. Departments that use a chair system are democracies. You cannot force through policies that faculty members oppose, and it's a mistake to try. If you are calm in the face of criticism, and run meetings fairly and transparently, you are likely to get people to vote the way you want because they want to have a leader who can get things done.

7. Think like a farmer. I grew up on an orange farm. It took six to seven years between planting young trees and harvesting fruit. At the end of each day of work, thinking about how much work was left would be depressing. That's why farmers never think that way. Instead, look back and think how much you accomplished (and make sure you did achieve something). Structure your day, and priorities, so that you accomplish many small things and at least one large thing every day.

8. An urgent matter is not necessarily an important one. And an important one is not always urgent. Naturally, your top priority as chair is to deal with matters that are both urgent and important. Find a way to delegate issues that are neither urgent nor important to make sure they still get done. Use your discretion to delegate matters that are urgent but unimportant.

Finally, and critically, make time for tasks that are important but not urgent: Guiding junior faculty members, coordinating grants, working with the development office to explain your long-term plans for fund raising, and other executive functions are the heart of your job. Do your job, and do not get distracted by minutiae.

9. We should talk. Extinguish e-mail flame wars. Somebody has to be the grown-up; why not you? Some days I get 250 new e-mail messages. More than a few of them make me angry, and I often type an angry response. Then I delete it and write, "We should talk." This is an invitation, as well as a demonstration of authority. Few people will say in person the horrible things they say in an e-mail message. Furthermore, angry e-mails are written records of your mistakes. Don't get trapped into an angry, poorly thought-out response you will regret two minutes after you hit send.

10. Histamines. One of the problems of being a chair is that you are bombarded by messages, calls, and visitors, all of which are saying the same thing: "You must care about this matter that I care about!" The burden of having to care will build up, like histamines in your bloodstream. Histamines cause a cumulative inflammatory response, and all that caring has the same effect.

Hearing about one more parking problem or conflict in next semester's schedule may inflame you: "I don't care! I just don't care." The problem is that you have to care; that's most of the job. If you really don't care at this point, reschedule the meeting for tomorrow. If you can't reschedule, take notes and practice active listening ("Yes?" "Ah, OK." "That must have been hard for you!" "Well, I see what you mean.")

In closing, I would quote James Brady, President Reagan's press secretary, who was shot in the Hinckley assassination attempt in 1981. Later, after a reception in which Brady was retiring as press secretary, he turned to leave. One of the members of the press yelled out, "We'll miss you!"

Brady turned back to the microphone in his wheelchair, and with a huge grin said, "I'll miss some of you!" I think every retiring chair knows that feeling.

Michael C. Munger is chair of the political science department at Duke University, a position he has occupied since 2000.


1. jffoster - April 09, 2010 at 07:16 am

At our univerwsity we have a Department Head system rather than a rotating chairmanship. Nonetheless, the advice given above is sound, and having been a Head for 10 years, I know it goes for Department Heads as well.

2. 11242283 - April 09, 2010 at 08:04 am

As a long time chair, much of this advice is sound. But I am troubled by #5. Basically the notion is correct, but the only mention made of staff in the entire piece is about toxic ones and the need to fire them. I guess I'd add a piece of advice to this essay and that would be about the need to "see everyone in the dept." --- your job is not just to manage the tenure track faculty but the entity as a whole and the effort to create that whole is provided by faculty (tt and adjunct), staff and students. What's wrong with asking staff every now and again what they need to make their job work better? And fighting to get them those things or to make sure that they get the salary increases warranted by their performance. Have lunch with them too -- remember birthdays and holidays and the important things in their lives (although my staff and I had an explicit agreement that we HATED so-called 'secretary's day' and collectively ignored it). Maybe Duke doesn't have/use a lot of adjuncts but my dept sure did --- so making sure that contingent faculty were treated with dignity, respect, etc. and were part of/understood the mission of our dept was a huge part of my job (which sometimes pissed off the TT faculty)

Anyway, good advice -- mine would just ask a dept chair to expand his/her vision and think about how everyone plays into the mission of the dept.

3. unabashedmale - April 09, 2010 at 09:08 am

Every strip mall has a parking lot. And, every parking lot has a corner where the various winds blow all the loose garbage into a pile.

That's the best analogy I can think of for the Department Chair's job.

4. tbdiscovery - April 09, 2010 at 09:14 am

Thank you for the great advice. As an administrator attempting to take the back road and ultimately become faculty, this helps much.

5. 11179102 - April 09, 2010 at 09:17 am

Amen to 1124... above - look after your excellent staffers. They know what's really going on. They also take the brunt when layoffs come while suffering the outsized egos of disgruntled "scholar stars" who complain their travel funds have been reduced.

6. cwebstuff - April 09, 2010 at 09:56 am

This is an offensive and naïve post from someone who positions themselves as a leader and mentor to the next generation. You are jaded sir, and beyond hope of inspiring and leading anyone at this point in your career. It is time for you to retire. First, you should know the quote you so proudly cite, was from the Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927), decision where the Chief Justice stated, "Three generations of imbeciles are enough," in regards to a decision to support the dark period in American history where our nation support Eugenics (i.e., United States Supreme Court ruling that upheld a statute instituting compulsory sterilization for persons with mental disabilities). You may as well make fun of concentration camps, slavery, suffrage and Gay rights. An apology for your incentive quote about Eugenics is warranted by you in this post if you are mature enough to recognize your error and mistake.

7. tebaldi10 - April 09, 2010 at 10:11 am

How interesting that the staff must always be take the brunt of criticism. Toxic Staff - what about toxic faculty. Most "New" chairs are at the mercy of staff members that do know everything about the department and have to train the new chairs as to what goes on, i.e., how to deal with the bureaucrats. Faculty are not amused when a staff member knows more about the department than they do. If a staff member is lucky enough to have a true feminist as a Chair then all is well. Positive and knowledgeable staff members are usually the backbone of the Departments. A bright and secure Chair will honor that.

8. mungowitz - April 09, 2010 at 10:20 am

For both people who note the omission about staff, and adjuncts: Yes! I would say that both #1 and #2 MUST apply to staff and adjuncts as well, as "members of the department." But I should have been explicit, and would like to take the advice about staff and adjuncts as a friendly amendment.

As for my new friend, "cwebstuff" .... gosh. I find it rather remarkable that you imagine that I, or any educated person, would not know that the Holmes quote was adapted from Buck v. Bell. I would hope any college sophomore would recognize the allusion. That is in fact why I used it: EVERYBODY knows that.

Whether the remark of my law school colleague was funny or not is in the ear of the listener, I suppose. It was a mild insult, as spoken by him, and a clever one.

Mike Munger

9. tappat - April 09, 2010 at 10:56 am

The list of 10 points of wisdom is really terrific. It's helpful and good to read such points now and again, and it's pleasant to have them written so simply. The list does not overstate any one point or the significance of the whole list. Without the first three paragraphs preceding the list, which curiously offend, but not too terribly, the list is really something many people, I expect, would value looking at. I have.

10. wramsey50 - April 09, 2010 at 02:55 pm

Good advice, Mr. Munger. One might also add taking the former chair out to lunch occasionally! That wisdom can be invaluable.

11. lutoslawski - April 09, 2010 at 05:47 pm

Aside from a course release, there's no incentive to become a chair at my institution, unless you aspire to a large salary as a dean somewhere. In this case acting as chair is a good opportunity to practice being supercilious and duplicitous. On the other hand, most of the rest of us just try to muddle through when our turn comes. Thank you for the sound advice.

12. rhanala - April 09, 2010 at 06:58 pm

I thought Mike Munger would surely reply to cwebstuff that "we should talk."

13. mungowitz - April 09, 2010 at 07:16 pm

Oh, rhanala: SNAP! That was like the Charleston, it was so obvious it plum evaded me.

I am unworthy. From now on, rhanala should write all my responses.

14. tcli5026 - April 10, 2010 at 01:34 am

I agree with point #4. In my department, our new chair remains stubbornly silent on the achievements of the department faculty: with only a few exceptions, he has not announced in a department meeting or e-mail message the good things the faculty have done. In my case, I mentioned (in response to his request for information) that I had recently published my third peer reviewed article in the last year, finished the revision for a 2nd edition of a textbook, and co-authored a magazine article with a grad student. He didn't even bother to send a reply to my message. I found it curious that, in his new position, he would not see it as advantageous to simply say, "good work." For, while I don't *need* the chair's validation, an enthusiastic response would, as the author suggests, cultivate a more positive and constructive atmosphere. (I should note that I am a full professor at a comprehensive university, so I have no more pressure to publish or pursue an active research agenda--what I do now is what I want to do.)

So, to all you new and old chairs out there: "pay with honor."

15. eckelcc - April 10, 2010 at 05:23 pm

Great article, Mike, and thanks for your words of wisdom! Your list is much better than my list of the three characteristics necessary for a good chair.

They are:
1. A clear view of the landscape and the road (i.e. know the profession, be "plugged in", and know where you are going -- the "vision thing".)
2. Unfailing generosity (i.e., give away the credit for everything, and give thanks for contributions, no matter how small)
3. A thick skin, because you are going to need it. No hurt feelings!


16. rambo - April 10, 2010 at 11:40 pm

what about those who don't talk outside of meeting? They may have introvert but they gonna talk

17. tom_washingtondc - April 11, 2010 at 09:39 pm

How do you define "toxic"? I have seen deadwood faculty "toxic" behavior of retaliation on an "anonymous" survey opinion that supposedly seeks to obtain honest and fresh feedback for improvement. If you don't want to hear any criticism, then don't ask for any feedback. Does criticism = "toxic"? What about the fact that bullies tend to bully down those that call out the bully faculty member? What if the leaders are the ones breaking the rules? In the real world, there are leaders who are selfish, controlling, and very crazy. There are lots of them. Should you point out the rules that need to be reinforced to higher ups or should you look away and assume that decisions made are for selfish wants of leaders rather than for the good of the organization?

Context also matters in terms of labeling someone an "introvert". Perhaps in a hostile workplace environment, a person may appear closed off and quiet. But first glances are not everything. In Iraq under Saddam Hussein, everybody was an introvert--very quiet and shy and unwilling to talk. Seems odd for the entire population to be introverts. I wonder if they were living under some kind of threat in a Republic of Fear. Are they walking on eggshells? Is someone spying on them? If much of academia turns into a totalitarian state where freedom of expression is banned due to its "toxic" content, then why bother? Who is to judge what is or is not "toxic"? Who has created the "toxic" environment in which individuals must be forced to work in silence or look away? Let's hold everybody's feet to the fire, including "toxic" leaders. Yes, "toxic" leaders exist in this world . . . many "toxic" chairs in academia too.

18. jeff1 - April 12, 2010 at 07:11 am

Nicely done Mike. This little thread is an amazingly demonstration of the culture of higher education. Some get it and take your suggestions for what they are . . . advice based on your experience. Others want to see ill will and some sort of end of the life of the mind or other insults. I have been an academic administrator for 11 years and I focus on the first group and keep the second very close as well as keep the pressure on them to be better than killing angels. Thanks for your article.

19. cybird9 - April 12, 2010 at 09:05 am

I agree with everything on this list, but I would make an addendum to #5, for it seems to me that Dr. Munger was simply using one example of "doing the job," not attempting to say that firing toxic staff is the only unpleasant job that many chairs refuse to do. As chair, you also deal with toxic students and parents (can't fire them, can you?), toxic administrators who do everything they can to pull you down and thwart your department's goals by refusing to communicate or cooperate, and toxic staff (which may include tenured and untenured faculty, secretarial staff, and graduate assistants). I gave a cheer when Dr. Munger particularly mentioned toxic staff, because my department and division had one such secretary who was one of the most unpleasant, difficult people I have ever worked with in any profession. Not only was this person coarse, vulgar, and lacking in any common sense, she refused to do her job--she felt it was her right to sit and talk on her cell with family members endlessly instead of working, came in to less than half of her assigned work time (fulltime is 40 hours--she was rarely in place to receive people coming and going from this dean's office), felt it an imposition on her to do mere office work (so faculty had to do things like copy work themselves), and frequently displayed a rotten disposition and attitude. To give an example, when I was merely a tenure-track faculty member, I was making copies of a midterm and ran out of paper. This woman guarded the office supplies like a bulldog, yet wouldn't dream of filling it herself; yet when I stuck my head inside the door to ask her for a ream of paper, she started screaming at me that I hadn't "greeted her properly." Yes--literally screaming at me. My chair walked in in the middle of her tirade, and gently sat down and explained, oh, she must be having a bad day. Not only did she treat me badly, but every member of my department and every other faculty member had to deal with this behavior and she was universally despised; even the president of our university remarked on it. The consensus was that she couldn't be fired because she was the university union maven and as a single mother, had small children to support, but as I pointed out many times, even a union member can be fired when they don't do their job and/or is insubordinate to the point that they endanger the mission of the university; we are also not in a position to hold onto folks who exercise so little judgment in concern for their own survival. People constantly tiptoed around her, until two deans later, she finally messed with the wrong person and got fired. Many of my colleagues noted that our work place was so much more pleasant, and as she never did any work, we didn't miss her at all workwise. So, Dr. Munger, thanks for using that example, because I know what you mean, and how that is one unpleasant task that must be done. Other tasks include handling assessment and outcomes for our accreditation process, going to endless meetings that others don't have to (which often achieve very little), scheduling, interviewing, hearing grievances, and listening to recommendations from other departments and administrators whose opinions mean well, but are ill-informed (not well versed in how other disciplines must handle their own subject matter, or else they are clueless about particular details that they would never have to consider in their own discipline/dept.). Chairs become the whipping posts for their departments, so it's no wonder nobody wants the job; to add insult to injury, often, we receive small supplements to our regular faculty pay rather than being paid for doing two jobs. While other chairs get course releases, some routinely cannot, since they may have take up the slack after budget and salary cuts, and even faculty termination. One good thing that has come out of chairing is that I have developed better relationships with my colleagues, and we work together now to achieve mutual goals instead of against each other. Another good thing about administrating a department is that you know where the bodies are buried, haha! (BTW, that was a joke!;)) You have to have a little collateral when you are negotiating.

Cwebstuff, I think that you missed the point of the quote as a paraphrase made by one of Dr. Munger's colleagues, who was the one to use the quote humorously, and your accusations seem baseless and mean. The context was not naive or hostile, and his intention obviously wasn't, and yet because Dr. Munger did not include more examples, some of you seem to read into this text some kind of jaded ill will, and some of you just meandered into your own logical fallacies. If any person of academia ever had reason to be bitter and jaded, it would be our chairs, yet most of them I know are very gracious, patient, and knowledgable, very competent and frequently work long overtime hours to make sure that their departments are running smoothly. Walk a mile in the moccasins of a chair before you criticize them to death.

20. early - April 12, 2010 at 11:08 am

As a former chair of a dysfuctional department, I appreciate the top ten list. I tried to do most of the above but faced a number of malicious and unappreciative colleagues. Only one of them is still in the department (thanks to tenure), as everyone else left, voluntarily or not. Still, my biggest mistake was not firing a hapless staff person while she served in a probationary period. I kept her on because 1) I had no training in management or staff oversight; 2) I thought she might improve, being an optimist; and 3) I was concerned about her income and health insurance since she faced a cancer scare during her probation. Well, no good deed goes unpunished, and she played an active role in seeing that I was not reappointed as chair, believe it or not. I held her accountable, and she resisted. The moral of the story ties in with the author's farm analogy: the position of department chair is thankless, more akin to a farmhand mired in muck who shovels out the barn. My university offered no training and no rewards for serving as department chair, and dysfunction largely persists.

21. timman01 - April 12, 2010 at 11:16 am

This is a great article. Thank you for your thoughts.

22. drfunz - April 12, 2010 at 12:08 pm

This is a great list - I would add #11:

Never plan on getting any of your own work done while you are in your office where your time is 60% putting out fires, 30% filling out paperwork for the Administration (for the 3rd or fourth time with the same info)and 10% getting something that approximates "vision and planning" for the future of the department. (Translatiion: trying to find a time for everyone to meet and do the items #1-10 above)

23. swtjcrgc - April 12, 2010 at 12:42 pm

Wish I'd had some of this informatio much sooner!

24. tebaldi10 - April 12, 2010 at 04:10 pm

In response to #15. It is unfortunate that one lazy secretary can make us all look bad. In academica, even if you are a crackerjack, the facuty will always find something wrong and very rarely give compliments.

25. rosmerta - April 12, 2010 at 04:39 pm

Thanks for this very thoughtful article. I can tell you from experience a lot of these suggestions would apply to academic library management as well.

26. raza_khan - April 12, 2010 at 07:51 pm

Excellent article Mark

Not to confuse two seperate issues, I was wondering as to what is your feeling on hirirng a departmental chair via external search versus exclusive internal search?

27. earodrig - April 15, 2010 at 02:14 pm

Regarding #2 & #4 - amazing how they fit together, isn't it? My current chair periodically, after a difficult week or because the weather is nice or whatever, will gather up the office staff and lead us across campus to a local ice cream shop in the middle of the afternoon. He pays for our ice cream, and we sit around shooting the breeze while licking away. I'll tell you: any one of us would follow him into a fire zone; and it only costs him about fifteen bucks for all of that loyalty. (Of course, he's nice to us in a lot of other ways the rest of the time, too.)

As a staff person, though, I want to second/third/tenth those people who have talked about toxic staff people. I've worked around some over the years, and they drag everyone down, including the healthy staff people. When we get new grad students or new faculty in our department, I tell them on the first day, "If you ever walk in here, and I bark at you, call me on it. That's not acceptable; my bad day is not your fault, and you deserve to be treated well when you ask for help." Yeah, I've been called out on my behavior now and again, and I've offered my thanks. A happy workplace is everyone's responsibility.

28. kiwanda - May 01, 2010 at 10:06 am

I'll suggest one more item that was missing from the list, at least for institutions like mine (top-100 liberal arts college): a good working relationship with the development officers. I've chaired for the past decade, during which our department has grown both its enrollments and tenure lines four-fold. That success is due in large part to the hard work I and my colleagues have put in, but also to the work of our development office. By partnering with them, helping them write materials for capital campaigns that featured our department, going with them to solicit donors, and working with their grants team, we have been able to make our department -- which did not exist 15 years ago --the best endowed on campus.

While chairs at large and/or public universities may not be asked to do such work, the time I have spent cultivating relationships with board membbers, donors, and our development staff have done more to build and ensure the future of our department than anything else I've accomplished--- including, even, the several successful hires which I hope will provide the foundation for the department for the coming decades.

Add Your Comment

Commenting is closed.

  • 1255 Twenty-Third St., N.W.
  • Washington, D.C. 20037
subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.