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Chairs and the Big Picture

Last year at about this time I wrote about my participation as a workshop facilitator at the Council of Independent Colleges’ workshop for department and division chairs in Indianapolis. As I write this, I am sitting in my hotel room in Cincinnati, where I just led another workshop in one of this year’s iterations of the CIC program.

Last year my subject was supporting and developing adjunct faculty. This year, it was “Serving as Department/Division Chair: Beyond the Job Description.” This topic was developed in response to discussions last year at the four regional workshops, during which it became clear that many chairs didn’t have a job description at all, or, if they did, that it was either too vague to be helpful or, in fact, did not cover the actual, if unspoken, core of the job.

In preparation for the workshop, I asked the participants to send me their job descriptions, if they had them, or to let me know that they did not have one at all. Obviously, if you have no description you can’t go beyond it, and it’s very hard to define “beyond” without knowing what’s actually in one. In response to this request I received about 20 descriptions and around a half-dozen responses noting that the chair had no description at his or her institution.

As one would expect, these job descriptions share a lot in common. The most-mentioned aspects of the position are bureaucratic imperatives such as schedule planning, curricular oversight, faculty hiring and evaluation, participation in chair meetings and reporting to senior administrators, and compiling department reports. Somewhat less common are participation in student recruiting, dealing with student complaints, overseeing faculty development, advocating for the department or division, external relations, pursuing grants, and managing equipment purchasing and maintenance.

But the most interesting thing about these job descriptions, to me, is their almost complete silence about several of the most important duties of a good chair. For instance, only a couple of them discuss fostering a collegial and functional work environment in the department, even though anyone who has worked for a chair lacking this skill knows exactly how bad it can make one’s professional life. They also almost universally ignore that a chair might helpfully be engaged in higher-education issues and trends, as opposed to disciplinary matters.

Both of these last two omissions are, I think, a subsidiary of a larger one, which is the chair’s role in advocating for and articulating the institution’s mission at the departmental or divisional level. I am certainly aware that many academics think mission statements and their attendant missions are a piece of corporate nonsense, but let me tell you: Accreditors and others who control institutional fates care deeply about them. Our regional accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission, has “Mission and Integrity” as its first criterion for accreditation, and expects its member institutions to pay serious attention to mission in their operations and planning. Boards of trustees, similarly, often come from corporate settings where organizational mission is a key component of operations and, in my experience, expect an administration to put mission at the center of its priorities.

And here’s the next key point: In tough financial times such as the current ones, an institution’s mission becomes ever more crucial, as it is surely going to be used to determine strategic (and therefore financial) priorities. On the CIC’s e-mail list for chief academic officers, we have for some time been discussing how to prioritize our programs to secure institutional viability (if a college has reduced revenue, something has to be done, and most private colleges are struggling with reduced or, at best, flat revenue these days). The days of institutions striving to be “all things to all people” are over, and we are all going to have to make very tough decisions about discontinuing programs and taking other actions to control costs and improve efficiency. These decisions simply have to be made according to an institution’s values as articulated in its mission for it to maintain its integrity and identity.

As the first level of administration, department and division chairs have a crucial role in supporting and enacting an institution’s mission. This is why they should be conversant with the national “big picture” of higher education, because each individual institution’s mission has significant interactions with this big picture.

For example, if a college serves a high proportion of needy students, national policies concerning Pell Grants and other need-based financial support are crucial to its future. If an institution seeks to preserve its identity as a traditional liberal-arts college, the national conversation about the value of the liberal arts, the federal priority being placed on career training in higher-education policy, and the waning student demand for traditional liberal-arts majors are all very serious issues for the faculty, and they need to understand them.

Engagement with these issues is crucial for chairs. They can continue their traditional advocacy role for their programs, but that advocacy will be vastly more effective coming from a perspective informed by a real knowledge of the national scene. At administrative levels above the chair, institutional mission is a driver of strategic priorities. Understanding the interactions between the large issues in higher education and the institution’s broadest articulations of its values can help chairs move from pushing paper to being key leaders on campus.

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