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The Academic Administrators Professors Love to Hate

During an otherwise lovely dinner party a while back, the conversation devolved into a series of complaints about a certain academic department head (you may call them department chairs). After a fair amount of kvetching, I was ready to change the subject and asked my dinner guest, “Bottom line, what do you want from him?”

His response? “He needs to be a leader.”

“Please,” I responded, “as if you guys would ever let him lead.”

People love to bash their department chairs/heads, and I feel for the people who hold these positions (which will prompt several of you to roll your eyes, I know). Because these are often temporary, rotating stints, making hard decisions while in charge can come back as a nasty Karmic bite when it’s time to return to a regular faculty role. That makes “leading” all the more challenging. Complicating matters is the fact that few institutions do a good job of preparing faculty to assume departmental leadership. A person at my university remarked recently, “We are trained to teach and to do research and then we get into these roles and have to do everything but what we know how to do.”

While we have an educational program in place for incoming department heads, we’re looking to revamp it. To guide this process, we’re meeting soon with folks who have assumed these positions within the last few years to ask them what they know now that they wish they’d known earlier. While it will be important to hear their perspectives, I’m also interested in learning what faculty members want from the people in these roles. Because I can always count on Chronicle readers to provide their opinions, I’d appreciate your thoughts.

Have you worked with a particularly effective department head/chair? Why was he or she effective? What did this person do or not do? What advice or guidance would you offer to someone about to assume a departmental leadership role?

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