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Open Letter to 2010-2011′s New Department Chairs

chairsAs with the two previous posts in this series (new tenure-track and newly tenured professors), this piece is intended to offer advice to people moving into a new position in their academic lives. In this case, of course, we’re talking about a position that many academics never take on in the course of their careers, and it’s a transition that many academics don’t ever want to make. Rarely do people go into graduate school thinking, “Gee, I can’t wait until I’m a department chair.” And yet, at most academic institutions, having an effective department chair is incredibly important for the functioning of a healthy department and school, and the actions of a chair can significantly affect the experiences of the people at the stages that Billie and Nels talked about.

As with previous posts in this series, this is not intended to be a complete manual for being a chair, but rather a collection of advice from people who have been in this position and can look back on their first year with the benefit of hindsight. I want to thank the many chairs who responded to my email or Twitter network requests for advice they would give a new chair. The department chairs represented here come from a wide range of institutions, a wide range of disciplines, and a wide range of tenures as chairs of their departments. [As a result, though I agree with many of the points raised below, the article should be read as my distillation of what others have said, rather than my point of view as chair of my own department.]

I’ve organized these contributions around several themes that emerged in the responses:

The Role of the Chair

Learn what the chair’s role is at your institution (and others). Over the years, I’ve come to learn that the role of department chair varies significantly depending on the cultures and rules of individual institutions and departments. Even within institutions, these roles can vary widely. Some chairs are appointed, while others are elected; some receive “gobs” of release time, while others struggle on with full teaching loads; some are on 9-month contracts, others on 12-month contracts; some chairs are considered faculty, while others are considered administrators; some work within clearly delineated expectations and clearly articulated powers, while others have little guidance or clear authority. Terms range from one to five years, with tradition and/or handbooks governing potential for renewed terms. Pay increases for being chair vary widely as well, but most are in the range of what one of my colleagues is fond of describing as “a pizza per week.”

Still, there are many similarities in the role of the department chair across institutions. Overall the position of chair is full of increased responsibilities, but not always with concomitant increases in power. Regardless of official designations, many of my fellow chairs who contributed made references to a uncertainty about their position and authority vis-a-vis the faculty and the administration: some described a feeling of being half-faculty/half-administrator, others as being neither, or, as one put it, “a chair is not a boss, s/he is a somewhat empowered colleague.” Also, unlike the transitions Billie and Nels talked about, in most cases, becoming a chair is a temporary shift. A chairperson is likely to give up that status after just a few years.

Another similarity across institutions is that formal training for chairs seems to be rare. None of the people I talked to described receiving formal training as chairs, beyond perhaps an introduction to the campus budget system. And while there are conferences for chairs (see, for example, the workshops led by the American Council on Education) generally speaking many chairs don’t participate, either because a lack of funds or time to attend or awareness that they exist. For the most part, chairs are left to learn on the job. As one chair put it, “Be prepared to learn on the fly.” Several chairs recommended turning to previous occupants of the position in the department or current occupants at your school for files, documents, and/or advice. Others turned to various disciplinary resources for chairs. (The American Historical Association, for example, has a listserv for history department chairs.) Another noted that the Chronicle itself had good advice “on how to handle certain situations. Its columns/articles were often quite useful.” There are also a number of books that address the role of the department chair. [For example, I received a copy of Leading Academic Change : Essential Roles for Department Chairs from our Teaching Center when I became chair a few years ago that has at times been a useful resource.]

In most cases, responsibilities for chairs include: advising and assigning majors, managing departmental budgets, setting/coordinating class schedules, reviewing annual faculty performance, and representing the department in meetings with the Dean, Provost, and other department chairs. But it is in the variety of other items that arise that chairs spend much of their time. As one chair noted, he didn’t expect how much time he would spend involved in “the large variety of small and large issues that come a chair’s way—equipment, classrooms’ physical conditions, signing a wide range of forms, being ‘in charge’ of alumni information and other department events and ceremonies, being the point person for ‘problem’ students, overseeing faculty retirements and hirings, and considering how best to advance or amend our curriculum.”

Many of the chairs I heard from reflected on the reality of the uncertainty of a chair’s day and the fact that the responsibility for resolving crises often falls to the chair. One explained, “When I agreed to do the job, somebody told me that the biggest change from being a ‘regular’ faculty member to being chair is that you can no longer plan your day. I sort of understood this, but didn’t realize how true it was until I actually started. Crises arise from seemingly nowhere, and all problems fall on the chair who is expected to resolve them quickly.” One colleague (not a chair) is fond of noting that the chair’s job involves walking in each morning and dealing with the steaming piles of …problems… that other people had left on his/her desk. Another chair argued that it was these daily issues that shaped his experiences most: “At times major issues, even crises, will take place, and you have to be willing to give up time and energy as necessary. Some faculty will readily pitch in to help, but at times, the issues become your responsibility alone. You know these issues may come your way, but how best to address them without prior experience is another matter, especially while others evaluate you along the way.”

So, what is a chair to do? Well, my correspondents had a great deal of advice for new department heads.

Communication, Communication, Communication

Almost every current chair said that communication is key to being a successful chairperson. It seems obvious, but given how busy most chairs are, it’s not always easy to do. One advised, “a chair should take time on a regular basis to talk with everyone in the department individually—preferably by going to each person’s office. That’s the only way to learn what’s going on in people’s heads. [Of course,] the bigger the department, the harder this is.” Another suggested, “Listen to what your faculty mean, not necessarily to what they say.” Sometimes listening is the most important things a chair can do. “Listen, listen intently, and for a while only listen to whatever student, faculty, administrator, or staffer walks into your office, calls you on the phone, or stops you in the hall. Whatever decision you may have been able to make fairly quickly as a teacher may still work (but then again it may not because of the far wider repercussions)…and in many instances your job may just be to listen to them kvetch or let off steam.”

Part of that essential communication is to make department meetings worth it. Don’t waste your colleagues’ time. Have an agenda, an end time, and stick to it, even if it means finishing a conversation over email or at the next meeting. Be sure to “let members talk, but learn when to close discussion.” [See Jason's "Bad Meetings Are Your Fault" for more tips.] And, if there’s no need for a meeting, be sure to cancel it (and as soon as possible so faculty can make other plans). It’s a quick way to look like a hero (at least for a few minutes).

Communication also means conveying information between the administration and the department. Chairs typically have access to a much broader array of information than other faculty (and not just because it seems that chairs are in more meetings than other faculty). As one contributor advised about chairs’ meetings, “share everything with your department (hiring, budget, new policies, etc.). Take notes and report anything that could become a concern for the department to your faculty.”

Communication is also key to building departmental consensus. As one former chair eloquently explained, “Chairship is the art of team-building, a matter of leadership among peers. You have absolute authority on very few issues, but colleagues will allow you to make decisions if they trust you. Credibility is your greatest asset. Consult widely, listen carefully, and build consensus. Never announce a major decision without laying the groundwork first.” That point leads us right into the next theme.

Responsibility to Your Faculty

Treat your colleagues with respect: the job you are doing is for them. If you don’t want to be in that role, don’t take the job. If you don’t respect your colleagues, don’t take the job.” Much of what the chair does is related to his or her interactions with the other faculty in the department. These are likely the most important relationships for a chair and they are among the most potentially difficult, for a variety of reasons: “You have to take a leadership role with respect to other faculty. You do and don’t have power, and you have to lead by example and persuasion. Not everyone will agree with you. Remaining ‘equal’ colleagues is difficult at times and you have to negotiate those political waters.”

Most of the writers talked about the chair’s role in mentoring and supporting faculty. Of particular concern were the tenure-track faculty: “Talk to and LISTEN to your junior faculty. They are the future of the department and should play a role in shaping it (while being protected from too much service and any senior faculty with axes to grind). They are also the most likely source of innovation.” But at least one chair reminded us that “Senior faculty need mentoring, too. This is often more difficult since they sometimes lack the obvious energy of junior faculty.” Not all of this mentoring and supporting will be about work-related concerns, either. “Be prepared to spend a lot more time dealing with faculty life issues than faculty professional issues. And be prepared for people to tell you more than you ever wanted to know (about their relationships, their finances, their illnesses).”

One writer recommended that new chairs “Find the best in each of your faculty and help them to see the traits you admire (however difficult),” while another warned not to “expect them to get good at what they’re not.” One suggested the secret was to “Praise abundantly. Critique carefully.” A fourth advised that “when issues come up that require intervention, talk with/to the concerned colleague(s) to resolve them. Do not use the annual performance review as a tool to try to correct or resolve problems.”

Finally on this theme, I received several recommendations about the need for thoughtful assignment of departmental service. As one chair pointed out, “you cannot do everything yourself, so you need to delegate carefully and strategically.” Another one chair warned, “Always be aware that ‘service punishes the competent.’ In other words, you’ll quickly find out who volunteers for department service and who actually follows through. The overwhelming temptation is to load more service on those who follow through. While there are some things that are too important not to assign to the competent, it is important not to over-burden people as the reward for doing a good job. [This is] especially true for junior faculty.” Such careful delegation can relieve you of having to do everything, while also working to engage more and more faculty members in the business of the department.

Responsibility to the Administration

In my experience, chairs see themselves as part of their departments (not part of the administration). As one put it, “Advocate tenaciously for your department and your faculty. Be a bad guy on their behalf.” But effective chairs also understand that they need to be politically savvy in that advocacy. Several chairs noted that they “had to become more political. You do have to advocate for junior faculty at times, for certain types of hirings, for funds, and for the worth of your program and the quality of your majors. You cannot sit back and ‘let things happen.’ You do have to develop a relationship with the key administrators. If they don’t know much about you and your program, you can get overlooked.”

And those personal connections shouldn’t just be with members of the school’s administration. “Maintain excellent relations with other departments and administrators. Sounds obvious, but over the years I’ve seen several department chairs badly misstep on this one. A good relationship with colleagues outside your department not only makes the work environment more enjoyable, but it also can help secure needed resources.”

Of course, given the current fiscal situation of many schools, any request for funds requires more than personal relationships with “those people controlling the purse-strings.” Multiple chairs advised that all major funding requests be accompanied by a detailed, persuasive explanation, “even if the case seems self-evident to you.” After all, one noted, “Deans need to believe they are distributing resources wisely.”

At least one chair also recommended getting everything in writing/email when dealing with administrators; that said, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone or walk over to someone’s office. At times, that can be both more efficient and effective.

Responsibility to Departmental Staff

Multiple chairs enthusiastically recommended that the most important thing that a new chair could do was “treat the department administrative assistant like gold.” This should be common sense. Much of the chair’s job involves forms, budgets, signatures, and navigating an oft-labyrinthine set of processes that are best done with the help of experienced departmental staff. But beyond your own self-interest, you should “encourage, reward, and advocate for staff. If you don’t, no one else will, and the morale of the department is at stake.” [And heck, it's the right thing to do.]

Responsibility to the Students

It’s sometimes easy to forget in the midst of the day-to-day grind of being a department chair that a (the) central mission of the school is to teach students. Don’t forget them or, worse, dismiss them. That can be more difficult as chair than it was as a full-time teacher, since, outside of your classes, you are most commonly interacting with students who need your signature/permission/rule-bending or who have a problem they want you to fix. None of these situations lend themselves well to positive interactions, but it’s worth making the effort to attempt to turn those experiences into ones that are more beneficial. More generally, it’s one of your jobs as chair to keep the best interests of the students in focus for the department.

Responsibility to Existing Policies

When I asked on Twitter and email for contributions for this piece, all of the respondents were chairs, with one exception. One faculty member wrote in with this piece of advice for department chairs: “Chairs are in a tough spot, pressured by faculty, students, and deans to craft shortcuts around collective bargaining agreements or other policies enacted through shared governance. This is a bit like experimenting with meth: Feels good immediately, but all sorts of problems fester. In the short run, all sorts of inequities start to crop up, and you’re left hoping that other people in the department don’t know what’s going on. In the long run, if there’s a budget crisis, or even just a new dean, provost, or chair, those shortcuts will be revisited, and it will be much more painful to undo them. Flexibility is a welcome asset in a chair, but that flexibility needs to arise from a knowledge of university policy and, if applicable, the local collective bargaining agreement.”

Responsibility to Yourself

There was a great deal of advice from the chairs as well about the need to keep yourself, well, sane in a job that can take a great deal out of you.

The most common warning was be prepared to be interrupted. People will expect you to be around or accessible all the time, and not just during the school year. Plus, the time that you do spend in your office will be broken up by numerous interruptions. One chair noted, “I found that my work day became much more fragmented as chair, simply because I had to deal with many students, administrators, and colleagues who all wished to discuss various matters which were important to them and needed my attention.” Another noted that “it is very easy to let your professional career get pushed aside because of the pressures of a chairmanship. In order to maintain a healthy professional life outside of your campus, you must make a concerted effort.”

So, you need to figure out ways to deal with all those demands on your time. One chair listed “whiskey (preferably Irish)” as the first piece of advice offered to achieve that goal. Other chairs suggested other strategies one might deploy as well, among them, carve out time for yourself. For some chairs, this is as simple as shutting the office door, but for others it means establishing strictly observed time in the office: “I keep office hours almost each day (and I keep significantly more office hours per week given my responsibilities); but as soon as my hours are done, I don’t hang around. I go home or to another location on campus to do my own work—whether it is grading, prepping for classes, or actually getting some reading/research/writing accomplished. Thus, people know when and where they can find me, but also come to understand that there are times when I just am not available.” [For one way to let people know about changes to your scheduled office hours, check out my post on using Twitter as a notification tool.]

Of course email and cell phones allow you to stay in touch even when not in the office, but you should also develop an electronic communications policy. [See Ethan's post on the subject.] As several chairs noted, you should “scrupulously protect your time.”

Another strategy for coping with demands on your time is to figure out what’s important and what’s not. One chair advised, don’t “be fooled into thinking that the stakes are higher than they really are. Some issues are very important and require the careful attention of the department chair. Other issues are just part of the job, and really do not amount to anything too important. Learning to tell the difference will reduce your stress.” Another chair turned that around a bit: “Don’t take yourself too seriously; you’re just a person.”

Finally, multiple people said, “don’t take things personally.” Having a thick skin, understanding that you are going to be misunderstood at times and that you may be the focus of other issues or frustrations with the institution or with other people simply because of your title, will better prepare you for this new position of yours.

Conclusion

Nels closed his post on advice for newly tenured faculty with “Be nice to the department secretary.” One of the comments extended that advice to “be nice to everyone.” Along these same lines, I’ll close with this advice from one of my contributors to this piece: “Understand that people are more important than processes. That nurturing a supportive departmental culture will reap long-term rewards. That taking the time to respond with compassion and understanding to a personal (or personnel) crisis trumps getting the schedule in on time, the projector fixed, or whatever meeting begs your attendance.”

Again, I want to thank the many chairs who took the time to contribute to this post. The piece is much better for their thoughts, experiences, and words.

As I noted at the beginning (and despite its length), this is not a complete guide to being a department chair. So, help us fill in the gaps. What advice would you give to incoming chairs? What training or support does your institution offer to new chairs? Are you ready to run for the hills if anyone says, “Hey, have you thought about being chair?”

[Chair collage done by @mburtis from the CC-licensed works by Flickr users: smowblog, digiart2001 turatti, and twoblueday]

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