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Ask the Administrator: Time to Step Down?
November 18, 2008 - 9:51pm

A department chair at a SLAC writes:

I have served two [three-year] terms as department chair, and no one has intimated that new leadership is needed. In fact, publicly everyone is encouraging me to remain the chair indefinitely. Things seem to be going well as our department lacks the drama, common to so many departments. Of course, we have our funding and institutional challenges but everyone is engaged with the institution, teaching at a pretty high level, and (for the most part) working steadily on their research. I have accomplished most of the "low-hanging" fruit on my "to do" list and got started on some of the longer term projects that people here have been talking about for years. At this point, the most pressing challenges seem institutional and administrative and pretty beyond my control. Is this the time to step down as chair and let "new blood" take over? Or is this time to steer the department head on into some more difficult battles? Perhaps, another way of asking the question is what signs should signal to a chair that it is time to step down? I cannot tell if I have hit a plateau or am ready to take things to the next level.

In a subsequent email, he added that at his college, chairs tend either to flame out quickly or to last for decades.

As regular readers know, I have a hard-earned objection to Chairs for Life. In any organization, there's a certain minimum amount of change necessary to prevent the pathologies of stagnation. If a single chair stays too long, that one person's blind spots get written into the DNA of the department, and the other members of the department never get to try their hands at leadership. And when entire cohorts stay too long, the undead hand of the past weighs much too heavy on the present. Without enough turnover, organizations start to eat their young. I know that's an unpopular position, but I've seen the dynamic play out enough times to respect its truth.

That said, though, I don't think a third term amounts to Chair for Life. In fact, this may be your chance to make a really meaningful contribution.

You say that you've picked most of the low-hanging fruit, and have started some longer-term projects. Those longer-term projects should probably absorb more of your attention. Your mention of taking the department to the next level is encouraging, since it suggests that you haven't fallen into the 'well-oiled machine' trap yet. (Once someone starts referring to her department as a well-oiled machine, I know she has run out of ideas. And the basic, inarguable fact of organizational entropy means that once you've achieved perfection, decline is inevitable.)

I'll add a key long-term project: developing the next generation of leaders. You have a window of a few years to give some new people some projects, skills, and mentoring. Each new person will bring signature strengths and weaknesses, of course, but sustained mentoring can bring out their best.

One of the frustrations of academic administration is that most academics – very smart people in their own areas – have absolutely no idea how to manage. Worse, the cultural taboo against administration ("the dark side") actively discourages them from overcoming the blind spot. Most chairs' (and deans') training consists mostly of doing their job, with everyone around them paying the price for those painful rookie mistakes.

In your own department, you're particularly well situated to actually do something about this. With a few years before a change, you can start to de-mystify your job to the next group. Open up the processes a little, spread some of the tasks around, and see who's capable of what. Delegate some tasks, and actually teach your colleagues how they're done. In a way, you're returning to teaching, only the students are your colleagues. If you do it well, when the time comes to give someone else a shot, you'll feel safe in turning over stewardship of the department to someone who is actually ready. Your legacy can consist in a new openness, and a well-prepared next generation.

No shame in that. No shame at all.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – any thoughts to share?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

 

 

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