Encouraging Department Chairs

Leaders of academic departments are underutilized in fostering change and progress in higher education, writes Marian Stoltz-Loike.

September 5, 2014

There is a buzz in the higher education news media about the look and feel of education in the future. Many colleges and universities are feeling intense pressure to change and recognizing that department chairs are an underutilized resource in fostering change. In my view, college presidents and deans can empower their department chairs to use their positions to transform education.  

Department chairs, with their control of day-to-day departmental functions and hiring decisions, hold a profound role in shaping the future of education. They can encourage faculty to introduce new methods, technologies or techniques in their classrooms, and act as visionaries through their hiring choices. One critical goal is to make sure higher education keeps pace with the revolutionary changes in technology, communication and knowledge management that have characterized the beginning of the 21 century.

Too often, department heads are seen as administrators, frustrated or overwhelmed by the amount of paperwork required to fulfill their roles, or responsible for maintaining the financial stability of the department, assessment and accreditation, rather than innovation and empowerment. This narrow view may result from the fact that many faculty members become department chairs because of seniority, because they are effective administrators, or because other faculty members don’t want to give up teaching. 

Consequently, they sometimes lose sight of the powerful roles they can play in the advancement of their departments. On a daily basis, they can flex their academic muscle through hiring and tenure decisions, course offerings, the allocation of often-limited discretionary budget money and the wisest use of office or lab space, among other duties. 

Through their choices of new hires and tenure, department chairs define the identity of their departments. Selective hiring can quickly shape the feel and academic focus of a department – and the way students are educated, including adapting to new technologies and online education. One recurring, but important, choice is whether to recruit an expensive superstar faculty member or spread budget money across several new department members.

Change in educational delivery requires more than just a nudge. Monetary incentives to encourage faculty to take on new roles are great, but not always possible. That means department chairs must be innovative in finding ways to nurture and reward radical change.

Recognition, acknowledgement and visibility may work. Department chairs who hold a fundamental belief in the commitment of faculty to stay relevant and to provide cutting-edge education to their students are likely to find that providing training and ongoing support may be an effective reward for the heavy lifting of pedagogical evolution. One way to achieve that is by training top instructors to become mentors to their colleagues.  

Department chairs also set the balance among research, publications, grants and teaching that leads to promotions and tenure. Decisions about who receives tenure and who does not provide clear messages to members of a department regarding departmental philosophies and future direction. Department chairs can sponsor conferences to brand excellence within their departments and broaden the reputation of department members.

Globalization is impacting academe. Well-funded faculty members may travel the globe, but recognizing that the cost of global travel is prohibitive for many academics, most conferences today provide an opportunity for linking in remotely at no travel cost and at a fraction of the registration fee. Faculty can listen to local and global colleagues discuss research or present from their offices. Department chairs can provide lunch and encourage breakout discussions about these academic or research innovations.

Department chairs can also recruit faculty and students from other countries to broaden the departments’ educational outlook and introduce new perspectives into education and research.

We must allow department chairs to create and foster new opportunities for members of their department by building relationships with business and government within their community.  Many local politicians have access to funds for education that are routinely inaccessible for higher education. Savvy department chairs can build relationships with business and government in order to create funding opportunities that benefit members of their faculty.  

Department chairs should not be blockers who are wedded to the status quo and the security of remaining on academic “safe ground” or who see new educational innovation as a siren song that is better ignored. It should be their jobs to create a vision for their departments and plan for changes in higher education, and schools of higher education would be wise to let them do just that.

Below are some practical suggestions for deans about how they can support department chairs. They can:

  • Provide visibility for effective department chairs within the institution.
  • Reward department chairs whose departments offer educational innovations that improve student performance on graduate school boards (LSATs, GRE, GMATs, MCATs, etc.) or success in competing for jobs. Rewards may include monetary incentives to the department, but also lunch for the department chair with the provost or president
  • Encourage departments that embrace effective technology solutions by providing something extra -- iPads for students in class, additional adjunct positions, or the ability to run new courses with lower enrollment.


Marian Stoltz-Loike is vice president for online education at Touro College.


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