Don’t They See? Faculty Leadership Matters.

Judith S. White provides advice on how to engage more faculty members in leadership roles.

January 11, 2017

Talking with a new dean at the end of the year, I heard a question that chairs, deans and provosts often pose when they are confused and frustrated that faculty members they’ve asked to take on leadership roles in their departments or programs have turned them down: “Don’t they see how much their leadership matters?” In principle, yes. In practice, maybe not.

This dean was particularly stumped because -- to her and the chairs in her school -- it is clear that the school has many new initiatives underway and that having the activities shaped, assessed and refined by faculty members is vital to their success. “How do I convince them their leadership matters?”

At the outset, I suggested to her that she needed to be clear that their leadership really will matter. Do the leadership roles she has in mind truly require faculty members’ efforts? Are they worth the time away from other faculty responsibilities? Can she make a good case that the leadership activities she’s requesting will be crucial to successful teaching and research at her institution? If so, it will be important that she make that case and create conditions in which faculty members can see their work making a difference to academic excellence.

You might ask, “Why don’t they see that now?” Many factors can contribute to faculty members not seeing leadership roles as important. Faculty members who resist leadership positions often are seeing only the administrative tasks that come with being a chair or program director -- the part that’s most visible and most often lamented by chairs and directors. The people who have served in those roles for a while understand that administrative work is necessary to make things happen. But expecting most faculty members to see that connection is asking for a big leap of faith. They often haven’t yet experienced the satisfaction of seeing their academic interests advanced by their leadership -- and assured by their follow-through.

The first step, then, in engaging more faculty members in leadership roles is to link such requests to other academic responsibilities that matter to the individuals involved. Make sure that the activity you ask any faculty member to take on is closely related to the teaching, research and curriculum they know well. Better yet, look to those people for whom the results of the efforts will have a direct positive impact. That seems obvious, but we too often ask faculty members to manage projects that require their talents but do not involve issues about which they care. If we are asking them to expand their view of their academic responsibilities, then the new work has to draw on their current passions.

Also, if you can, start small with your requests. Jumping into being director of graduate studies is likely to bring a no. But being part of a task force looking into new directions for their specialty is a more manageable option.

The second step is to connect those in those in leadership roles with each other. Having someone else around who is taking on similar responsibilities -- even just one other faculty member -- helps to reinforce the normalness of expanding the view of faculty activity. That can be done in formal ways if the faculty members currently in comparable roles see those roles as a positive academic contribution.

If the formal structures are mostly filled with faculty members who have taken these positions under duress or have learned to accept them with no expectation of making a difference, then you have to work on that culture as well -- but separately. That means you may need to create informal ways for new faculty leaders to share their experiences and reinforce the importance of what they can contribute. The ideal solution is to identify some experienced faculty leaders who understand the importance of these academic roles and would enjoy offering advice and support.

That brings us to the third step: to provide frequent feedback and continuing support for faculty members as they learn what is required of them in their new academic roles. If you have other faculty leaders you can draw on, that’s great. It’s even better if they are outside the departments or programs in which you are seeking to attract new leaders, as they have a broader perspective on the issues.

Those faculty advisers can supplement the attention the new leaders will require from you as dean or chair. You need to assure those new leaders that the skeptical responses they may receive from some other faculty members are not unusual or personal. You should tell them that some of the resources they may seek are already available or can be provided -- and some cannot.

Getting information and advice frequently will allow for quick midcourse adjustments as they find their way through new territory. You can also help them recognize successes along the way. What feels like a small victory can shift the direction of a committee’s work or help determine the outcome of a proposal.

The fourth step is to determine how to recognize the faculty members for the contributions they are making. How will you showcase what matters? It is important to provide public recognition in order to reinforce the wider view of academic leadership.

However, given the skepticism expressed originally about leadership roles making a difference, it is not likely that the current structures and vocabulary in the university will provide the best platforms for public recognition. Sometimes, especially when the work is still in progress and the outcomes will probably need revisions, it is best to congratulate the whole department or program on moving forward on academic priorities important to all of them. You can ask them to join in thanking their colleague for taking a lead role. You might also remind the whole group that the next stages of this work and related projects are ahead and will need their involvement in the future.

The next step? Ask these faculty members to identify other people with academic passions and an interest in institutional quality. Because they now know -- in practice as well as in principle -- that their leadership matters.


Judith S. White became president and executive director of HERS in 2005. For more information on HERS, visit


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