After the Adrenaline Rush: Chairing Through Prolonged Crisis

Rashida Banerjee, Hava Gordon, Andrea Stanton and Keith Ward advise how department chairs can translate this spring's emergency responses into leadership approaches for a crisis that could last well into fall.

May 19, 2020
 
 
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Since March, many of us have been living in emergency response mode, whether in terms of student, faculty and staff support; conversion to online teaching and learning; admissions and retention; or other areas. For department chairs and program directors, one key issue is how to translate the adrenaline-fueled emergency response into management and leadership approaches for a prolonged crisis -- one that promises to last throughout the summer and into the fall.

As an interdisciplinary group of chairs and directors at the University of Denver, we lead programs in the humanities, social sciences, music and education, with faculty cohorts that range in size from eight to 72. We have been committed to making this period as smooth, as productive and even as positive as possible for our colleagues and our students. Here are the approaches that we have found to be useful.

Embrace the middle-management position. We’re not all fans of the term “middle manager,” but that role is critical in a prolonged crisis. Recognize that chairs have vertical and horizontal roles to play, and that in order to implement various crisis-management measures you may need to regularly pivot between getting your colleagues on board and giving upper-level administrators feedback about what does and doesn’t work in terms of administrative communication (e.g., town halls are helpful even when administrators can’t yet answer all the questions raised) and fall course planning (e.g., it's important to support our students’ career pathways even when K-12 practicums and other internships are less available). We are the ones who can mediate and manage reflex reactions by our faculty colleagues by helping them think through the potential long-term consequences -- like jeopardizing our institution’s accreditation with grade-free courses, or by focusing only on the difficulties of the online pivot, rather than looking for new opportunities for teaching and learning that we can integrate into future courses.

We are also the ones who can intervene with upper-level administrators who are often making quick decisions, without understanding their logistical challenges and emotional impacts. Administrators may not have a full appreciation of faculty concerns regarding their research, teaching, technology skills and service commitments, or the students’ concerns about internships, housing, technology and progress toward their degrees. And many people -- students, staff and faculty -- are having a hard time living with so much uncertainty for so long.

As the urgency of the crisis shifts toward a prolonged maintenance model, we can continue to educate upper-level administrators about faculty and student concerns. We can help administrators craft university responses to crises that are more in touch with those who are doing the educating, creating, researching and learning on the ground.

Create your own communication plan. One sign of an immediate crisis is a random stream of urgent emails, phone calls, text messages and invites for late-breaking meetings. They often convey vital information but can also intensify feelings of stress and alarm. Establishing a regular schedule of communication with colleagues, students and team members helps everyone settle into the new normal and shifts away from the panic stream of communications.

In times of crisis, staff members such as department assistants and program coordinators often receive significant pressure from students, faculty members and campus offices. Regular check-ins with them are essential for the department to continue to work efficiently and effectively. A communication plan that is consistent and multidirectional -- involving faculty, students, administrators and staff as appropriate -- will provide a sense of stability along with important information. This will likely be even more important over the summer, as upper administrators adjust fall plans as health information and state guidelines change.

Provide clarity and redundancy. Your colleagues and students may be overwhelmed by the demands of teaching online and working remotely. They may not be reading every email they receive, and they may not retain the information they read. Keep your communications to the point. When you communicate upper administration mandates that require action or make department-level decisions, confirm orally and follow up in writing. Remember that most people will be operating with a heavier cognitive burden over the coming months, so lighten their load by being clear and being willing to repeat yourself.

Recognize and connect with the whole person. As chairs, it’s often effective to be businesslike, but this is a time to emphasize the human. Start your meetings with check-ins. Send emails to a few colleagues each week, thanking them for their efforts or asking how they are doing. As this crisis continues, more people will be faced with job losses or insecurity with managing full-time work and full-time parenting, with loneliness from missing family and friends, and with the ongoing fear of becoming sick or losing loved ones. Remind your colleagues and students about wellness resources and let them know that you recognize them as whole people who are managing multiple complex challenges over an extended period.

Build your colleagues’ sense of community. We recognize that some departments are more collegial than others and that levels of functionality vary. Even departments with strong communities can feel stretched thin now, which may result in isolation and distancing. Consider ways to facilitate connections for your colleagues (connecting untenured or non-tenure-track colleagues with others across the institution, connecting graduate students with the graduate student government leadership and so on). You are distinctly positioned to serve as a conduit who can promote connection, empathy and grace.

Build your peer community. Chairing can be lonely. If a chairs' group exists at your college or university, join it. If it’s dormant, try starting some regular virtual meetings. You might spend some time venting, but you also might spend some time problem solving and building your own support network.

Start planning. It’s difficult to predict the long-term impact of this crisis on higher education, but we know that if we start planning now, we’ll be better positioned to manage or take advantage of that impact. Keep your eye on the current situation at your institution and how it affects your program. Look ahead to the next one to three years and determine what your program can learn from this spring in terms of teaching and learning as well as broader shifts in U.S. higher education. How can that information make your program stronger?

Put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. Self-care may sometimes feel selfish, but it’s crucial for surviving a prolonged crisis. Chairs cannot be as effective if they ignore their own physical, mental and emotional needs. You, too, are juggling many competing emotions and demands on your time -- often from family members as well as colleagues and students. It's important to acknowledge your needs as well as theirs.

Department chairs and program directors are the glue that holds higher education institutions together. As this crisis plays out, we hope these approaches help our chair colleagues across the country to manage and lead in ways that support your colleagues and students and strengthen your program.

Bio

Rashida Banerjee is chair of the Department of Teaching & Learning Services at the University of Denver. Hava Gordon is chair of the Department of Sociology & Criminology. Andrea Stanton is chair of the Department of Religious Studies. Keith Ward is director of the Lamont School of Music.

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