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Much discussion regarding the reinvention of higher education has occurred over the past eight months. Triggered by the widespread impact of a global pandemic and a series of other converging exigencies facing colleges and universities, pundits have been boldly referring to the “reckoning,” “demise” and, yes, “crisis” within higher education.

To better understand the challenges and opportunities this current moment presents, as well as existing perceptions of higher education reinvention among academic leaders, we at the Center for Organizational Leadership at Rutgers University engaged in a study of department chairs across the Big Ten universities. As many as 172 department chairs from all but one Big Ten institution provided responses, and 81 department chairs fully completed the survey.

Even under normal circumstances, the role of the department chair is both complex and ambiguous -- often caught between diverging interests of faculty and administration. Many chairs encounter difficulties when experiencing what Walter H. Gmelch and Val D. Miskin refer to as the “metamorphosis from professor to academic leader” in Chairing an Academic Department. The transition into a leadership role of this kind has the potential to threaten one’s perceived professional identity and the ways in which one is viewed by departmental colleagues. The results of this new study reveal that the disruptions of the recent months have significantly exacerbated the challenges beleaguering department chairs.

An Endless Array of Challenges

Indeed, the events of late, brought about by the widespread impact of COVID-19, have intensified previously existing issues and contributed to a seemingly endless list of new challenges for department chairs. As one chairperson noted, “Every aspect of my job from personnel management to teaching to research to budgeting has been impacted … The department administrator is the key linchpin for communication in both directions. Directives coming from above need to be interpreted at the local level and concerns from the trenches need to get to upper administration.”

Many of the chairs acknowledged their desire to create meaningful opportunities for faculty and staff engagement in response to the pandemic, yet the realities of a socially distanced or fully online workplace have created barriers. As one person pointed out, “We’re in the ‘people business,’ and being visible, accessible, human, humane, and responsive across a variety of forms … is critical to the job. All of this is all the more important now, and yet difficult or impossible.” Or as another survey respondent pondered, how do you keep “the personality of the department with everyone dispersed?”

A number of chairpersons also acknowledged the difficulties that lie ahead for academic leaders. For example, as noted by one respondent, “To be frank, I am in an impossible position and have no real way out of what will likely be an intensely painful and stressful period.” Recognizing the difficulties of leading during a period of great uncertainty, another chair acknowledged the following: “Virtual leadership is an entirely different animal especially during unprecedented transformative change in higher ed and people in various forms of crisis as a consequence of the change and the virus and life in general. Leading toward the future is also next to impossible when the future changes day by day.”

The current challenges have required chairs to continually pivot to provide support for and address the needs of senior administrators, faculty and staff colleagues, and for some, graduate and undergraduate students within their departments. As one chair described the burden of responsibility, “I feel as though I now operate a 1-800 hotline answering questions all day long, given the uncertainty people have about classes, teaching, research, grants, payroll, etc. It is truly exhausting.” And another noted that everything takes more time, “even the most mundane of the clerical chair duties.”

Adding to an ever-growing list of duties, respondents highlighted the following areas of responsibility:

  • Ensuring the safety of colleagues, students and members of the community;
  • Planning for the academic year, including not only academic and course planning but also contingency planning;
  • Dealing with budget freezes and reductions and the uncertainty of future cuts and job furloughs;
  • Increasing active support of faculty, staff and students, each of whom have distinct needs, especially during the pandemic;
  • Conducting an additional level of meetings -- and many of them remotely, which creates a set of distinct challenges.
  • Communicating in an effective and balanced manner, including communicating and advocating with senior administrators;
  • Dealing with a greater level of uncertainty and a lack of clear information;
  • Facilitating the pivot to fully online teaching environments -- and learning individually and collectively from the experience of the shift last spring to fully online teaching;
  • Navigating the technology fatigue posed by a fully online work environment;
  • Engaging in meaningful virtual leadership;
  • Ensuring continuity of research and the protection of laboratories and the research infrastructure;
  • Addressing gossip and misinformation;
  • Continuing to focus on departmental morale often in a socially distanced environment;
  • Handling the impact on mental and emotional health of self and others;
  • Balancing the responsibilities of the chair with personal commitments and obligations; and
  • For those with clinical responsibilities, ensuring appropriate patient care amid a pandemic.

Competing Perceptions of Higher Ed Reinvention

In ideal circumstances, chairs will play an active role in addressing reinvention efforts as our institutions imagine the future of higher education in a post-COVID world. Chairs were asked to assess current views of the postcrisis “reinvention” of higher education on a scale of one (strongly negative) to five (strongly positive). The results were divided, with 19 respondents viewing reinvention as either extremely or somewhat negative, 31 respondents viewing reinvention as either extremely or somewhat positive, and 31 respondents indicating neither a positive nor negative view.

In describing their rationale for these ratings, the responses varied in scope, including these three poignant observations:

  • “Higher education was in crisis before the pandemic. There are a lot of things we need to fix. Massive state underfunding, administrative bloat, obscene salaries paid to athletics, reliance on cheap contingent labor, and graduate programs that are training students for a market that really does not exist anymore. The pandemic has laid bare all sorts of inequalities, so we need to do some fundamental fixing. I am not sure we can, but I think the discussions are useful.”
  • “I have no idea at this point what on earth that will mean. If it means the further hollowing out of public investment in education, then reinvention will mean disaster. If it means that we can realize the importance of the university to the vibrancy of our country, and reinvest, then I think we might be able to reinvent in very important ways. But the temporary movement of instruction to remote models is not a reinvention.”
  • “My analogy here is the punctuated equilibrium theory of evolution. There are times or events that turn the world on its head after periods of relative calm. The calm periods lead to small incremental changes in the way we do business, but it is the catastrophic events that lead to rapid innovation. Unfortunately, those periods are ones in which there is loss, and I believe that we will see a great deal of ‘radiation’ in higher ed, but also a lot of ‘extinction.’”

Moving Forward

As colleges and universities forge ahead in what will continue to be an uncertain and unusual academic year, these preliminary implications can be gleaned from this project:

First, the challenges of this historical moment create a window of opportunity for initiatives that allow for deep reflection, leadership development and meaningful networking with other academic leaders who are encountering seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Second, institutions should develop and improve mechanisms for two-way communication with those occupying the role of department chairperson. By opening up lines of communication with people in these roles, crisis-related information may be more easily disseminated and understood, there may be greater opportunities for the invention and sharing of ideas, and chairs may be more engaged in addressing the interdependent issues that often cut across academic departments.

Finally, the liminal positioning of the chairperson -- tangled between the priorities, demands and expectations of the faculty and administration -- also allows individuals in these roles to adopt a broader perspective. In developing institutional plans and priorities for the period ahead, senior administrators should recognize the value of this broader perspective and ensure the voice of the chairperson is included in any reinvention efforts.

Like so much else in our lives right now, leadership in higher education has been disrupted. As we continue to navigate these remarkably difficult times, the entire higher education community must consider how to best support, develop and engage department chairs -- individuals who take on an even greater burden of responsibility during times of crisis.

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