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The widely accepted triumvirate in which faculty members are expected to excel includes teaching, scholarship and service. While the amount of time one spends in those functional areas and the relative weight assigned to each differ by institution and appointment type, the three together are widely accepted as the necessary foundation of a successful faculty career. They are the bedrock of a strong institution and form the basis for the assessment of faculty achievement.
Yet success in those areas can only take you so far if you are entering your midcareer years, when you are enhancing your disciplinary expertise, your responsibilities are expanding and you are increasing your visibility beyond your home institution. Autonomous work in teaching, scholarship and service will not be all that’s required if you take on an administrative role, such as department chair. Simply put, what got you there won’t help you be successful now and in the future.
Instead, if you become a department chair, your success will be based on a new triumvirate: leadership, management and personnel development. Here I’ll describe each of those areas, giving examples of the needs you’ll confront as a chair and the type of actions you should take to meet such needs.
Leadership is a process that involves the leader, followers and organizational context. Effective leadership requires the support of followers. Context also matters, because someone who is a strong leader in the automotive industry, for example, may struggle to assert a similar leadership approach in higher education with its distinct tenure and promotion system and commitment to academic freedom.
In fact, contextual factors inherent in the academy create extra challenges for department chairs. For example, the positions are often rotating— the occupant accepts, say, a three-year term with the potential to re-up for a second term. In addition, the chair has no carrots to encourage engagement and reward exemplary behavior or sticks to address egregious behavior detrimental to the success of the department and student learning. That contextual reality can often make developing and practicing one’s leadership skills— whether as a newly minted or a seasoned chair—something of an uphill battle.
Chairs do have the ability to set and responsibility for setting the tone of the department. Issues related to vision, values, culture, day-to-day operations and supporting departmental colleagues are prominently displayed on the to-do list of a person who seeks to be effective. Most faculty members, however, have little to no formal experience in a leadership role, nor have they been trained adequately to assume one. They require more professional development and exposure to examples of leadership in action, such as the following hypothetical one.
- The need. Sarah has been a department chair in a STEM field at a liberal arts college for more than two years and is committed to staying for another three-year term. Her department has a mix of early-career and senior colleagues. In her first years at the college, she felt like her department was a tight-knit group that worked well together and agreed on its direction. But as new members of the department have arrived and senior ones have retired, the feel of the department has changed. Sarah knows its success and the retention of early-career colleagues depend on re-establishing a shared vision and commitment to its direction.
- The response. To get a handle on where her department colleagues currently are, Sarah sent the following prompt asking each to respond separately to her via email: “What should we value as a department?” She then collected the responses and organized them according to themes and commonalities. After sharing the results of the review at a department meeting, she asked her colleagues to offer their thoughts and observations. As a group, they agreed upon three shared values that represented the department and that it should adopt moving forward. Then Sarah posed the following question to her colleagues: “What do our agreed-upon values look like in action?” Her aim was to identify concrete steps that would be in service to the agreed-upon values. Individually and collectively, department colleagues responded to this prompt and discussed specific actions.
For example, one of their agreed-upon values was respect. The prompt resulted in colleagues sharing what respect looked like in action for them—in how colleagues engaged with each other, the ways in which they were expected to contribute and how they communicated. It was important to put such actions behind the values to ensure a shared sense of commitment and understanding of what those values meant in their departmental context.
- The outcome. The leadership process that Sarah modeled facilitated a collaborative effort that served as a crucial foundation-building exercise—one that fostered faculty engagement in the short-term and faculty accountability in the long-term, while also honoring the departmental evolution that has continued to occur. The values also became a framework when tough decisions had to be made (“How does this reallocation of resources work in service to our agreed-upon values?”) or tough conversations needed to be had (“I need you to take on an additional X number of advisees to ensure a more equitable workload”).
In the words of Steven Covey, “Most leaders would agree that they’d be better off having an average strategy with superb execution than a superb strategy with poor execution.” While leadership is focused on vision, strategy and culture cultivation, management is about effectively executing day-to-day tactical tasks to ensure departmental activities and interpersonal relationships are working in complementary ways.
For chairs, management responsibilities span the four primary resource areas: financial, human, physical and intellectual. For example, they regularly build and manage departmental budgets (financial) and assess staffing needs, including hiring and yearly performance evaluations (human). They collaborate with facilities, IT, HR and the registrar to ensure office and classroom space are available, tech needs are met, and employment credentials are assigned (physical). Finally, they work with faculty and students on course schedules, codify departmental policies and practices, and serve as primary writers for departmental reports (intellectual).
Taking on the role of department chair can be jarring personally and professionally, especially if you still are engaged in the traditional faculty areas of teaching, scholarship and service, as is often the case. And the reality is that no one person can effectively execute these tasks on their own. You must engage departmental colleagues and be strategic in how time is spent and resources are allocated, as the hypothetical example below illustrates.
- The need. Tim is a seasoned humanities department chair at a comprehensive university, entering his second term in the role. While budgets have been reduced as part of a series of institutional cost-cutting measures, the requests from the administration have not slowed. Tim has grown accustomed to unexpected needs that arise for a variety of reasons and require his attention. Yet he also knows that certain deliverables and requests are predictable, such as the year-end report, evaluations of departmental colleagues and support for recruitment events hosted by the admissions staff. Tim also has learned he is not able or willing to manage all those tasks solo.
- The response. Tim schedules a department meeting after the welcome-back faculty forum in August, a practice he started in his second year as chair. He uses this gathering as an opportunity to reconnect with colleagues, asking each to share personal and professional updates. He also presents his departmental colleagues with the academic-year calendar in which key deadlines and campus events are highlighted, maps out the related needs and solicits support for various tasks through their completion. Each member volunteers for a task or two.
Tim is intentional about making suggestions during the discussion based on his colleagues’ strengths and availability. For example, he knows one of his brightest colleagues tends to be more introverted, so tasks like data analysis would be best suited for him. He asks another colleague who is a gifted people person to attend campus events in which a departmental representative is needed.
- The outcome. Tim has begun to master how to delegate and cultivate a culture of accountability—two vital skills for effective management. He struggled in his first year attempting to perform too many duties himself. The result: mediocre work and burnout. By sharing the responsibility for carrying out key departmental tasks while having ultimate responsibility for the results, Tim has ensured that the workload is more evenly distributed and has set the tone for how his department can function most effectively now and in the future.
Chairs are expected to help members of their department navigate their intended and aspirational career paths. They identify and secure needed resources, help facilitate important connections to networks on the campus and in the field, and check in regularly with colleagues about their well-being.
But, unfortunately, that expectation is often not accompanied by the tools and resources needed to meet it. Nor are most faculty members trained in this area, as it hasn’t been part of their disciplinary or academic experiences before assuming the role of department chair. Learning often occurs via trial by fire or lessons learned from what not to do. Yet chairs need the tools to attract, retain and engage a talented workforce in service to institutional, departmental and individual aims—as described in this third example.
- The need. Natalie earned full professorship at her previous institution and aspires to move into upper administration. She realized such advancement was unlikely to happen at her current institution, so she applied for a chair position at a well-known research university with well-regarded departmental colleagues in her field.
Within six months of arriving, Natalie had observed two women faculty who had been at the associate professor rank for longer than average, based on Natalie’s review of the advancement-to-full guidelines. She also noted that a male colleague, with two years less experience, was compiling a dossier for consideration as a full professor based on the previous department chair’s assessment of his readiness. A quick review of CVs for this male colleague and the female colleagues showed they weren’t demonstrably different, which caused Natalie to wonder what was actually going on.
- The response. Natalie scheduled one-on-one meetings with each of the women faculty colleagues during which she sought to learn more about their career goals and future plans. Both women talked about “not being ready” to submit their dossiers for full consideration. One told Natalie that the previous chair had, in fact, told her she wasn’t ready; while he couldn’t point to any specific evidence, his “gut feeling” was that she needed more time. The verbal and nonverbal cues about their readiness to advance in their careers had caused doubt and hesitation for the two women.
Natalie sought to help them overcome their concerns by collaboratively crafting an advancement plan for both of them. She established explicit timelines for preparing and submitting narratives, served as a friendly reviewer on materials, and encouraged them to schedule meetings with a former chair of the personnel committee to get additional guidance.
- The outcome. One of Natalie’s aims when taking on the chair role was to create a culture of human thriving. Being well informed about policies, practices and unwritten rules was a must, as was ensuring her departmental colleagues were clear on career-related institutional and departmental requirements. Working collaboratively with each colleague to create professional development plans tailored to personal and professional needs and priorities required her to cultivate strong relationships. This intentional approach to career advancement, while important for all department members, is particularly vital for supporting women faculty and faculty members of color as they navigate the academy and the inherent institutional biases that persist with it.
In conclusion, department chairs are the first position in the leadership pipeline of the academy and they need strategic professional development—an area widely viewed as requiring further investment, yet with limited knowledge about specifically what to invest in. I am called upon regularly to help universities craft such programs for chairs, and I recommend that institutions start by recognizing and being explicit about the fact that department chairs need training that differs fundamentally from what faculty members need. And as a first concrete step, they should focus on the triumvirate that I’ve outlined and create policies, processes and infrastructures that support chairs in the areas of leadership, management and personnel development.