ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- It sometimes seems as if everyone on campuses is at odds with everyone else. Senior administrators complain about intransigent faculty members. Professors gripe about their presidents' excessive compensation. And as economic tensions worsen on many campuses, the blame game may only increase.
Which is why it was heartening -- touching, almost -- to hear a group of senior college administrators on Monday express sympathy and concern for the professional and personal well-being of department chairs and division heads at their institutions.
The conversation, at a session at the Council of Independent Colleges' annual meeting of chief academic officers,  discussed the key themes and findings that emerged from a series of workshops  that the private college group held for department heads during the course of this year. The workshops, entitled "Leading From the Middle," were designed to recognize the important but often vexed position that department chairs fill at the intersection between the faculty and the central administration -- a role that is especially key at the sort of mostly small, often fairly lean institutions that make up the CIC.
At Monday's session, chief academic officers who had helped lead the CIC workshops for department heads shared the chairs' perspectives and concerns with their fellow provosts. There were many -- focused heavily on the difficult position they find themselves in and how ill-prepared they sometimes feel for their jobs.
"Many of them are far out of their comfort zone and training, and nobody performs their best in that mode," said Jeanine Silveira Stewart, vice president for academic affairs at Hollins University.
Richard Ostrander, provost of Cornerstone University, said the department chairs described their main challenges as having too many responsibilities and too little time, being in the difficult position of both advocating for their department or division and "owning" administrative decisions, and receiving too little training and preparation for the job.
To hear the academic officers themselves tell it, that's not idle complaining. Most said that the department chairs at their institutions rose to their positions through seniority, and not necessarily because they had the aptitude for the position.
They typically receive little formal training on the administrative aspects of the jobs -- budgeting, legal aspects of the hiring process, and the like -- and receive greatly varying degrees of compensation, in the form of either release time from courses or financial stipends. "It's rarely a lot," said Helen Streubert, vice president for academic affairs at Our Lady of the Lake University.
One chief academic officer described her institution's chairs as being "really overwhelmed right now," facing a regional accreditation process and specialized reviews in several disciplines, implementation of a new enterprise computing system, and a new attendance system in the coming months. "I'm really concerned about that."
The provosts' concerns are not totally selfless, they acknowledged; ineffective department or division heads can mean more headaches for their bosses, if they either fail to resolve problems within their departments or create dilemmas of their own by making managing mistakes that create legal risk for the institution.
But that may not be the extent of the impact. "I have the impression that the strain is playing out in all kinds of ways that are putting at risk our academic programs and our ability to deliver education to students," said Stewart, of Hollins.
Concerns like that may be what's necessary to prod colleges to pay more attention to how they train department chairs, and to justify practices that might cost more but pay off. Streubert of Our Lady of the Lake said her institution had just begun giving department chairs the equivalent of a release from teaching two full courses, primarily to give them time to add to their plates a focus on ensuring that their departments successfully measure learning outcomes. "It's very expensive, and it's a trial," she said.
Other provosts said they were looking for ways to professionalize the department chair job -- and some said it might be time for institutions to abandon three-years-and-you're-out terms that many have for department chairs.
David Brailow, vice president for academic affairs at Indiana's Franklin College, said he has tried to work within his college's policy of three-year terms for division chairs so that "when someone is really being effective, we can get them reappointed."
Ideally, he said, "you just try to find someone who is really good at it and keep them in that role as long as possible."