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Expectation for Continuous Improvement Even in Challenging Fiscal Times

Faculty Development Institutional Culture

Expectation for Continuous Improvement Even in Challenging Fiscal Times

effective department leadership

Having a commitment to continuous improvement is an essential characteristic for effective department leadership (Lees et al. 2009). The process of making changes, both incremental and sweeping, that generate better outcomes, increased satisfaction, or enhanced efficiency is an expectation we have for our academic leaders. Promoting an agenda for improvement plays out differently based on a number of parameters, including whether the administrator is new or a veteran in the position, whether the individual was an internal or external hire, the current condition of the unit, and the resources available to the individual.

The new administrator

Having interviewed for the job and studied many aspects of the position, the new chair, dean, or provost will have some idea about what should be changed and will have articulated these ideas to those at the institution as part of the vetting process. Internal appointments might be able to discern weaknesses, but the remedies suggested by the internal individual might be more constrained by notions such as “We can’t/don’t do that here.”

Although incoming administrators may have a long list of change items, they should address an achievable subset of these at the outset. Beginning too many projects at the same time makes tracking progress more difficult and taxes the available infrastructure. One consideration is that the new administrator will want to avoid a failed initiative; detractors will remember and remind others about it.

Some of the items on the change list should be easy ones that can give the individual early wins. For example, the new provost who has identified “enhancing research collaborations” as a target for improvement can create a new grants program that stimulates that activity. A new dean who has identified increasing online offerings as a goal could stimulate faculty by offering release time and small grants for course development. At the department level, a new chair could use the resource package to make graduate teaching assistant stipends more attractive and competitive, thereby improving the quality of the graduate student population and the instruction offered.

Having some timely solutions to recognized issues allows the administrator to demonstrate progress on the agenda for change. It also allows time to work on those thorny areas where improvement is needed. The examples of easy targets for change are those that require only the insight of how to make them happen and can be implemented unilaterally. In contrast, modifying promotion and tenure guidelines and changing the undergraduate curriculum are long-term items for improvement for deans and chairs, respectively.

Another example of a long-term goal that would be applicable to all levels of administration is the development of a strategic plan. Such a goal may involve impinging on the institutional mission, changing unit culture, and negotiating with multiple groups or “owners.” Thus, change will take much more time and will likely result in challenging conversations, trade-offs, and assurances. The bottom line is that the agenda for change should be balanced with entries from the simple and quick to the complex, political, and long-term challenges.

The condition of the unit is an element the new administrator will also want to consider. A smoothly running institution, school, or department offering widely respected and innovative programs and with highly satisfied students, faculty, staff, and administration is at one end of the spectrum, whereas a failing unit with diminishing student numbers, an antiquated curriculum that is not well delivered, and unhappy constituents lies at the other.

The incoming administrator in the first case is challenged to find a way to make a positive difference, while in the latter the question is, “What do I do first?” The first case results in an evenly paced life with a low potential for substantial, positive change, while the second yields a frantic dash to get many elements running well and has a high delta for improvement.

The veteran administrator

Administrators no longer have start-up resources, and severe budget restrictions are often in place. In most institutions, dollars flow downhill; higher-level administrators have the first opportunity at resources, and department chairs have the last. For this reason, my focus is now on the department and chair levels.

A chair who is committed to continuous improvement will monitor all aspects of the department, seeking opportunities where changes can be made that will lead to better outcomes. This can mean course scheduling changes to increase student access, interventions to improve retention, policy tweaks to enhance research productivity, or changes to improve student recruitment, including developing a new degree track or program. Some of these changes will have a high price tag, resulting in them being set aside awaiting better times unless there is an external funding source to which a grant proposal could be submitted.

Some things, however, can be done to generate positive outcomes at minimal cost. It is during times when things look bleak and morale is low (e.g., lack of resources, no new or replacement hires) that making progress or improvements can make a real difference. This is also a time for the chair to demonstrate creativity and strong leadership by boldly moving ahead with priorities that make some aspect of department life better for faculty, staff, or students.

What types of improvements can be made inexpensively? Altering the scheduling of classes to increase access may not incur a monetary cost, although some faculty may object. This can both increase general student satisfaction and result in additional income from increased enrollments. Are you tired of those dreary old bulletin boards, or does your web site need updating? There is often hidden expertise among faculty and staff (or their families) unrelated to their professional work. If not, contact the art department and see if a student needs a project to meet degree requirements. Once identified, have the student work with staff to create a new look for the department’s branding. The same approach with the website may be possible—this time working through the computer science or technology departments on campus.

Other examples include developing an online advising tool for majors or recruitment newsletters for high school students; hosting an undergraduate research poster day; and fostering meetings among department faculty and faculty from across campus and beyond to explore possible collaborations in teaching, engagement, and research. Some of these initiatives are substantial in their academic impact whereas others are cosmetic; however, all represent improvements, and all can lift the spirits of those who interact with students on a daily basis.

Creating an environment where there is continuous activity designed to make things better will eventually lead to faculty expecting to hear of the completion of one project (or at least a progress report) and the launch of another. The chair could entertain suggestions from faculty, staff, and students for improvement projects. The suggestions could then be vetted at a department meeting for cost, feasibility, and impact, and those scoring well could then be passed to the appropriate individuals for implementation.

The chair should regularly report to the department faculty and staff about the completion of improvement projects. Communication, especially about changes that affect students or the primary missions of the institution, should also be sent to upper administration. Administration will remember that the department accomplished much with relatively little and will perhaps be generous when future resources are available.


Lees, N. Douglas, David J. Malik, and Gautam Vemuri. 2009. “The Essentials of Chairing Academic Departments.” The Department Chair 20(2): 1–3.

N. Douglas Lees, PhD, is associate dean for planning and finance, professor, and former chair of biology at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.


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