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The Multiple Roles of Department Chairs in Guiding Faculty Career Changes

Faculty Development Leadership and Management Promotion, Tenure, and Evaluation

The Multiple Roles of Department Chairs in Guiding Faculty Career Changes

During the pretenure probationary period, new assistant professors receive a good deal of attention from faculty committees and their department chairs regarding their progress toward a successful tenure application. Many departments have written documents outlining, with some degree of clarity, what is expected. Because each case is unique and the sources of evidence (publications and the quality element, external letters of evaluation, student surveys, etc.) are so numerous, varied, and challenging to evaluate, some ambiguity remains, resulting in a process that raises uncertainty and stress among our young colleagues.

In addition to the written documents, assistant professors go through an annual review with their chairs and have an annual reappointment review conducted by senior department faculty members, or they have a rigorous third-year review that has input from beyond the department, or, in some cases, both. There is ample opportunity to eliminate questions about what counts and where during the quest for tenure. Once the assistant professors achieve tenure, much of the feedback disappears, and the entire burden of facilitating further advancement and career guidance fall to the chair, primarily through the annual review process.

From the point when tenure is achieved, the career paths for faculty proceed in different directions at different speeds and involve different goals. Some move no further, while others soon move on to full rank; additionally, there are those in the middle who progress but occasionally fail to generate the momentum to get over the hump to full rank. The focus in this article will be on those who are very productive and valuable faculty who want variety in their professional work and would benefit from assistance in changing career paths. These individuals can be associate or full professors.

Why would engaged associate professors or established full professors want to change the nature of their work that has successfully placed them where they are today? There are several internal and external reasons for faculty to take on the risks of such a move. Some grow bored working in a focused research area or teaching the same classes and want to try something else. Other personality types want to experience as many aspects of the academy as possible, while others are driven by ambition and are seeking to extend their influence through leadership roles within the institution. On occasion, external factors can stimulate career path changes. This can take place when a research area is no longer eligible for funding due to political factors, or a decision is made to move the dollars to projects using different approaches or to a more promising area. There could also be a change in institutional emphasis that could prompt a new career interest.

Regardless of the reason for the career change, it is important to remember that these faculty members are tenured and have been successful to a point well beyond the tenure decision. They serve as role models for junior faculty and represent part of the senior leadership necessary for department stability during the changes in higher education. The risks of not accommodating their wishes for different work are that they move on to positions elsewhere or that their productivity diminishes. Thus, they are worth the reinvestment; there is no reason to believe that they won’t be successful in their new careers. The question is: What roles does the chair have to play and what skills are required to successfully effect the desired changes?

An example might be an associate professor of chemistry in a strong but traditional research department. This individual has been in rank for eight years, is hard working, and is determined to earn full rank in research, although progress has been slower than expected. In addition, she has found undergraduate education in the discipline inadequate and has developed some tools to improve that situation. As institutions move more to online experiences, lab classes in chemistry become a major roadblock to full implementation. Furthermore, chemistry has become increasingly dependent on instrumentation, and, although her department has all the modern instruments on site, the challenge of the online environment in training students in how to use them remains. As a remedy for the situation, she has begun to develop software and interfaces that allow students to access these instruments in real time and as simulations via the Internet.

The chair of the department must advise this faculty member on which direction might be best to pursue, as continuing with both projects will not be manageable or maximally fruitful. On the one hand, he recognizes the desire to gain promotion through the traditional research route, while on the other, he feels that this faculty member has greater potential for impact by taking the educational route, and he knows that this is where her heart lies. She is ahead of the field in this area, and her work would be attractive to several funding agencies. Her work could revolutionize the way online chemistry labs are taught and would have the added benefit of allowing small institutions, where resources for equipment are limited, access to instruments such that they could improve their chemistry degree programs.

The list of issues to help this faculty member refocus her efforts will require several skills. First, he must convince the faculty member that this is the route to pursue and provide assurance that there will be no loss of respect involved. At the same time, he must plant the seed with the promotion committee that there might be a dossier coming their way that will be atypical. After this opening remark, the chair might follow up with conversations on nontraditional scholarship, what constitutes scholarship, and parallels (competitive funding required, dissemination, visibility, impact, etc.) between bench research and educational material innovations. The message must be conveyed with persistence and patience and following all accepted institutional practices and policies.

Beyond the soft skills outlined above, the chair also needs to consider how to provide the support to make the transition. To take on the new work as a primary, full-time commitment will require different space, personnel, and hardware. As a source of the dollars required to garner these resources, the chair might consider purchasing some of the faculty member’s gently used research equipment for use in the teaching mission of the department, making it available for purchase by other faculty, or setting aside some common items to be used as part of startup packages for new faculty. The dollars recovered here may be sufficient to modify space, hire two part-time computer science students, and purchase the right hardware for the preliminary work that leads to prototypes that will form the bases for grant proposals.

Another example might be a full professor who has an outstanding research record and has always done more than his fair share in teaching and service. At the age of 50, he has grown tired of fighting the increasingly difficult battle for funding and has become intrigued by the possibility of administrative service, where his experiences can be used to help others. He approaches his chair with an offer to serve as associate chair to gain experience in administration.

The chair is delighted to have the offer of assistance from such a competent, well-respected faculty member but realizes that this individual has volunteered not just to lend a helping hand but to decide whether administration as a chair is in his future. The chair must then carefully consider the strengths, weaknesses, and past experiences of the individual when deciding what elements of responsibility to delegate to the volunteer. The chair might also suggest new responsibilities that the faculty member may have in mind as possible elements of the portfolio. This is more than an exercise in which the chair can remove a number of things from her plate; it is an opportunity to train someone in administration by assigning him essential tasks that he will do later and by giving him full responsibility for new projects that can be prominent features of his application for a chair position later.

Beyond the assigned areas of work for the associate chair, the chair should also consider taking an active mentoring role. This might involve discussing important policies/issues before bringing them to the faculty, assigning the faculty member to key campus committees on which other administrators serve, and recommending and supporting further development through attendance at conferences, workshops, and the like.

A final example would be the reverse of the previous case, one in which an administrator wishes to return to an active research role after many years. If the case involves someone in science or technology, and the administrative role precluded any significant continuation of the disciplinary work, there is significant work for the chair to do. Solutions will involve a mix of monetary, time, and personnel investments. Time (for retooling and conference attendance, for example) can be created with an unofficial sabbatical or reduced teaching load at the outset, and monetary resources for instrumentation and personnel could be offset or satisfied by matching the interests of the returning individual with someone with an active, related research program who would welcome a collaborator.

Each case is unique, and each calls upon a different set of chair skills (first—advisor, assurer, educator; second—delegator, mentor; third—problem solver, matchmaker). All three are based roughly on real situations, and all the real situations were successful, with the first making the transition and being promoted, the second landing a chair position, and the third ultimately earning external funding to support a productive research program.


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

Multiple Roles of Department Chairs

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