Creating Space, Relieving Stress, and Making the Job More Enticing: Suggestions for Academic Department Chairs
Much has been written about the increasing workloads placed on our academic department chairs. Coupled with the fact that recently appointed chairs also bring with them to their new roles at least part of their old work as faculty members in teaching and research/scholarship, this means that chairs will likely have to make some sacrifices in what they choose to do or find ways to accommodate the additional responsibilities by increasing their work efficiency.
A recent survey of chairs by Cipriano and Riccardi has revealed that one downside of the position, aside from the heavy workload, is that it leaves little time to do the work that they originally joined the academy to do—research and individual scholarship. Yet, at the same time, a strong majority of those contributing to these surveys indicate that they are satisfied with their role as chair. Results also indicate growing stress levels among chairs. A final observation on the chair role, and one that does not emanate from the survey, is that the role of chair is not particularly attractive to many of our faculty. This is unfortunate because we need talented people to assume leadership positions in our institutions.
The take-home message is that chairs are generally happy in their positions but would like to have time for more traditional faculty work and less stress in their work. The negative perception faculty at large have of the position of department chair comes from the same issues that sitting chairs themselves raise. What can chairs do to increase their satisfaction while at the same time removing some of the unattractive aspects of the position to encourage others’ interest in serving in the future? The following are some steps that chairs might consider in addressing these issues. If they are observant, other faculty will note the impact these changes have on chair productivity and behavior.
Prioritize your work. This applies to both departmental projects and those that come from the outside (i. e., the dean or the campus as a whole). Regarding department initiatives, chairs are cautioned about launching too many projects simultaneously. This occurs more with new chairs, who sometimes step in with great energy and enthusiasm thinking they can “fix” everything right away, rather than with seasoned ones. Opening too many initiatives will tax the manpower available and almost always lead to slow progress or even potential failure. Ideally, there should be a mix of short- and long-term projects. The former are used to obtain quick victories (demonstrating progress in promoting faculty morale) while the latter are being methodically addressed.
Chairs must comply with specific campus mandates. If, however, there is a general call for department action on issues such as student recruitment or retention, then the chair has some options for responding. The department may participate in campus initiatives or develop its own program for addressing an issue. Selections should be limited and made based on which projects have the best chance for success. The chair might have to use considerable skill in avoiding political ramifications in limiting participation and justifying the chosen pathway.
Delegate some of your work. There are many routine management tasks that remain a chair responsibility but could be delegated to staff or other members of the faculty. Examples might be scheduling classes, hiring adjuncts and assigning their teaching, auditing records for degree completion, and assigning transfer credit. Beyond items like this are routine reports such as those for faculty effort, assessment, student progress, and so on that could be done by other faculty. To whom among the faculty might a chair delegate these tasks?
There are several possibilities. The first is to use a faculty committee to take on some of the reporting functions. Many departments have an executive or advisory committee to provide the chair with advice and direction; perhaps this committee could take on some work, or a new committee could be formed to do so. Both of these committee-based solutions would require detailed justification to earn faculty buy-in and participation.
Another possibility is to delegate these responsibilities to a faculty member. Why would he or she agree to do this? In one example scenario, units where faculty workloads are precisely defined and apportioned (e. g., 40–40–20) may include a faculty member who needs service responsibilities and could assume new assignments. If a department permits differential loads, a faculty member’s shortcoming in another area (research?) could be addressed by assigning additional service to bring that faculty member up to 100 percent effort.
In another scenario, a senior faculty member a few years from retirement who has fought the good fight for three decades may be experiencing burnout on writing grant proposals and conducting research, has taught a standard load but wants no additional teaching, and has provided satisfactory service. Because this person has been productive throughout his or her career, he or she would likely welcome the assignment of helping the chair, continuing to work at full effort while making a valuable contribution to the department.
Finally, a faculty member may have a distinct career trajectory to become a chair. Such an individual should be interested in gaining experience in the tasks already mentioned and would need to have some independent projects for which he or she can take full credit that would demonstrate leadership evidence for future applications for chair positions. Such an individual would be eligible for a title such as associate chair. While the model would allow the chair to delegate and get some new work done, it also mandates a mentoring role for the chair.
Collaborate to stay current. The complaint from chairs about having insufficient time for teaching and/or research can be addressed, at least partially, through collaborating with others. This is critical for those chairs who plan to return to the faculty when their stints as chair have ended. The chair may teach while serving but may not have the time to experiment with and learn new pedagogies or keep up with rapid changes in classroom technology. The strategy here is to team-teach with experts in these areas who can show the chair how so that he or she need not figure it out alone. For those chairs who must compete in a rigorous research environment when returning to the faculty, collaboration is also an option. In this relationship, the chair would participate in project planning, grant and manuscript writing, and team meetings, while the collaborator would also be responsible for team oversight, data collection, and day-to-day aspects of the project. Collaborative scholarship has evolved from suspect to acceptable to expected, so chairs should feel comfortable that it will be received at full value.
Take care of yourself physically and mentally. This means that things such as regular exercise, nutritious meals and snacks, leisure time, time with family and friends, and yes, even vacations (without a smart phone?) are encouraged. Chairs might consider joining a gym or a fitness group. Visits should be scheduled at a neutral, convenient time (early morning, lunch if nearby) that is ferociously protected. Nutritious snack items should be available, perhaps in the secretary’s desk for chairs who don’t trust themselves, for those occasions when dinner at home is not possible. Many of these behaviors are, or can be, habitual, and for physical health and stress release chairs are encouraged to develop sound habits.
Identify a mentor. Even experienced chairs can benefit from having a mentor. The mentor could be a contemporary, a peer, a former chair, or even a former dean. Alternatively, chairs may turn to a local, active chair community (chairs who regularly meet without administrators) if present on campus as a mentor surrogate. In both cases the chair gets advice, gains new ideas, and, of course, can vent frustrations in a supportive environment.
Find a hideout . . . or two. There are times in the lives of chairs that are high-stakes, high-stress moments. For example, after a long meeting on budget reductions, following four consecutive faculty annual reviews, none of which went well, or after a complaining students brings parents and an attorney to the chair’s office, the chair may be in need of a ”break.” The break suggested here is a trip away from the department and preferably out of the building where a chair can walk into a friend’s office, sit down and talk about the friend’s tennis game, vacation plans, or where his or her daughter will go to college. The chair can never disclose the location of the hideout, which must be free of both interruptions and regular business. Chairs will be surprised how reenergizing 30–60 minutes of pleasant distraction can be.
In summary, chairs can reduce their workloads by distinguishing between what must be done and what might be done and through the delegation of aspects of chair work. The calendar space thus created is available for collaborative teaching or research. Adopting stress-reduction strategies can help one get past those challenging moments. A more relaxed and productive chair may lead others to consider assuming leadership roles.
N. Douglas Lees, PhD, is associate dean for planning and finance, professor, and former chair of biology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.