The Department Chair: A Retrospective Perspective
The department chair is a linchpin of a university. It has been estimated that 80 percent of the decisions made in higher education are made at the department level. The chair is a classic hybrid-in-the-middle position; not really an administrator but “more than” a faculty member. The roles and responsibilities of a chair can differ significantly from one university to another. A chair at one institution may develop and monitor a budget, hire and terminate individuals, evaluate faculty members and professional staff, and not teach any courses. Another chair at another university may only teach classes and provide a schedule of classes to be offered. In fact, most universities do not provide a job description for the chair.
Although it is universally acknowledged that the department chair is an important and valuable member of the university community, surprisingly little has been written regarding characteristics of people serving in this unique leadership position. In fact, we know very little about a myriad of factors that contribute to whether a chair is effective in his or her role. In an effort to address these issues, my colleague Richard Riccardi and I have been surveying chairs for the past ten years (i.e., from 2007 to 2016) to determine the challenges they face, the demonstrated competencies they indicate are needed for them to be effective, how satisfied they are, whether tasks they perform are pleasant or unpleasant, and their thoughts about collegiality and civility.
Over the ten years of this study, 5,303 surveys were mailed and 2,013 were returned, a 38 percent return rate. The average respondent:
- had a doctoral degree,
- was employed at a public college or university,
- held the academic rank of full professor,
- was 46 years old when he or she first became chair,
- was currently 53 years old, was tenured,
- considered him or herself a member of the faculty rather than the administration,
- had no formal training in serving as a chair,
- will go back on faculty after serving as chair,
- was satisfied with being chair,
- and was very satisfied with his or her choice of career.
Selected data points
- Over 96 percent of the respondents had no formal education or training in being a chair.
- The top three reasons for remaining as chair were (1) to make a difference, (2) to shape the direction of the department, and (3) no one else will do it.
- The top two reasons have remained consistent throughout the 10 years of the study.
- In 2016, the third top reason for remaining as chair (no one else will do it) was listed this high in the rankings for the first time.
- The average number of years a person remained as chair was initially six years, and then it dropped to five years, and in three of the last four years people remained as chair for four years.
- The percentage of people serving as chair who were not tenured has risen from 13.8 percent to 18.5 percent over the 10 years of the study.
- The skills and competencies people stated were needed to be an effective chair were ranked in the following order: (1) ability to communicate effectively [this has remained consistent as number one for each year of the study], (2) ability to manage conflict, (3) leadership skills, (4) character and integrity, and (5) interpersonal skills.
- The challenges in serving as chair are indicated as follows: (1) dealing with noncollegial faculty, (2) dealing with bureaucracy, (3) lack of time to devote to individual research, (4) excessive workload, and (5) excessive email.
- Respondents were asked if collegiality should be the fourth criterion for tenure decisions: 68.5 percent said yes, 9.9 percent said no, and 21 percent said they were not sure.
- Some 78 percent of the respondents stated that they currently have or have had a noncollegial faculty member in their department, and 22 percent indicated they did not.
Presently, we are arguably experiencing one of the most challenging and tumultuous times in higher education. Student graduation rates are at an embarrassingly low point; 38 percent of our students graduate in four years and 55 percent graduate in six years. Students leave college owing an average of $37,000 in student debt. We are witnessing the “adjunctification” of classes being taught by part-timers. Logically, the department chair is in an enviable and strategic position to effect positive change in this potentially parlous situation.
After analyzing the data over the ten years of this study, it appears that the following are true regarding the role and responsibilities of the department chair.
- Chairs are serving less willingly than ever before. Potential chairs do not want to serve as chair.
- Chairs are not adequately educated or trained in being an effective chair.
- The ability to communicate remains the most important skill an effective chair can possess.
- Dealing with a noncollegial faculty member is becoming more of a challenge than ever before.
- Chairs should receive training in managing conflict.
- Future chairs will serve in larger departments than ever before.
- More nontenured people will serve in the role of chair.
- Chairs will continue to view themselves as members of the faculty rather than of the administration.
- More chairs will hold the rank of associate professor rather than full professor.
- Chairs will be less satisfied in being chair and more satisfied with their career choice.
- Chairs will be challenged by working with unmotivated faculty.
Robert E. Cipriano is professor emeritus at Southern Connecticut State University, an advisory board member of Academic Leader, and senior partner in ATLAS: Academic Training, Leadership & Assessment Services. His latest book, A Toolkit for College Professors, is available from Rowman & Littlefield. Contact him at email@example.com.
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