Being a Young Chair: Advice I Wish I’d Received
Whoever said “Age ain’t nothing but a number” certainly never served as a division chair. I am equally certain that few division chairs have ever thought, “When I grow up, I plan on being the youngest chair in my division.” Yet after moving up the ranks from adjunct instructor to full-time faculty member to program coordinator, I found myself unenthusiastically assuming the crown jewel of academic management: division chairperson. In light of my youth, I wondered whether some faculty members expected me to use a high chair. My self-doubt and lack of information forced me to honestly assess my credentials, higher education skill set, and leadership abilities. There were lingering questions: Could I be an effective division chair? Was I simply too inexperienced? What would happen if I failed miserably? How could I address my self-doubt while gaining the confidence of others?
Abraham Lincoln is reputed to have said, “I will prepare and someday my chance will come.” But what happens when your chance comes before you feel sufficiently prepared? Unfortunately, the completion of my self-assessment did not reveal any astute academic prowess or superpower. I would like to think I was asked to be division chair because of my proven leadership experience or my ability to solve complex problems. I could even kid myself and cite superior intellect as some pompous academicians do. But who was I kidding? I was young, capable, available, and optimistic about the future of my college. Besides, many faculty members in my department simply did not have the time, energy, or disposition to assume the duties and responsibilities of such a demanding position.
After accepting my new reality as the youngest chair in the division, I went from being a member of the faculty to leading the faculty. Instantaneously, I transitioned from faculty to administration and from everyone’s friend to their potential foe. I realized quickly how some peoples’ perceptions of positions (and colleagues) can change. For the first time, I felt like a chef in the academic kitchen, stirring a pot of faculty, liaison, and administrator gumbo. This experience provided a moment of clarity that would lend credence to and shape my future leadership style.
Prior to becoming division chair, I spent 10 years as a faculty member. Like many others, I had the pleasure of serving for some great division chairs. I also suffered under the leadership of some not-so-great others. Which kind of chair would I become? How might my former colleagues perceive me as chair? I did not feel adequately prepared to assume the duties and responsibilities of division chair. After all, I had neither enrolled in nor graduated from division chair school. What would I do?
To address these concerns, I contacted a few recently appointed division chairs at other institutions to inquire about their experiences. Their responses differed dramatically. Some expressed to me that it would be best to rule with an iron fist. Some suggested that I blindly support the academic dean and make his vision my own. Yet others recommended that I befriend faculty and assume a pro-faculty stance. Although their opinions varied, each assured me they had never really felt “ready” to assume the duties and responsibilities of the position. In the end, I decided to adopt an amalgamation of trusted advice and lived faculty experience. I thought about the duties and responsibilities of the job as well as what I desired in a division chair tasked with leading me. In so doing, I identified what I like to call a Young Division Chair’s Wish List. I wish I had been made aware of five simple things, which I discuss below.
1. The position or division chair is actually many positions masquerading as one
The position of chair is multidimensional. A chair is a leader, facilitator, manager, support system, and chief representative of an entire department. As division chair, I no longer had someone to “go to” for answers because I immediately became the go-to person. I went from being managed to managing, from needing support to being a conduit for support. I wish someone would have told me there is a tremendous difference between being a representative and being the representative of the division. I wish someone would have shared with me that the ability to compartmentalize is key and how the nomenclature of division chair is truly misleading.
2. Always think: “Students first”
To be a successful chair, one must wear many hats. I wish someone had explained to me that the position is not about pleasing the academic dean or faculty. At the beginning of my tenure as chair, I sought the advice of faculty, administrators, and staff. I was curious about viewing the qualities of an effective chair through their respective academic lenses. But I quickly realized that most problems were not really faculty, administrator, or staff problems. They were student problems. As I began to reflect on the advice I had solicited from previous and current chairs, I recognized that they gave one of two options: lead with the academic dean in mind or lead with faculty in mind. Yet as a full-time faculty member, I had always subscribed to a student-centered approach. After my first year as chair, I understood that I didn’t have to choose between two options. I wish someone had told me that I could best lead with an “AFS triad” (for academic dean, faculty, and students). Every higher education institution exists to meet the needs of its students. An effective chair must find a way to balance the directives of the academic dean and meet the needs of faculty while thinking about students first.
3. Get on-the-job training
It is perfectly fine to look at every challenge as on-the-job training. I wish someone had explained to me that the job would present a variety of opportunities to learn and grow. In addition, baptism by fire with on-the-job training would speed up my learning curve and aid in my development as the youngest chair in the division. I wish someone had coached me to believe in my ability to lead and find unconventional answers to everyday questions. I further wish someone had informed me that I would not have all the answers and that no one expected me to. I wish I had known how humbling the position could be. It made me aware of how little I knew about the structure and function of many facets of my institution. But my ability to solve problems increased the more I read books and articles about being an effective chair. The more I spoke with proven leaders and mentors, the better I became at providing answers to everyday questions.
4. Build relationships
Relationships with mentors matter. Find a great mentor to talk to regularly. I wish someone had reminded me about the importance of relationship building. As the saying goes, “People don’t care what you know until they know how much you care.” I have learned that building successful relationships is about displaying a genuine concern for the sanctity of people. When I first became chair, I was admonished by a previous supervisor for “showing too much care and concern” for people. It was suggested that I would never become an effective leader if I did so. Through experience, however, I have found the opposite to be true, and I am truly grateful. I have established great relationships with people in every office on campus. I speak with the physical plant staff in the same manner I do the faculty, cafeteria staff, library staff, coaching staff, or the academic dean and students. This simple gesture has proved invaluable. When I am in need, these people assist me in unimaginable ways and do so with a smile. Much can be said about one’s leadership style when people are willing to do things for a leader because they want to rather than have to.
5. Prioritize by saying no
Finally, I wish someone had told me about the importance of learning to say no. It is often said, “Your yes means nothing unless you can say no.” This last lesson is a tough one for me. I am still learning the art of saying no. The demands of the position mean I cannot be all things to all people. There are many items, which I simply cannot say no, however much I would like to. There are many worthwhile endeavors I would like to say yes to that I simply cannot. I am still attempting to devise an effective strategy to help me prioritize the nos, but for now, yes is still winning the battle. My no is gaining traction, however, and I sense I am moving in the right direction. I plan to keep working on my no for I am sure it will end up being my saving grace. Until I am proficient at saying no, I will continue to reflect on the other lessons I have learned. They have already helped to ease my transition from faculty member to chair.
Serving as the youngest division chair has been a rewarding challenge. Youth has taught me lessons that only she can teach. Perhaps there is a benefit to being young. This position has afforded me the time to grow and learn from my mistakes. My youth has provided me with the flexibility and resiliency needed to weather the academic storms. Thus far, I am still here and learning one of the most valuable lessons of all. The lesson of how youth gives birth to hope. I no longer think of myself as the youngest chair in the division. Instead, I think of myself as the most hopeful yet humble chair in the division.
Tywana L. Chenault, PhD, serves as the chair of humanities, education, and social sciences at Voorhees College. Her research interests include student learning, faculty development, African diasporic studies, cross-cultural psychology, and teaching specific student populations.
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