Dos and Don’ts for Prospective Department Chairs
Have you ever considered becoming a head of an academic department? If the answer is yes, what follows should give you plenty of useful information. If the answer is maybe, it can help you make the decision. Even if the answer is no, it might change your mind.
Let us take a quick look at routine responsibilities of a department chair. Here is a partial list (and nothing can be delayed or forgotten): assigning course instructors, conducting annual reviews, evaluations and promotions, assigning and reassigning faculty to the department committees and subcommittees, responding to complaints, and answering endless emails. At the same time, prospective department chairs should know that they will have limited power. A dictatorship does not work in academia; nothing can be forced, and everything should be done via discussions and negotiations. Therefore, instead of barking out orders, try to generate enthusiasm, offer exciting tasks, and build alliances. Here are details.
Build your team
As Marshall Goldsmith said, “You are only as good as your team.” A strong academic team cannot be built without consensus and trust; thus, you will have to form the consensus and earn the trust. Make your staff an integral part of your team. Most of them have a lot of experience and internal knowledge. Select and appoint associate chairs as well. You will need them, especially for a department with multiple programs.
Update the curriculum
Review and update the existing program curriculum (actually, this should be done every three to four years). Put together a committee and provide general guidance—for instance, checking your program against other universities’ curricula. Pay attention to student graduation rate, and do not forget about compliance with the latest accreditation requirements. It is an important task, and every faculty member should contribute.
Hire new faculty (if possible)
Hiring new faculty is always an exciting process, and it should start with justifications. Remind your opponents that hiring is the best investment in academia and try to involve in the process as many faculty members as possible. It will be a lot of work for everyone—writing the position description, screening applicants’ CVs, selecting top candidates, organizing their visits, and no doubt having long discussions about your final hiring recommendations. This is one of the most important tasks because new faculty members will define the future of your department.
Every new department chair should review the state of their classrooms and teaching laboratories. But a bottom-up approach is better than a top-down one. Start by asking your instructors to provide suggestions for the laboratory and classroom upgrades, produce a list of desired equipment, and request suggestions on updating the lab manuals. Summarize the suggestions in a proposal, prepare a budget, and establish deadlines (because nothing works without budgets and deadlines). Present the proposal to a college dean and argue that the proposed upgrade will help your department to get ready for the next accreditation and, most important, to improve the quality of teaching.
Develop the right attitude
A chairperson must have a positive attitude because whining and complaining will not help. Being optimistic, well-organized, and efficient creates a productive environment. Also, having the right attitude will help to establish a good working relationship with your college dean. At the same time, it is important to not become a yes man and to openly discuss with the dean your concerns. These discussions should take place behind closed doors, not in public. And when you are overruled (and it will happen), you will have to follow orders or resign. Unfortunately, there is no other way.
Do not stop teaching and conducting research
Some skills are perishable (in my opinion, most of them are), and without practice, your classroom confidence will quickly disappear. Don’t let this happen to you. Keeping your research on track will also be difficult but not impossible. Declaring one weekday a research day and freeing yourself from administrative duties will help.
Learn the art of conducting meetings
Every meeting requires preparation; otherwise, it could quickly go out of hand. This must not happen. Thus, the agenda and timetable must be established and followed, the information needs to be properly presented, and discussions should be kept in line. Having a good sense of humor is always helpful; as Mark Twain once wrote, “Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.”
Learn to say no politely but firmly
Undoubtedly, people in your department will ask for favors, especially some of them. From my experience, the same people (approximately 10 percent of the faculty members) will consume close to 80 percent of your time. So, do not be dismissive, but remember that you have limited resources, only 24 hours per day, seven days per week.
Understand what you should not do
It can be summarized in a few words: the rules cannot be broken. The major rules are written in the university faculty handbook, the department bylaws, and the labor union contract. And it does not matter if the pressure to break the rules is coming from above or below, the answer should be the same. Also, a department chair should never break the administrative chain and talk to the provost or the president about an issue before discussing it with their dean. Going over the dean’s head will immediately create mistrust and poison the working relationship. At the same time, your staff should not receive orders from the upper administration without your knowledge and consent.
Know when and how to step down
When should you decide that your time as chairperson is up? The answer is different for different people. Some may become tired of fighting nonsense and realize that their enthusiasm is fading. Others will decide that they have accomplished their goals, they have made their departments better, and it is time to fully go back to teaching and research. In any case, having an exit strategy means stepping down on your own terms and not losing the final battle.
Before you decide to consider the job or not, here is one more piece of information. If you take the above pointers to heart, you may find, as I did, that chairing a department can be surprisingly rewarding and fun.
Leonid Tsybeskov, PhD, is a distinguished professor of the Helen and John C. Hartmann Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at New Jersey Institute of Technology. From 2010 to 2021 he served as a chairperson of his department and was reelected three times. Under his leadership the department significantly improved all aspects of the undergraduate and graduate programs and twice received full accreditation by the ABET.