Long-Time Chair Reflects on an Evolving Role
Domenick Pinto has been chair of the computer science department at Sacred Heart University for the past 25 years. In that time, his role has become increasingly complex, demanding, and interesting. In an interview with Academic Leader, he talked about some of the changes he’s seen.
AL: How has your role of department chair changed over the last 25 years?
Pinto: I would say the role of the department chair certainly has evolved into much more of an administrative one. When I started in 1987, we certainly had responsibilities, but a lot of the responsibilities were what I would call sophisticated paperwork. You still for the most part were not part of the larger administrative body at the university, not involved in budgetary decisions very much. Now we’re very concerned about enrollment. We’re responsible for enrollment in our programs. We have a responsibility to think about budgets, class counts, and outcomes assessment, which has really come to pass in the last 10 years. It has also made a difference in terms of how we help our faculty maintain quality in the classroom and deal with the types of students we’re getting, who are quite different from those we had 25 years ago.
One of the things I know is quite different is our involvement with admissions. In 1987 we certainly worked with admissions, but I think now, especially at the graduate level, the admission folks and department chairs work very closely together to help with the recruitment effort. For example, there’s an open house every month through admission at which I am present and potential students come to ask about the program and possibly apply on the spot. That’s not something that happened 25 years ago. We have to deal with parents, which is I think a sign of the kinds of students we have now. Certainly, 15 or 20 years ago we didn’t do that. Now parents want to come in a lot more and talk about their students. They have questions even before the students come. If a student is interested in the program, it’s much more likely that we’re going to have to meet with the mother, father, and student well before that student makes the decision to come to Sacred Heart. That’s not something I recall doing years ago.
AL: What do you find to be the most challenging changes?
Pinto: It’s challenging to deal with budgets and academics at the same time. One realizes that the university needs to be able to at least break even. Therefore, things like class counts are looked at much more closely than they were 25 years ago; so when I need to run a class that doesn’t have a lot of students, but it’s necessary, I have a lot more hoops to jump through than we used to.
AL: Has your role improved or has it just gotten more complex and difficult?
Pinto: I love the challenge. I enjoy being more involved in the decision making. Being a department chair now, I tend to be more involved in some of the things that the upper administration is doing. That’s a real positive for me because I feel I can work best if I can be at the center of everything—if I at least know where we’re going and what challenges we’re facing. Conversely, knowing all that and knowing that we have to deal with all that makes the job more difficult and time-consuming that it used to be, but I think that’s a positive thing in terms of being much more transparent than we were. We didn’t need to worry about budgets before, technically. It was something the upper administration worried about. We would be told: you can’t have this or we can’t do that. But we were not really involved. Now many of us go to budget meetings. We’re at the forefront in terms of academic governance. I also happen to be involved with the academic governance of the university. We have a university academic assembly of which I am vice president this year and will be president next year. That’s kind of the voice of the faculty in terms of relating to the president and the vice president. Being a department chair and being in that role as well does help me understand what’s happening.
AL: What is driving the chairs’ involvement in budgets?
Pinto: I think many institutions are having difficulty economically and are thinking about cutting programs or scaling programs down. So there is a tendency for chairs to have a little bit of ownership in their programs. One doesn’t want that to happen, and therefore you become more of a recruiter. You work a lot more with admissions to get quality students—students who can make it through the program. But you’re more concerned about getting those numbers up. In my case we have a lot of different directions that we’ve gone in terms of different tracks and different programs, and we’re in the process of getting a new master’s program in cybersecurity. I think all those things have increased the role of the department chair.
AL: Does this new program require a fundraising effort or reallocation of funds?
Pinto: We’re very fortunate to have something called the New Program Development Fund. What they will do at the university—if they feel that the program has potential to succeed, there is a certain amount of funding that’s more or less outside the budget that allows one to try out a new program to see if it’s going to be successful. The idea is that this fund will fund a program for several years with the hope that tuition coming in will pay back the program, and when it breaks even, it then becomes part of the actual budget. Most programs eventually come out of this. Some do well, and if they don’t succeed they haven’t really affected other budgetary areas.
AL: Given that the role of department chair is more complex and demanding than in the past, are teaching loads the same? Is there time for scholarship?
Pinto: It’s interesting. It really varies in terms of what the department chair’s release time is. Most department chairs have some type of release time. I love to teach; that’s still my primary joy. It’s kind of what keeps me sane because when I go in the classroom I feel that all the problems out there are not there for the hour and a half or two hours in the classroom. I can concentrate on doing what I love to do. For me the teaching is great. I think I’m successful at it. Students seem to still like me as a teacher, appreciate me, and respect me. I enjoy that. I put a lot of time in. I have a BlackBerry with me all the time. I’m in the office a lot. When I’m not, I try to take care of little things as much as possible to get things done when they need to do be done rather than waiting a day or two. Be ahead of the curve all the time. Time management is something I talk about a lot. You have to be good at time management. I don’t know what we did before we had electronic calendars. You have to be organized and have things together. Have good people working with you. Delegate as much as you can within reason. If you have a good working group and a good relationship with faculty, they’re usually willing to help with certain things. The responsibility is still ultimately the department chair’s, but I try to be one who works well with the faculty and understands what their needs and strengths and weaknesses are so I can play off of those as opposed to being very distant. I’ve been department chair forever. Nobody else wants the job so they’re pretty good with me.