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Planning Priorities for Leaving the Chair Position

Leadership and Management

Planning Priorities for Leaving the Chair Position

Although not often in mind at the outset of life as an academic department chair, the time will come for all academic department chairs to exit their administrative roles. What prompts the departure’s timing can be as simple as the expiration of the term limit at institutions where there is a tradition or policy of leadership that has time limits on service. In schools where there are no prescribed limits on chair service, the motivations for leaving the post of chair are more complex. Among them are a desire to turn full attention the things that drew department chairs to higher education—teaching or research; new administrative leadership that may take a path incompatible with the chair’s goals; a feeling of having accomplished as much as possible; performance issues, whether real or perceived, that lead to dwindling support; and ambition for higher administrative positions. With regard to the latter, although some faculty members are wary of colleagues who set an administrative career track, it seems it is far better to move talented individuals from within the academy to senior leadership posts than to have those from other professions assume these positions.

Regardless of the circumstances of the departure, all chairs, except those entering permanent retirement, will undergo a professional role change. Most return to the faculty where their administrative work will be exchanged for new assignments in teaching and/or research. For those with further administrative aspirations, the role may change to dean, program or center director, etc., locally or at another institution, or to another chair position elsewhere. Being prepared for these new roles is a personal responsibility that should have been planned well in advance. In addition, in any case, the chairs will be leaving their academic units to new leadership, and there is a responsibility to the institution to take the steps necessary to make certain that the transition is a smooth one. Fulfilling this obligation will also require some forethought.

Chairs returning to faculty roles in teaching and/or research at major research universities have fewer challenges because their institutions have ample department staff and resources that have allowed the chair time to maintain a high scholarship profile. In the sciences and technological disciplines, where external funding is an expectation, the chair is likely to have a funded laboratory that is supervised by a senior scientist. Thus, the change would be additional projects (and funding) with a modest increase in teaching. The scenario is quite different in public comprehensive and urban universities, where teaching loads are higher, department staff are fewer, resources are limited, and student demographics are such that chairs must spend considerable time dealing with student populations that are unevenly prepared for higher education, all while trying to maintain a viable program of scholarship.

Chairs at small colleges that historically were teaching-focused may face an elevated research expectation when they return to faculty life. Research productivity has become a more important parameter in faculty advancement and merit decisions at such institutions, a phenomenon driven in part by the recognition of undergraduate research as a powerful pedagogy. In addition, there are a plethora of innovative approaches in teaching that busy chairs may not have had time to experience.

If the decision is made to move back to the faculty ranks, what can chairs do to make sure they are prepared for new work and will be smoothly assimilated into the faculty? One strategy is to identify a collaborator (in teaching or research) from within the department or from another, related department on campus. If in teaching, the collaborator would be regarded as an expert from whom the chair could learn and with whom the chair could co-teach. If it is a research collaboration, the chair would offer intellectual input into research direction and experimental or project design, coauthor proposals for funding, and help with manuscript writing while leaving the day-to-day operations of the research group to the collaborator.

A second strategy would be to negotiate with the dean for a package of support that would allow the chair time and resources to do some personal “reinvention” immediately following chair service. Included might be released time from partial or full faculty obligations (perhaps an in-house sabbatical) for a semester (or year) and some monetary resources that will allow the former chair and “new” faculty member to attend conferences in the research area or focused on teaching, hire an assistant/student helper, and purchase some basic materials or equipment for research or teaching. Because this fund is similar to start-up funds many institutions provide for new faculty, it could be called a “restart-up” fund. This modest investment is justified by the professional sacrifices that the chair has made by engaging in administrative work and by the fact that the institution will be far better off in the future with this individual contributing at a more productive level.

Chairs seeking to remain in administration after their current chair position is surrendered have a different set of issues to think about before it is time to move up or on. The issues are those defining what credentials they must have to make the next move and how they might go about earning them. Effective unit management is important, but this alone will not make an applicant stand out. Rather, leadership success on critical issues will.

Examples of successes that may make an applicant attractive enough to earn an interview for a dean’s position would include interdisciplinary program development; faculty, student, and staff diversity improvement; fundraising and external funding; and outreach programs. The interesting thing about these is that efforts in these areas are also compatible with effective work at the department level. The overarching characteristics of individuals destined for success at high administrative levels are a firm grasp of the big picture; dedication to being visible outside the department, especially when the agenda includes items of importance and opportunity; and being able to work effectively with others from different disciplines, backgrounds, and organizations. Chairs with an ambition for higher administrative positions should select, where possible, projects, initiatives, and activities that will enhance their leadership skills and that have the potential for impact beyond the department.

Regardless of the intended destination of the exiting chair, there is one reality that all will face. That is, each will turn over the department to new leadership. It seems for obvious reasons that chairs would want the best possible outcome for their departments and thus would be disposed to help the new chair learn and prosper. This process is best initiated before the leadership transition takes place.

If the chair successor is internal, the preparation required should not be extensive. This person is familiar with faculty, students, and staff; knows the dean and other key administrators; and is aware of local policy. The areas where the chair can have meaningful input with the successor might be class scheduling and teaching assignments, including prior arrangements and negotiations; ongoing work in faculty development and improvement; budgeting; and the administrative process of promotion and tenure.

If the new chair is recruited from another institution, the preparation challenge is significantly greater. Unlike the internal successor who is available for training and, through delegation, may even be able to gain some experience in targeted duties before taking the helm, the external chair is not likely to be local and may visit campus on only limited occasions prior to starting. This means that all sessions, whether by phone, email, Skype, or in person, must be carefully organized and supplemented with documentation. Budgeting provides a good example. The topic of budgeting for the internal successor involves setting the allocated dollars into categories, while for the external candidate it means learning much more, including how dollars flow at the institution. That is, what budget model is used, and how is it unique in its local implementation? Are there incentives that increase allocations? Can a chair make special requests? If so, to whom and for what? Knowing early how resources flow will allow the incoming chair to be effective much faster.

An introduction to people would be an appropriate title of a session between the exiting and entering chairs. What does the dean most value? How does one approach the dean with requests? What are the dean’s top priorities? These are examples of questions where the answers may save the chair time and effort once on the job.

And then there are the all-important faculty members. The new chair has met them during the interview, at which times they were hopefully on their very best collective behavior. The insight gained by discussing each faculty member will allow the new chair to deal effectively with the “line at the door” phenomenon that takes place when new administrators arrive. It will also reveal who routinely acts in the best interests of the department, who are the top scholars, and who does the best job in the classroom as well as internal political issues such as factions supporting one position or another and individuals who just do not get along. With this information at hand, the chair can avoid assignment errors and can discern the motives behind some faculty behaviors.

In summary, chairs who will be leaving their administrative positions should plan ahead for their new roles and for providing their successors with information relevant to department performance, policies, practices, and culture.

N. Douglas Lees, PhD, is associate dean for planning and finance, professor, and former chair of biology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.


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