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Questions Every New Department Head Should Ask, Part III: Setting Yourself and Your Unit Up for Success

Leadership and Management

Questions Every New Department Head Should Ask, Part III: Setting Yourself and Your Unit Up for Success

In the first two articles in this series, I focused on building on faculty strengths and improving the curriculum as core areas to which a new department head should devote attention. In this final part, I discuss a series of other important areas where they will want to seek key information and establish procedures that work.

Admin duties

Where will you keep your administrative files? How will you organize them? What will you keep or not keep? How can you organize them so it is easier to hand relevant items over to your successor?

You may have inherited a massive filing system—or none at all. If files have come to you, the start of your term is a good time to assess what is there and decide what to keep and how to organize things. If no files have come to you, you get to start afresh. You will want to establish a system that makes sense to you, one that allows you to find things quickly. There is nothing worse than losing time because you are searching for a document or—heaven forbid—having to create it anew because you cannot find it. If you have an office staff person who supports your work, discuss what is yours to file and what they will file. Consider up front that your files may eventually be handed over to someone else. You cannot know now when and under what circumstances your successor—or someone else—may access them. Therefore, resolve to always formulate performance evaluations, documentation related to complaints, and any personnel-related content as objectively and respectfully as possible.

Action planning

Does the unit have a strategic plan? Is it year by year or multiyear? Where is it kept? Can people find it? How do you create awareness of it? Who bears responsibility for carrying it out? How do you foster and reward follow-through? Is it linked to the strategic plan for the institution? How do people feel about it? What can you do to make this process positive for everyone?

Planning goes by different names. Cycles for planning may have been established—or not. It behooves you to inform yourself thoroughly. Begin early to foster a mindset in your department that planning is important. A good plan should have measurable goals that reflect the stated values. It can then provide a more useful guide to the activities you want to reward. Study how planning has occurred in the past and see if you can come up with approaches that everyone can embrace. This may require rethinking what has come before and providing new models for faculty to consider. Did the previous department head assume too much of the responsibility for planning and reporting? A shared responsibility approach can model the work of the department head more positively for potential successors.

Annual evaluations

What is the process for these? What should faculty submit and when? Has this due date been chosen so that it works (well enough) for the department head and for faculty? Do the submission instructions align with the evaluation form for the college? With criteria for merit raises, if any? How does everyone feel about this process? How can you tweak it so that it is more positive for everyone?

Here again, you want to study how this process has been done in the past and consider how you can reshape and optimize it for everyone. It is important to conduct annual evaluations in a way that helps you and the faculty members themselves track their accomplishments and contributions. This will help you identify and support a trajectory of growth and achievement in your faculty.

People in your unit may have opinions about the criteria, the process, and even other people’s performance. If you can keep everything evaluation related as objective as possible, with clear front-end agreement on the criteria, the evaluation process will be more useful personally and professionally to everyone involved. If your institution does not offer you the means to reward high performers who truly bring your unit closer to its strategic goals, bring this up in a dean’s meeting. Annual evaluations need both the proverbial carrot and the stick if they are to be meaningful.


What is your approach to budgeting—and do your expenditures express your values? Who manages your budget, tracking income and outgo? How do you access and review your budget and expenditures information? What income does your unit have besides the budget from the dean’s office? Have you analyzed last year’s budget outcome to plan for this year? Does the distribution into categories make sense, or does it need updating?

Getting a grip on your budget will require some focused time and attention. Schedule time with your staff person to review how it was managed and funds were spent in the past. Compare notes with other department heads to see what models they use. Then take time for yourself to critically consider how you want to manage and spend in the future. Effective budgeting provides you with opportunities to take a more entrepreneurial approach to assuring the strength and health of your unit.

Catalog and degree paths

Are the catalog descriptions of the department itself, its programs, and its course offerings current? When do these get reviewed and by whom? Who reviews and approves the degree paths each year?

It is worth studying the catalog descriptions of your programs and courses in detail. Yours may have been updated annually and be in top-notch form. Or you may discover outdated information and descriptions that are no longer accurate or even attractive to this generation of students. You may need to work with faculty to submit curricular proposals for some updates. Read about how other programs present themselves. Are you creating the same curb appeal? In addition, look closely at the course descriptions of units in related disciplines. If there is overlap, you want to know about it.

Faculty handbook

Do you know where to find the faculty handbook? Have you reviewed policies relevant to needs in your unit, such as continuance and promotion dates and procedures, consulting, summer availability of faculty, and dates for renewal and nonrenewal of instructors?

The faculty handbook may not have been at the top of your summer reading list, but it should be. Take the time to study the latest edition carefully and to highlight areas that relate directly to your administrative responsibilities. The stacking of due dates is key here. Evaluations must be done in a timely way to meet contract renewal deadlines. Similarly, tenure and promotion processes will run more smoothly if everyone is made aware of the deadlines well enough in advance.


What foundation accounts exist? Do you have a complete list with balances? Are there conditions tied to the use of these funds? How did your predecessor expend these? Are you receiving gift reports? What is your plan for writing thank yous? Are you making faculty aware of these funds and the donors or both?

There is a lot at stake here. You may have inherited foundation accounts over which you have some discretion to benefit students, faculty, or unit activities. You may have no discretion because the funds are tied to specific activities. In any case, do a thorough search for what is yours to know and do. You may discover you have more available to you than you had imagined. And be sure to establish a system for thanking donors. You don’t want any gift to go unnoticed and unacknowledged by a note from you or from the direct beneficiary, such as a student or faculty member. For more information, see Amanda Lich’s article on how to work with the office of philanthropy.


What grants does the department have, and who administers them? What do these funds do? How do they count in the annual evaluation and in the promotion process?

With grants, so much can go right—and wrong. It is important for you to be informed about the grants in your department, to know about the labor investment on the part of your faculty, budget reporting, outcomes, and dissemination of information about accomplishments. Your goal should not be to micromanage but to support current grants and contribute to good decisions regarding potential grants. Finally, I hope your institution has a way of calculating grant writing and directing into faculty load and reward systems. If it doesn’t, see what you can do to change that.

Work hours and staff

Who is on staff in the unit? Is their job description clear? Who manages and evaluates them? Whose task is it to approve hours worked and leave or vacation?

While you may think all this is clear, it can be helpful to review current procedures just to make sure everyone is on the same page. Practices may have evolved in a way that no longer works, or people may be making assumptions that are no longer valid. With a gentle and constructive tone, you can establish the facts and have conversations that acknowledge everyone’s role and contributions. This will save you time addressing snafus later.

Laura G. McGee, PhD, served most recently as head of the Department of Modern Languages at Western Kentucky University. Under her leadership, the department nearly doubled the number of its languages, programs, and majors. She now conducts program reviews and consults for LifeStories Matter LLC Intercultural Training and Coaching.


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