Reflections on “Becoming” a Department Chair
Michelle Obama’s best-selling book, Becoming, offers a glimpse into her life becoming not only the first lady of the United States but also, and more importantly, a strong African American woman. The former first lady offered a heroine’s account of leadership, divided into three sections: becoming me, becoming us, and becoming more (Obama, 2018). Much like Michelle Obama, a department chair evolves in stages from individualism to collectivism as they transition from being faculty to pseudo-administration. It would be nice if someone had shared with me a book on “becoming” a department chair. Whether becoming a first-time chair or a slightly seasoned department leader, you are armed with only peripheral leadership experience to address a variety of constituents and audiences, who believe you are the panacea.
In a recent meeting with academic chairs at my university, the president shared that department chairs and the provost have the most challenging positions on a university campus. I believe it. Here are a few nuggets of information I wished someone would have shared with me on becoming a new department chair. Fundamentally, it is important for the chair to establish a collegial environment in which all department members feel valued, respected, and invested in the shared governance of the department. There are skill sets that one refines when evolving from a first-year chair into a well-respected leader. Starting slowly as a new chair, especially when coming from a different university, is critical. Any experienced chair would likely share it’s important to understand the landscape (faculty, department, etc.) before trying to change it (or slightly improve it). Closely aligned with starting slow is to walk around the department several times per week so that you are visible, accessible, and able to connect with faculty, students, and janitors. Not only does this assist in taking the pulse of the department, but it helps to demystify the hierarchy of a chair’s position. Further, I found that when I met with faculty in their offices instead of in mine, they were more relaxed and eager to share information.
Department chairs are front-line managers serving more than one constituency, a fact that requires chairs to assume multiple roles (Hecht et al., 1999). Additionally, being the primary spokespersons for their departments, chairs must carry out campus policies, build trust between faculty and administration, interpret and present information from central administration, manage a budget, and teach classes, among other duties. Faculty in a department look to the chair to set the tone. During a pandemic, when faculty are isolated from students, relegated to home offices, and conduct learning experiences virtually, department morale may dip. Creating and setting an upbeat tone helps to minimize gloom and misery. Emphasizing the positive when available and managing negative dialogues establishes a good example. Even with all these leadership responsibilities, the chair’s paradoxical role seldom is given the scepter of undisputed authority since they are always answering to superiors or subordinates. Further, department chairs are the sole managers living with their decisions daily. A chair must be organized and present a cohesive message through their managing style. Although everything is new in your first year, afterward you face the same tasks and deadlines every year (minus a pandemic). Important matters, such as approving time sheets, completing faculty evaluations, working through tenure and promotion issues, cannot wait. Simply explained, the chair is a manager who is managed, a leader who is led, and a boss who continually strives to keep peace for the sake of mutual benefit and progress.
Administration talks a lot about transparency, but followers at times struggle to see where they are going. It is critical for the success of a chair that they inform faculty about the decision-making process if not illustrate it. Most faculty members do not manage surprises well, especially when they are dropped at a department meeting unexpectedly. Clearly presenting challenges, the department faces opportunities for faculty to chime in minimizes their anxieties and hopefully encourages buy-in to future decisions. Moreover, asking faculty to participate in the governing process by soliciting agenda items for department meetings underscores that their issues will be addressed in a meaningful way. A chair should do everything in their power to help new faculty members. Over and above these details, and the obvious role of being the first resource for the vast array of questions any new person has, the most important thing you can do for the new person is to make them feel welcome as an integral member of the department and to convey to them that you want very much for them to succeed. Further, I strongly suggest you keep this welcoming attitude in mind when setting up the course schedule for a person’s first year, which will happen before they arrive on campus. Help ensure their success by giving them, as much as possible, courses they’ll feel comfortable with. Perhaps there’s a popular introductory course that can be offered twice in the year to cut back on new preparations. If there’s something they need to teach that will be a huge stretch for them, see if it can be held off until the second year.
Being vulnerable is not easy; however, it is necessary in becoming a department chair. Whether you are leading a department of 10 or 60, followers will want to know their leader is being as reasonable as possible. This does not mean tossing your laurels aside but embracing the courage to open up to another human and share what’s pressing from the inside. In doing so, you as a chair become open to experiences, people, and uncertainty. Yes, it may be terrifying at times, but it’s always brave. One of the first steps I learned about being vulnerable was to accept that “I’m worthy.” More specifically, if I’m vulnerable I believe I’m worthy to receive respect.
Amid the current pandemics of COVID-19 and racial injustice, a chair’s mind may understandably be elsewhere than acknowledging faculty accomplishments. But it is during these stressful times that faculty should be celebrated. For chairs, juggling public health issues, academic concerns, and national unrest is demanding; however, faculty are having to engage students with their own vulnerabilities and concerns on a daily basis. The mental health of faculty has become a national issue in the academe. Despite these challenges, faculty have persevered and earned tenure, secured promotion, published scholarship, or even celebrated a family member’s graduation should be spotlighted in the department (Whitaker, 2020). The ability to manage life’s difficulties during this time while performing at exceptional levels deserves every accolade. Right now, more than ever, we must be grateful for one another.
Working through difficult conversations
The “difficult” in difficult conversations is an understatement when having to engage in a difficult conversation. Avoiding tough conversations won’t make problems go away but may actually make them worse. For chairs, it is important to evaluate the scope of the problem and then investigate the facts. This initial process helps to determine whether there are outside or mitigating factors. In delivering news that others may not receive well, it is important to plan your conversation carefully considering time and place and address behavioral or performance issues in a private setting. To remain focused on the issues and not the emotions, jot down notes about what you want to say (or possibly consult with human resources). During the meeting, be specific and factual with evidence of the behavior or performance issue. Using “I” phrases to deliver information may positively change how the message is received. Always end the meeting by agreeing to work together to create a resolution.
Understanding the power of “no,” whether you are saying it or hearing it, is a constant with becoming a chair. While college campuses are idea factories, not every idea is practical or worth pursuing. Faculty will bring you excellent proposals that you as chair would like to support, but unfortunately the timing is not conducive in the current department climate, and you begrudgingly have to say no. (For instance, a faculty member might want to start a new major based on repeated student interests, but the plan would require several new faculty lines, which would be extremely difficulty for the dean to sign off on.) Likewise, when you champion initiatives to the dean on behalf of your department(s), they will sometimes say no to you. While most chairs move into leadership responsibilities to solve problems for aggregates, being turned down for something you care about can deflate your ego and erode your spirit. In defeat as in victory, tone and manner matter (Perlmutter, 2020).
Shifting from loyalty to one’s discipline to loyalty to a college and university requires effort. As a chair, you represent the university’s perspective and interest. It is important to recognize that you will make some difficult if not downright uncomfortable decisions, such as sacrificing a degree program for institutional solvency. In situations like these, the chair may quickly become unpopular or seen as an elitist by some department faculty, especially if the discipline removed is not their own. Inaccurate judgments and falsehoods from the eliminated program’s faculty may be made about the chair. Individuals who attempt to remain loyal to the discipline may become liabilities to the institution and undermine their department’s standing on campus. It is important that the chair remains transparent in the decision-making and attempts to engage faculty at each step to prevent department mutiny.
A chair’s role is complex and requires skills to serve and coordinate multiple constituencies. As universities and colleges are forced to respond to external pressures for productivity and accountability, they will rely heavily on department chairs to manage faculty and lead change. “Despite the anomalous quality of the position, chairs have immense potential to affect the future of their institutions and higher education in general” (Hecht et al., 1999, p. 15). While being in a management position is always challenging, fulfilling the position requirements during a pandemic is truly daunting. Balancing the work demands of the institution with the human needs for compassion and self-care is a juggling act that at times will seem impossible and unfair. But for those interested in affecting the future of their colleagues in a meaningful way, there may be no more important position that that of department chair. As Michelle Obama emphasizes in her book, becoming is not about arriving somewhere or just achieving a certain aim; instead it is defined by forward motion in an effort to better one’s self. Likewise, a department chair evolves from being a faculty member to a leader of faculty, which is done through managing and using the collective intelligence of the department to solve problems. Your actions as a new chair or experienced one, is not about the final destination, but the journey of your leadership to continuously move toward creating the master plan for the department.
Hecht, I., Higgerson, M., Gmelch, W., & Tucker, A. (1999). Roles and responsibilities ofdepartment chairs. In A.T. Seagran (Eds.), The department chair: New roles, responsibilities, and challenges (pp. 1–17). ACE Oryx Press.
Obama, M. (2018). Becoming. Crown.
Perlmutter, D. D. (2020, August 20). Admin 101: The art of gracefully accepting defeat. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/admin-101-the-art-of-gracefully-accepting-defeat
Whitaker, M. (2020, July 27). How to be a trauma-informed department chair amid Covid-19. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/how-to-be-a-trauma-informed-department-chair-amid-covid-19
Yuma Iannotti Tomes, PhD, is chair of the Department of Psychology & Philosophy at Sam Houston State University.
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