Support for New Chairs: Advice for Chairs and Deans
Catherine Ludlum Foos and Margaret Thomas Evans became department chairs at Indiana University East at the same time. They found out in April and took their positions in August with little formal preparation—a fairly common experience in higher education.
Foos, chair of the department of arts and culture, had been teaching 100- and 200-level courses exclusively and welcomed the intellectual challenge and variety of the chair role. Evans, chair of the English department, had been director of the honors program for a couple of years and missed the leadership role when she stepped down before a sabbatical.
In an interview with Academic Leader, these two chairs shared what has helped them in their first two years as chair and offered advice to aspiring chairs and those who supervise chairs.
- Develop a personal board of advisors. Evans participated in a yearlong leadership forum that met once a month, and one of the pieces of advice that she had implemented from this experience was the development of a personal board of advisors—a combination of trusted colleagues from inside or outside the institution. “I happen to be located in the same building as the math chair. I see him more than the other chairs in my own school, so he and I have worked together and have had a lot of conversations. I know people at other similar institutions who are department chairs, and I have spent time connecting with them and learning about what they do and how they handle situations. It’s been really helpful,” Evans says.
- Don’t get bogged down in logistics. The chair’s role demands the ability to take care of logistical tasks such as budgeting and scheduling. But focusing exclusively on logistics is a mistake. “Logistics are only going to get you so far,” Foos says. You also need to build relationships with faculty members and understand yourself as a leader.
- Meet with faculty one-on-one. “One of the things we both tried to do was spend time one-on-one with each faculty member for an open, honest dialogue,” Evans says.
When making the transition from regular faculty member to chair, you need to be careful about how your personal relationships with individual faculty members are perceived. It’s really difficult to make the transition from being a person’s friend to being a person’s chair “because you can’t hang out as much as you used to,” Evans says. “It changes the nature of the relationship. Maybe in a group setting it’s OK to go out; you can be sociable, but you really can’t go out after work for a drink because there needs to be a certain degree of separation.”
- Get to know other chairs. “I think it’s important to establish relationships with other chairs if those relationships aren’t automatically built into the way the institution does business,” Foos says. If there are not regularly scheduled meetings of chairs from across campus, seek ways to get to know chairs outside your immediate surroundings.
- Meet with the dean. Chairs in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences meet regularly as a group with their dean each week throughout the academic year and every other week in the summer. “That to me has been one of the most useful things that the dean could do for us. We talk about things coming to the dean from the upper administration that we might be called on to be involved with,” Evans says. “I also think the dean needs to have a very open-door policy. You have to be able to go to your dean to talk about what’s happening or to seek advice.”
- Go to conferences. Conferences are great for getting insights from others who are facing or have faced situations similar to your own. “You don’t know what you get from a conference until you encounter a situation and you go back to what you learned and really put those ideas into practice,” Evans says.
- Deans, provide a resource. “One of the first things our dean did was give us copies of Time Management for Department Chairs [by Christian Hansen (Jossey-Bass, 2011)]. I’m not recommending that book specifically, but whenever you have a new chair stepping up, ask yourself, ‘What one book could I give this person that would really be valuable?’ And simply say, ‘Here’s a resource to start with.’ There are plenty of books out there, and I think deans should choose one they’re familiar with and can relate to,” Foos says.
- Professional development should be ongoing. While experience helps chairs become better leaders, there are always new skills to learn and refine, so opportunities for continued professional development should be sought by chairs and encouraged by deans.