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The Associate Professor Chair: Making Progress to Full Rank

Promotion, Tenure, and Evaluation

The Associate Professor Chair: Making Progress to Full Rank

The Associate Professor Chair - Making Progress to Full Rank

Among the top 10 stressors in a national survey of academic chairpersons (Gmelch et al., 2017) are too little time for research/scholarship and excessive workloads. These related issues are likely in play at most colleges and universities, with the exception of top tier research universities and elite liberal arts colleges. Faculty members who have ventured into chair positions at all but the top tier institutions will tell you they sacrificed much for the opportunity to lead, and what was sacrificed was primarily their scholarly work and, to a lesser degree, their teaching—the two activities that likely attracted them to the academy.

Although the rewards of successful service as chair are gratifying, reality strikes home in two ways. The first is that about half of current chairs plan to serve a defined time and then return to the faculty.  At institutions where research is an expectation, the question is, have they kept their scholarship alive and can they resume their work upon assuming the faculty member role? If teaching is the primary faculty role, the question is, have they kept up with and have they implemented “modern” pedagogies or taught online while serving as chair? I have explored the situation of the returning chair, without the complication of rank, in my recent work (Lees, 2015).

The second challenging scenario takes place when the chair is less than full rank.  Associate professor chairs are a growing occurrence at colleges and universities, with only 59 percent of chairs holding full rank in 2016 (Gmelch et al., 2017). The question here is, can they achieve full rank or even make progress toward full rank while serving as chair? There have been successful applications for full rank among associate professor chairs, but the pathways to success are often ambiguous and fraught with difficulty.

In 2013, a question was raised on the listserv of the Council of Colleges of Arts & Sciences as to whether anyone had promotion policies for chairs who were less than full rank.  The group asking the question had concerns regarding the equity of such chairs being judged for promotion by the same criteria as other candidates who had no administrative responsibility.  The responses were uniform in their position that all candidates for promotion were treated the same way (the same criteria, standard, and review process) but differed in how administrative work as chair was taken into account, with a strong majority counting it under service, a few counting it under teaching, and one stating that it does not count. The survey did not reveal the basic requirements for promotion (how many areas of excellence), whether scholarship was required in more than one area, and whether administrative work was ever a significant part of an area of excellence.

Concerns regarding chair productivity and the challenges of meeting the measure for promotion to full rank while chair are rarely encountered at major research universities and elite liberal arts colleges. The main reasons for this are resources and culture.  Major research universities and top liberal arts colleges have gained their stature through excellence that begins with their faculty.  There is no paucity of full rank faculty on their rosters.  Thus, there is no reason to consider less than full rank faculty for chair positions.  If there are no interested internal professors, they have adequate resources to conduct an open search and attract a high-caliber candidate.  Some institutions will launch an open search even when they have strong internal candidates in the hopes of adding a new external influence and/or innovation to the current mix of faculty expertise.

What allows chairs at these top institutions to remain highly productive in their scholarship? First, they have been selected as highly productive people with a strong scholarship drive.  In some departments, chairs are expected to perform at the highest level of their department peers.  To accomplish this, major resources must be available.  Many of the routine activities that chairs are assigned are handled, through delegation, by abundant (relatively speaking) staff and other faculty (associate and assistant chairs).  The chairs are also savvy at negotiating start-up packages that contain sufficient resources for continued productivity. Using the life sciences as an example, this would include dollars for supplies, instrumentation, conference travel, publication costs, and personnel.  Of particular importance is a salary line for a senior research scientist who will run much of the day-to-day work in the laboratory.  It is not uncommon for new chairs in medical schools to negotiate new faculty lines that can be filled in areas related to the chair’s research, thereby potentially expanding the breadth and depth of the chair’s research through collaboration.  These significant resources thus allow the chair to focus on only the most critical elements of chair work and on laboratory oversight and the earning/renewing of external funding.

Obviously, most institutions do not have the resources to support chair productivity in this way.  However, there are some concepts in this scenario that, when combined with other ideas, might be helpful to chairs at Ordinary University (OU) and Vanilla College (VC) in keeping their scholarship alive. Setting the scene at OU and VC: OU has a research expectation for faculty advancement.  Chairs receive a 50 percent teaching load reduction in exchange for administrative work that includes the typical responsibilities plus operating programs to enhance student retention. The life sciences department has a modest staff-to-faculty ratio of 1 to 3.  Vanilla College has been primarily teaching-focused but with growing scholarship expectations for tenure and promotion.  Chairs receive a 33 percent reduction in teaching load to meet the standard chair expectations but must also take on the new responsibility to mentor faculty in their scholarship efforts to meet the emerging expectations.  Vanilla College life sciences also has a modest staff-to-faculty ratio.  Both institutions are about to welcome new internal chairs who are ambitious, productive associate professors and wish to be promoted within the next few years.

So what steps should the associate professor chair take to enhance the chances of making progress toward promotion to full rank?  The first two were discussed previously (Lees, 2015) in the context of a chair retuning to the faculty fully prepared to be competitive.  They are identify a collaborator and arrange for resources before or during your chair appointment.  Research collaboration has become commonplace, so there is no problem in fully valuing the shared products. The splitting of the responsibilities is key to chair success.  If the scholarship is in teaching, the collaboration would be with a master teacher who can mentor the chair in the latest pedagogies.  In both cases the chair should be able to collect preliminary data for external proposals and publications.

The resource issue is best negotiated with the dean before or early in the time of service as chair. As a productive researcher, the chair of life sciences at OU has external funding for research at the time of appointment (less likely for the VC chair), but should there be a gap in funding, the dean would bridge the chair to the next grant.  If at the end of service the case for promotion is not ready, the fund plus some released time or a one-semester sabbatical would provide the resources to fully pursue scholarship and ease the chairs at OU and VC back into life as faculty members.

Beyond these two recommendations, several others are appropriate for associate professor chairs:


  • Manage time carefully.  Do the things you must do but be selective about the things you might do.  Delegate routine chair work to staff, faculty members who need a change but want to continue to contribute, faculty committees, and a potential successor.  Set aside 20 percent of your work week for your scholarship; be unyielding in protecting it.  Some of these strategies will need to be discussed with the dean and the faculty.  They should be supportive because faculty advancement is in everyone’s best interests.
  • Identify a mentor(s). Seek out those on campus who were promoted while holding administrative posts.  Examine their dossiers to learn what substitutions were allowed, how they were explained, and how administrative work was utilized. It is unlikely that a chair is going to be as productive in terms of the standard products of scholarship as an equally talented faculty member who has no administrative responsibilities.  Thus, working with others who have found paths to success can be very helpful.
  • Take your good work to the next level.  Talented and engaged chairs who have developed innovative strategies for fostering change, generating buy-in for course assessment, evaluating staff, and the like should share their successes with others through conference presentations.  The visibility can lead to invitations to speak on other campuses, give conference keynotes, and submit articles for publication.  This type of contribution is well received by novice chairs who rarely receive formal professional development for their roles, so it has a very practical application.  It would be interesting to see how promotion committees would respond to a dossier that has a dozen conference presentations, three invited workshops, and several published articles and book chapters as part of the service section.


Gmelch, W., Roberts, D., Ward, K., & Hirsch, S. (2017). A retrospective view of department chairs: lessons learned. The Department Chair, 28(1), 1–3.

Lees, N. D. (2015). Planning priorities for leaving the chair position. Academic Leader, 31(6), 3, 5, 8.

N. Douglas Lees, PhD, is associate dean for Planning & Finance, professor, and former chair of biology at IUPUI.


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