Institutional committees are the cogs of academic organizations, serving to process focused areas of the academic mission. Importantly, committees generate activity reports and recommendations that become assimilated in an integrated hub at the level of senior leadership. Contributions to institutional committees are often key evaluation criteria in the path to promotion for faculty. A visit to any academic institutional website will reveal details of their committees’ objectives (their charge) often accompanied with extensive descriptions of committee structure, including member rotation cycles. Less apparent are structured processes for transition of leadership for institutional committees. In this article, I describe a proven scheme for leadership transition that retains effective governance and maintains momentum of the committee.
Effective chairs of institutional committees foster a dynamic that encourages and values participation of all members. This is an important quality as most institutional committees have representation from multiple functions across the institution. The best decisions and recommendations from a committee should be data-driven, capitalizing on the expertise, knowledge, and broad institutional perspective its membership provides.
The committee chair’s role in soliciting contributions, driving the committee’s purpose, and establishing committee recommendations often means that the chair is the central source for committee information. It is a surprise, then, that a structured process for transition of the chair for a committee can receive less attention than the rotation cycle of committee members. Without planning (or structure), the chair’s stepping down risks a loss of momentum in the committee and the potential to recycle previously resolved issues.
In some committees, there is an associated reluctance to change chairs—there is comfort in maintaining the status quo and established knowledge base. Additional problems abound since this “permanent” committee chair can become a default, especially in committees that are effectively run or committees that faculty deem less desirable assignments. The incumbent chair, however, can feel committed to a life sentence, with annual requests from the dean to lead the same committee. Other disadvantages include restricted promotional opportunities available to faculty and limited injection of new ideas and freshening of the committee dynamic. A senior faculty member’s enduring service as a committee chair denies junior faculty this professional development opportunity. Equally, retention of a faculty member as committee chair long term, disadvantages the faculty member from exposure to other committees and the associated increase in institutional awareness.
This plan counteracts the risk of committee stagnation, effectively transfers intelligence developed in committee leadership, serves to mentor and develop junior faculty, and preserves momentum in the activities of the committee while consistently retaining experience in committee leadership.
A typical leadership path includes a term as vice-chair followed by a term as chair. The crux of this structure is recognition of a third leadership position: grand chair. During an additional term after chairing the committee, the grand chair mentors and supports the new chair (who has risen to the position from a previous term serving as vice-chair). A new vice-chair is appointed from the committee membership. The cycle repeats the following year: the grand chair leaves, the chair becomes the grand chair, and the vice-chair becomes the chair. A new vice-chair is elected from the committee membership. Figure 1 illustrates graphically the evolution of leadership positions starting with an initiation of this structure into an existing committee. Resultant from this structure, the committee leadership team is consistently occupied by two faculty members, one of whom has prior experience heading up the committee.
Figure 1. Structured transition plan for committee leadership. Left demonstrates the sequencing of leadership transition. Right highlights the sustained two-faculty leadership team.
In terms of roles for an institutional committee, the main lead for the committee is the chair, who is primarily responsible for running the committee, engaging members, driving consensus and generation of recommendations and reports. The vice-chair supports the experienced chair in running the committee. The grand chair supports the inexperienced chair with matters related to running the committee while respecting the need for the new chair to have autonomy to develop their confidence and comfort in the role. Initially, establishing relative responsibilities may be a challenge as the grand chair withdraws from committee headship, so open communication between chair and grand chair can smooth the transition.
Transparency in the process serves to keep the members of the committee connected. Communication of the transition needs to be clearly described in advance. The vice-chair’s rise to chair should be announced to the committee at least six months prior to enacting change. This prepares the membership and serves to best engage the vice-chair in the matters related to leading the committee as preparation for increased responsibility—a concept that is common in corporate committees where plans for leadership transition can be communicated one to two years in advance.
A summary of the benefits for this leadership structure appears below. These have been realized from implementation and experience in chairing several committees in corporate and academic institutions. Institutional adoption and overcoming the natural inertia to introduce a new or different process will be a challenge; this barrier is endemic in academia. Strategies to move forward and gain adoption include engagement with faculty affairs, pilot implementation, feedback from committee members, and reiteration of relative advantages.
 The title grand chair may not fit with your organizational nomenclature; other, alternative names include past chair and executive chair. Of course, depending on the institution, there may be scope for more creative titles—for example, throne or rocking chair.
David A. Taylor-Fishwick, PhD, is the vice-chair of the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Cell Biology at Eastern Virginia Medical School. He has 26 years of experience in academia and industry and served as chair on committees associated with diverse roles and functions.