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Creating a Strong Chair-Dean Partnership: What Deans Can Do, Part 1

Leadership and Management

Creating a Strong Chair-Dean Partnership: What Deans Can Do, Part 1

In two recent articles, we outlined several ways that chairs can lighten their general workloads and facilitate the work of their deans, thereby strengthening their partnership. Chairs contribute to the partnership by making student success and satisfaction a priority; by enhancing the productivity and value of the faculty, an institution’s greatest investment; by creating an environment in which faculty, staff, and students can do their best work; and by developing a sense of advocacy that goes beyond the department. Chairs also make the dean’s life easier when they meet critical deadlines and alert the dean to problems headed the latter’s way. It is now time to turn this concept around and discuss how deans can optimize this critically important collaborative relationship in higher education.

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In two recent articles, we outlined several ways that chairs can lighten their general workloads and facilitate the work of their deans, thereby strengthening their partnership. Chairs contribute to the partnership by making student success and satisfaction a priority; by enhancing the productivity and value of the faculty, an institution’s greatest investment; by creating an environment in which faculty, staff, and students can do their best work; and by developing a sense of advocacy that goes beyond the department. Chairs also make the dean’s life easier when they meet critical deadlines and alert the dean to problems headed the latter’s way. It is now time to turn this concept around and discuss how deans can optimize this critically important collaborative relationship in higher education.

Previously we opined that chair is the most challenging position in academia because of the multitude of decisions that chairs must make regarding the faculty, staff, and students they work closely with on a daily basis. Further, many chairs assume their roles with little to no training or relevant preparation. Accordingly, we will focus on dean actions that assist chairs with making decisions, provide chairs with the information necessary to satisfactorily respond to faculty and staff questions and inquiries, provide chairs with formative feedback, and support chairs when they have performed well and through trying circumstances.

To strengthen the chair-dean partnership, we recommend that deans take the following steps.

Set aside or make time for one-on-one meetings

The frequency and content of these meetings greatly varies according to the experience of the chair, the nature of the current issues, the size and complexity of the department, and other factors related to the individual chair. New chairs would ordinarily need more time than seasoned chairs, and some of the meeting agendas might have set content—not unlike a session at a chair development conference. For example, novice chairs may seek advice on dealing with difficult circumstances involving real people and situations that conference and literature examples cannot fully model. Other aspects of chair work that may benefit from dean input include assigning merit pay, evaluating faculty, and various aspects of budgeting. Although the dean may delegate basic and universal topics to associate deans, fiscal officers, or even other, more experienced chairs, the responsibility for orchestrating the guidance lies with the dean.

Face-to-face meetings with senior chairs would typically be less frequent and the topics far more random. In some cases, the dean might solicit chair opinions on issues within the school, collaborate with chairs to develop strategies, or seek advice on campus-level topics about which chairs may have more recent or relevant information (or both). In this context the dean expresses confidence in and demonstrates respect for chairs as important college or school leaders.

On occasion chairs will require the dean’s expert advice on an emergency basis. It may be a natural disaster that damages a department field station, the sudden loss of a faculty member, or an irate parent showing up with an attorney in tow. A thoughtful dean will make time in their busy schedule to quickly assist chairs in cases like this. Deans often will leave emergency contacts, email availability, and cell phone numbers for such occasions while out of town.

Give chairs constructive feedback on personal and administrative activities

Despite the importance and challenge of the chair role, it is not uncommon for a chair to go years without a performance review from the dean. Why does this happen? When this takes place, it means there is no accountability for the individuals who interface between administration and faculty at a time when the urgency for change is so great. It also leaves chairs wondering, for instance, whether they are doing the right things and what might be done better, and it fails to formally recognize when performance is stellar.

Ask a dean who does not conduct thorough performance evaluations of chairs why this is the case, and you will get responses like “I don’t have the time,” “I know about performance because I monitor it throughout the year,” and “I received no complaints.” Perhaps in some cases the reluctance is due to the deferential hierarchy we see in higher education. For example, if the chair’s scholarly record equals or surpasses that of the dean, the dean may give the chair a pass by avoiding evaluations when chair performance has not been up to par. This must be overcome: the dean and the chair must work for the general good. If the dean cannot review one chair, they can’t very well review the others. A similar situation can occur when an associate (or assistant!) professor chair must evaluate a full professor whose recent performance is not what it once was. The difference here is that the chair has no choice about rendering the review. Some chairs do not mind being passed over for evaluation and prefer to do their work without much oversight. The underlying problem here may be that neither the dean nor the chairs have specific expectations, thus making it difficult to assess effectiveness or measure progress.

There is a subset of chairs who relish the idea of getting feedback on their performance. These chairs remain aware that they have not been adequately prepared to do chair work well and are committed to remedy that situation by seeking advice and opportunities to learn. For them the performance review becomes a development checkpoint and an opportunity to plan, with the dean, the next steps. A good dean realizes the value of the review process and will set initial expectations for chairs and follow up on progress during these reviews. One of the hallmarks of an effective faculty review is goal-setting. Because chairs do faculty work and are responsible for the collective work of their departments, both personal and administrative goals are appropriate areas for evaluation.

A mechanism to accomplish an objective, formative chair evaluation as well as meet other worthy goals is for the dean to schedule meetings with each chair after the chairs have completed and submitted their annual review reports on their departments’ faculty and staff. At the meeting, each individual is discussed regarding progress, productivity, prospects for advancement, special merit, and other factors. Both dean and chair benefit from the meeting. The dean gains a more robust view of each faculty and staff member’s interests, motivations, and contributions as well as a big picture view of the school or college. Each meeting also allows the dean to ascertain whether school-level expectations are in play across all departments and to clarify or correct those that are straying. Chairs gain feedback on their personal performance as faculty and on their administrative acumen as well as insight into school-level expectations, which they can share with department personnel. Conducting reviews in such a comprehensive way can be a challenging activity for larger departments and schools or colleges, but the outcome is well worth the effort.

Provide rationales for key administrative policies and decisions

This entry is particularly important to chairs because they often shoulder the burden of interpreting the dean’s decisions and school policy for the faculty. For example, is the dean clear about their minimum expectations for tenure? If not, there can be surprise, anger, and embarrassment when the dean turns down a candidate who has the department’s unanimous support. This result places the chair in an awkward position. Did the dean fail to clearly articulate their criteria? Or did the chair and the faculty misinterpret the new expectations or not believe that the dean’s expectations would actually be implemented? It is highly likely that this situation would have been avoided had the chair and dean met annually to discuss faculty progress as described in the above paragraph.

On matters of great import—such as promotion, tenure, and setting school policy—enlightened deans will be clear and vocal and will provide explanations and justifications for their positions. In doing so, they will assist chairs in their roles as interfaces between the dean and the faculty. For deans to share why they made decisions would be another way they can mentor chairs who aspire to be deans. Recognizing that there are other possible positions with rationales, the chair will be aware of the dean’s thought process in framing the decision or position, and they will then be able to observe the reception of the dean’s decision and its impact over time.

N. Douglas Lees, PhD, is professor and chair emeritus of biology and former associate dean for planning and finance in the School of Science at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.

Simon J. Rhodes, PhD, is provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of North Florida and former dean of the School of Science at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.