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Creating a Strong Chair-Dean Partnership: What Deans Can Do, Part 2

Leadership and Management

Creating a Strong Chair-Dean Partnership: What Deans Can Do, Part 2

In part 1 of the current series we discussed the dean’s setting aside time to meet one-on-one with chairs to aid in their development as chairs, address ad hoc concerns, gain information, offer advice, and deal with emergency situations. We also discussed the value, to both sides, of the dean’s conducting performance reviews of chairs that include conversations, based on annual faculty and staff reviews conducted by the chairs, about each member of the department. Finally, we suggested that deans provide rationales for policies and decisions so that chairs can accurately communicate them to faculty and staff and, as a form of chair development, follow their logic and mode of implementation while assessing the wisdom of both over time.

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Note: This is the second of a two-part series on activities deans can engage in to strengthen their partnerships with chairs. This series follows another pair of articles that delineate what chairs can do to make the partnership more productive and efficient.

In part 1 of the current series we discussed the dean’s setting aside time to meet one-on-one with chairs to aid in their development as chairs, address ad hoc concerns, gain information, offer advice, and deal with emergency situations. We also discussed the value, to both sides, of the dean’s conducting performance reviews of chairs that include conversations, based on annual faculty and staff reviews conducted by the chairs, about each member of the department. Finally, we suggested that deans provide rationales for policies and decisions so that chairs can accurately communicate them to faculty and staff and, as a form of chair development, follow their logic and mode of implementation while assessing the wisdom of both over time.

Continuing on, then, we recommend that deans do the following to strengthen the chair-dean partnership.

Mentor and provide opportunities for those with higher administration potential and ambition

A wise dean will monitor all chairs from the outset for their potential for higher leadership positions. After all, one of the responsibilities of academic leaders is to identify and prepare their successors. To assist in the assessment of chairs, the dean may appoint talented chairs to lead important school committees or task forces or to serve on campus-level committees to give them additional experience and exposure and assess their contributions to the success of the assignments. Assuming that they show continuous growth in their leadership skills, the dean might ask about their career aspirations and tell them that she sees their potential for higher-level administrative positions. If they agree that this is a route they wish to consider, the dean can continue their development through thoughtful assignments, enrollment in internal and external leadership development courses, careful delegation of dean-level work, good advice, and granting increased autonomy in chair work.

Demonstrate transparency in the financial realm

Budgetary concerns dominate the higher education agenda at this time and are a major point of discussion among chairs. Faculty and chairs sometimes express concern that they do not know how their budgets are established or the “real” fiscal condition of the school. (They suspect pots of “hidden” money!) All they know is that their budgets are shrinking, as are their faculty numbers. Many are prone to say that the dean is holding back resources. Much of this faculty rhetoric is directed at the chair. During such times chairs would much appreciate the full, detailed disclosure of the school’s budget and the criteria used to set department budgets. But deans and the designees who provide full disclosure for them may find that these efforts do not completely solve the problem.

The issue is that while chairs can follow the budget explanation and can understand the basics of the mechanism by which their allocations are set, they do not have sufficient command of the details to pass this information on weeks later to their faculty who frequently have detailed or indecipherable questions. This disconnect can result in frustration, misinterpretations, and erroneous conclusions. We recommend that deans (or their budget persons) hold an annual budget session with chairs during which they address all questions and then attend individual department meetings to reveal the same information to faculty. The chair would preside and field all questions, deferring to the dean or budget person only when necessary. This process will reinforce chair knowledge and confidence in dealing with subsequent faculty questions and elevate trust between the dean’s office and the faculty at large. As time proceeds, these communication strategies will build greater understanding, but it is unlikely that everyone will always agree on spending priorities. We also suggest that deans pursue a parallel strategy with faculty governance groups (e.g., school or college faculty senates) to reinforce broad understanding of the budget.

Identify and create opportunities for departments and faculty

Deans travel in different circles than chairs or faculty. They interact with deans from other schools on campus and occasionally from other institutions from the local to international levels. When such meetings take place, savvy and engaged deans will always have their ears to the ground, listening for opportunities for collaborations, curriculum or program innovations, new research initiatives, new hires, special needs, and the like that may be of interest to departments and individual faculty members. Deans can raise possibilities with their counterparts and are usually in a position to foster collaborative arrangements, especially when these connections are established among units within the home institution. The types of products that can result from this include academic program agreements (student exchanges, 2 + 2 degree agreements, novel BS to MS pathways); specialized training on campus; faculty exchanges; multi-campus research institutes; and faculty collaborations in a variety of areas of faculty work.

These types of arrangements can bring additional revenue to departments, raise their profiles nationally and internationally, increase faculty productivity, attract students (undergraduate and graduate), and diversify the student body. We encourage chairs to keep the dean informed of faculty expertise and interests, the full span of academic programs available, and new initiatives to facilitate the dean’s efforts on their behalf.

Quickly and publicly praise staff, faculty, and chairs for their good work

An effective dean is quick to acknowledge those who make significant contributions to the school’s improvement and advancement. Acknowledgement can take many forms—whether a personal email, an announcement at a faculty or staff convocation, a report to higher administration, an article in an alumni newsletter, or a posting on the school website. For departmental successes (such as the overhaul of the undergraduate curriculum, a rise to first place among departments in external funding, and faculty and/or staff efforts to improve student career advising), deans will often say things such as “Under the leadership of the chair, Dr. Johnston . . .” as a way of calling attention to the chair’s effort and effectiveness in achieving these difficult and complex advancements. Such pronouncements go a long way to boost the morale of chairs, faculty, and staff and can spur other school personnel to take on the next item on the change agenda.

Deans can also support chairs in their work on such sensitive tasks and projects as dealing with significant behavior issues involving faculty, students, or staff and improving faculty performance. Such work, even when successfully completed, does not lend itself to public celebration. Nevertheless, the dean can privately support the chair throughout the process with advice, affirmation, and encouragement and, when the task is complete, not-so-public praise.

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.