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‘Going to the Dark Side’ in Trying Times

Leadership and Management

‘Going to the Dark Side’ in Trying Times

Shortly after Kristi Menear became chair of the department of human studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, department chairs gained budgetary control of their programs, and three departments in the school were consolidated into two. Then the School of Education (which includes her department) was removed from the College of Arts & Sciences.

Building trust
She sought input from the faculty, working hard to get up to speed on the new programs that had not previously been in the department and were beyond the scope of her prior work as a faculty member.

As she reached out and asked questions to work to move the department forward, the faculty got defensive. “The fact that someone was asking them questions came as a threat. It created a fear response. I found myself explaining over and over that ‘I’m gaining information, and I’m seeking your input. I’m trying not to make any assumptions here. I’m trying to learn what I don’t know,’” Menear says.

This fear was in addition to the distrust Menear experienced when she became chair. “I felt that I immediately lost credibility with some people who I had been working with for a decade or more. The quote about when you go into administration, you move over to the dark side—I did not expect that. I thought I had great rapport. I thought I was a very engaged faculty member, a trusted colleague. I had to start over, building a new relationship with many faculty and earn their trust as an administrator,” Menear says.

Menear tried to lead fairly. “I tried to tackle everything at one time. The way I looked at it was I have seven programs, and every faculty member and student in those programs had one chair. They don’t care that I have six other programs. I’m their chair. If they need me, they need me. So, I tried to simultaneously be everybody’s chair at my dead-level best, and it took its toll on my health, my effectiveness, but at the same time it built my credibility. I was there. I showed up for work. We made progress,” Menear says.

A turning point
With the chair’s new responsibility of managing the budget, Menear made a point of being transparent about the budget. During her first year as chair, the department formed a budget committee and developed policies on which budget decisions would be collective decisions and which were to be decided by the chair.

In Menear’s second year as chair, the department decided how to allocate money to programs so it could in invest in improvements.

In her third year as chair, the department allocated significant funding for pilot research projects. The department created a request for proposal for these internal grants, and one of the requirements was for the project to include collaboration across programs within the department. Development of the RFP occurred on a Friday. Normally on Fridays, faculty catch up on their work at home or in their offices with the doors closed. Not on this Friday. “They were in the hallway that entire time, saying they had never been so excited to be here,” Menear says.

The meeting about the RFP happened to coincide with a social event that evening. Up until this point there had been no social event that incorporated the entire department. “It was a true turning point. People realized they have a lot more in common than they initially realized. We realized we don’t have to work in silos. We’re one department. We have one budget. The more we collaborate with one another, the more impact we get from that budget and from our own work,” Menear says.

Moving forward, Menear is focused on “working smarter, not harder.” “The things we’ve done in the past couple of years have brought us closer together. They’ve motivated us to do things differently than we’ve done before. They’ve energized us. They’ve helped us see how we can work across programs. We’re getting a lot of recognition. We really need to be deliberate about the future now. Some of the things we’ve accomplished were really low-hanging fruit. Now that we’ve proven ourselves to one another in different ways, we’re all committed collectively,” Menear says, noting that the next step for the department is to work with a consultant on its first-ever strategic plan.

Menear points to the following principles that helped her bring together and help advance a collection of diverse programs within a single department:

  • Recognize that faculty own the curriculum. If you’re leading a multidisciplinary department, you likely don’t know the curriculum as well as do the faculty within the programs. The faculty within the programs need to be responsible for any curriculum changes, admissions requirements, and recruitment decisions. “[These decisions] really need to come from them. They’re the ones who are trained in the discipline, and our faculty told me that they respect that I did that,” Menear says.
  • Work closely with program coordinators. UAB has program coordinators who act as liaisons between the programs and the chair and dean regarding academic matters. Menear relies on input from program coordinators and sometimes meets with them rather than bringing the entire department together.
  • Know your weaknesses. “Recognize what folks are saying about you. One of the things I learned early on was that as much as I tried to figure out what information should be communicated via email and what should be discussed in a meeting, when it came time to have a meeting, I was doing all the information dissemination. I heard people complain about that and recognized that myself and worked hard to change that,” Menear says.
  • Use social events to bring faculty together. Get to know each faculty member personally. Go out for coffee, and talk about something other than work. Departmental social events can create connections that carry over into the workplace.
  • Network across campus. Menear participated in the university’s Executive Development Program, which has helped her develop contacts across campus. “I have colleagues I can call on and say, ‘How does your school handle this?’ or ‘How does your department handle this?’ or ‘If you were in this situation, what would you do?’” Menear says.

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