Rethinking Councils of Chairs
Over the last two decades there have been occasional conference presentations and articles in the higher education literature about collectives of academic department chairs that meet to discuss a variety of topics. These groups are not the same as a chairs’ council that is convened on a regular basis by the dean to disseminate policy and other information. Instead, it is a chairs-only organization that sets its own agenda and works on assigned or self-generated tasks independently of other administrators.
The genesis of a chairs-only, council of chairs can be the realization that policies impacting chairs and their work often are made without their input. By forming their own organization they can make suggestions, raise objections, and grant endorsements as a collective, and perhaps more influential, voice.
Another factor that may stimulate a coalescence of chairs is a serious threat that strikes at the core of faculty life or values. For example, an external mandate policy that doubles teaching loads or sets the core curriculum would likely get the attention of chairs everywhere.
Finally, the idea may come from an administrator who feels it would be worthwhile for chairs across schools to meet occasionally to discuss common issues, learn of other ways of conducting business (we often think that local practice is policy and thus fail to realize what is possible), and get to know each other and their departments to foster collaborations and create synergies.
Councils of chairs may be formal with elected officers, by-laws for operation, meetings with full agendas and recorded minutes, defined expectations, and even their own budgets. Or they may be informal groups with a limited agenda, have no defined leadership structure, and have no assigned tasks. The loose informality in such cases fosters the freedom to share frustrations around difficult individual chair issues in a safe, confidential, and supportive environment and gain the advice resulting from the collective wisdom of the group.
Formal councils are best suited to address the public issues of chairing (policy, curriculum, workloads), while the free form structure appears better suited to personal challenges (dealing with a difficult dean or faculty member, budget deficits). In thinking about this comparison it seems possible to combine the strengths of both by adding private, confidential focus group opportunities to the formal council structure where individuals can opt to attend based on interest and need.
All types of councils of chairs should be effective in improving communication. The early example of chairs having a voice in decisions that have faculty and department impact is relevant here. This input could prevent situations in which upper administrators fail to get faculty buy-in on a new policy or strategic goal and can’t understand why. One could surmise that chairs, who sit at the administrative-faculty interface, would know the reason for this disconnect. They may even have had some suggestions on how to structure the initiative so that it would be successful or other ideas for alternative approaches to reaching the goal desired. So what are the downsides of getting as much relevant input as possible?
In addition to the vertical communication between the department and those above it, a council of chairs can be particularly effective in lateral communication. This is especially important in large institutions with many standalone colleges or schools with unique cultures and that function under different leadership. While all units theoretically operate under the same policies, these policies may be interpreted differently and special considerations may have been made at some point that may also be advantageous to other departments. Having a precedent is always welcome when seeking flexibility and opportunity. Budgeting, compensation, faculty appointments, and student tuition are areas that come to mind where new ideas may be forthcoming from chair colleagues in other schools on campus.
Finally, lateral communication facilitated by a council of chairs provides the opportunity for collaboration. This could mean working to create new interdisciplinary courses or degree programs, establishing new research centers, or just making individual connections. In order for this to work well, it is helpful to know and trust your counterparts across campus. From this base, a council of chairs can then move on to sharing their ideas and interests, outlining the expertise of their faculty, and expressing the desire to partner with others to bring about innovation. A council of chairs can facilitate this familiarity and the entrepreneurial chair can take it from there.
At this point it may appear that a chairs’ council might be a worthwhile structure to consider for most colleges and universities. However, there is one additional, often overlooked but critical responsibility that such groups are recommended to assume. That responsibility is one associated with training new chairs. Chair responsibilities continue to grow, and what one hears from ad hoc conversations to formal surveys and from new chairs is that they have not been prepared for much of their work. The training made available to new chairs can be as sparse as an introduction to key staff in the dean’s office, the budget officer, and the human resources person and the list of due dates for a variety of reports and other paperwork. For the most part, new chairs follow the exemplary practices of effective chairs they have known while avoiding the behaviors of others. Other than that, they are on their own in dealing with difficult faculty behaviors, upset students, and demanding parents; leading change; cultivating potential donors; creating external partnerships; etc.
The growing expectations of academic department chairs coupled with a lack of formal training to prepare them for their work has resulted is a plethora of opportunities for them to learn from seasoned chairs and other experts. These opportunities come in the forms of conferences devoted to the work of chairs, books, and periodicals written specifically about aspects of leading academic departments, special chair workshops offered at various locations around the country, webinars on topics relevant to chair work, and online resources. Overall, these opportunities provide chairs with useful information and excellent advice on facing the many challenges in their lives. With all of these forums for training why is there a recommendation that a council of chairs add to the existing list of expert providers?
There are two reasons why local chair training may be needed. First, chairs at some institutions may not take advantage of the existing resources. Reasons may be a lack of awareness of what is available and a lack of resources or time to attend conferences and workshops. Another may be personal pride that manifests itself by the attitude that says, “I have been successful in getting this far, and I don’t need any help taking this next step.”
A second, and more important, reason is that what one learns from the literature, conferences, and workshops even with follow-up conversations with the experts, and e-resources lacks local and campus specificity. While the advice gleaned and the insight gained is very helpful, it may require translation into local culture before implementation. For example, if the issue at hand involves the dean, the personality, values and past actions of the individual may have to be weighed. If a situation with student or faculty behavior is the challenge, then the institution’s traditional level of leniency or strictness comes into play for the former and the relative power balance between faculty and administration is relevant in the latter. Training offered by a council of chairs can add institutional context to the best practices espoused through the external formats for chair training.
In summary, a formal council of chairs may be indicated at institutions where chairs feel that they have no other avenue through which to have meaningful input on matters that ultimately impact academic departments. In another model, a council would be an informal structure where chairs set a grass-roots agenda that addresses their issues in a secure environment. A formal council should have an element that allows for chairs to address specific and sometimes personal challenges that they face. Finally, a council of either type should consider engaging in the preparation of new chairs by adding to universal best practices by providing the element of institutional culture to issues that chairs are likely to encounter.
N. Douglas Lees is a professor of biology and the associate dean for planning and finance at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.