Look Before You Leap: Transitions from Faculty to Administration

A discussion of 10 issues which are often stumbling blocks in the transition from faculty to administration.

  • Frequency of surprises - There are constant interruptions and changes in plans. It makes for an unpredictable work schedule. Flexibility is key, both intellectually and emotionally. Can you tolerate it?
  • Multitasking - Administrators need to be able to "turn on a dime" in terms of priorities, shifting workload, and meeting unexpected deadlines. There is never the luxury of working on only one project at a time. A good administrator can shift full concentration from one thing to another instantly, but still keep everything moving forward at once. It is like fighting a war on many fronts. Are you prepared for this?
  • Voice changes - The administrator is no longer heard as a faculty member (first big lesson), but rather as the voice of the organization. Even a raw, brainstorming idea may be taken as new policy if not properly packaged (second big lesson). The personal voice is often lost. What is not said becomes as important as what is said.

Roles and Responsibilities of Department Chairs

While many institutions still stipulate that department chairs have a record of scholarship and publication, all institutions expect chairs to be more than a role model or figurehead. Department faculty seek a strong advocate, a consensus builder, a budget wizard, and a superb manager. Academic deans and provosts seek department chairs who have superb managerial and communication skills, and are able to implement university policies and directives.

  • The lengthy list of department chair responsibilities can be organized into the following categories: department governance and office management; curriculum and program development; faculty matters; student matters; communication with external publics; financial and facilities management; data management; and institutional support.
  • Chairs often experience conflict over whether they are primarily a faculty person with some administrative responsibilities or an administrator with some faculty responsibilities. Nonetheless, chairs are not without power and it is valuable to understand the sources of power at their command. Generally speaking, the power of higher education administrators can be categorized into three types, depending on how and from where it is acquired—namely, power from authority, position power, and personal power.

Transitions and Transformations: The Making of Department Chairs

Examines the theory behind leadership and applies to it models that are aligned with the leadership skills needed for successful chair leadership.

  • The first transition model we have is that offered by John Bennett in 1983. Bennett suggested that there were three major transformations that would face anyone upon becoming a department chair. One was the transition from specialist to generalist. The second is moving from being an individualist to being a person running a collective. The last transition Bennett points to is the refocusing of loyalty from one’s discipline to the institution.
  • The most stressful change chairs face is the sheer volume of tasks they are expected to execute. We know this from questionnaires administered at the American Council on Education chair workshops. The expanded task list which all chairs struggle with makes time management seem like the key to peace and sanity. And there is no doubt that on becoming a chair, the incumbent will need to organize time differently.
  • Perhaps the most shocking change for any department chair is the alteration that takes place in human relationships. A powerful lament on the part of chairs concerns the shift that takes place in their relationships with department colleagues. This may be the greatest source of stress for new chairs.

Chronicle of Higher Education - "Is it Really That Tough"

Opinion column by Todd A. Diacon, former Chairman of the History Department at the  University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

  • The toughest part of the department head's job comes from the fact that you encounter every day the people most affected by your decisions.
  • The tension comes from the narratives that faculty members develop to explain decisions and policies made above them. Most of the time, those narratives interpret actions and policies as the products of arrogance, misunderstanding, and even incompetence. Such conclusions are easy to reach because professors do not have the information that a dean has with which to understand the challenges of the moment, and they are not under pressure from others (in the central administration) to make changes.
  • The best reason to be a department head is because it provides a unique opportunity for learning. You learn new skills as a counselor, a coach, and a confidant. You learn the importance of fund-raising, and, in the process, meet fascinating people from outside the university.

Chronicle of Higher Education - "Do Your Job Better"

Opinion column by Michael C. Munger, Chair of the Political Science Department at Duke University.

  • You will never have more friends than you have right now. When you first take over as chair, you should connect with members of the department you may not know well, or have considered aloof or even unfriendly. Don't make enemies by assuming they are not friends. Once you have lost a friend, it's hard to get that person back. Above all, never choose short-run gains at the cost of making enemies.
  • How can I help? Ask questions, and listen to the answers. Some of the responses will be simple kvetching, but even there your faculty will appreciate the fact that you listened. After you listen, ask, "What one thing could I do to make your work better, and your life easier?" There are lots of little problems that you as chair can fix in less than five minutes. There is a reason why successful politicians spend resources on constituency service.
  • We should talk. Extinguish e-mail flame wars. Somebody has to be the grown-up; why not you? Some days I get 250 new e-mail messages. More than a few of them make me angry, and I often type an angry response. Then I delete it and write, "We should talk." This is an invitation, as well as a demonstration of authority. Few people will say in person the horrible things they say in an e-mail message. Furthermore, angry e-mails are written records of your mistakes. Don't get trapped into an angry, poorly thought-out response you will regret two minutes after you hit send.