Having recently reorganized my college and selected new department chairs, I had occasion to reflect on the evolving role of department chairs and the important ways in which deans must support chairs through professional development.
Department chairpersons1 have arguably one of the most difficult jobs on college campuses (Buller, 2012). Chairs often assume department leadership with limited preparation, prior experience, or formal training, and often lack an understanding of how to lead within a system of shared governance as well as the ways in which administrative work requires a significant role redefinition from their prior professional work (Gmelch et al., 2017; Brinkley-Etzkorn & Lane, 2019). Further, there has been a gradual but significant expansion of the role of department chairpersons over the past several decades, as the higher education sector has seen a greater emphasis on outcomes and assessment, has become more responsive to market influences, and has adopted more corporate business practices (Heffernan & Bosetti, 2020; Buller, 2015). The landscape of higher education is ever changing, so the demands on department chairs are always evolving.
While considerable variability exists in department chair responsibilities based on institutional culture, it is important to look at how the chair role has expanded in the past several decades, as well as the implications for chairperson professional development. Over the past several decades, chair responsibilities have typically included such things as:
- Compose course schedules
- Evaluate full-time faculty
- Advise students
- Hire adjuncts
- Stay within the budget developed by the administration for the department
- Review the curriculum
- Supervise department administrative and technical staff
- Report directly to the dean
Currently, many chairs have responsibilities which include all of the above as well as some or most of the following:
- Develop, present, and justify my department’s budget
- Oversee new curriculum development for my department, with an emphasis on timely and relevant courses and programs
- Collaborate with other chairs on interdisciplinary curricular development
- Conduct assessment and program review
- Monitor and respond to shifts in class sizes, budgets, and retention
- Work with admissions to recruit new domestic and international students
- Serve on numerous committees in the college and throughout the university
- Assist with student career development and placement
- Resolve student and faculty complaints
- Foster institutional change through department strategic planning and vision setting
- Promote an equity and inclusion agenda
- Other responsibilities as contextualized to a specific campus
(Pinto, 2020; McRoy & Gibbs, 2009; Chun & Evans, 2015)
Thirty years ago, department chairs were faculty members with “some managerial responsibilities,” often rotating out of the faculty to serve a term in the chair role. Chairs today focus less on teaching and research and spend more time dedicated to strategic and operational decisions and managerial and administrative tasks (Heffernan & Bosetti, 2020). Further, chairs are expected to demonstrate adaptability to changing circumstances, whether resulting from a global pandemic, college reorganization, or coping with enrollment or budget fluctuations. Today, many department chairs are truly part of the University’s administration and leadership team. Successful department chairs today need to be academic leaders, not simply managers.
Since chairs are an essential part of academic leadership and have assumed new and broader roles within our institutions, we must consider how best to support their ongoing professional development.
Deans’ Roles in Supporting Department Chair Professional Development
While the leadership development of department chairs has been extensively studied and written about, a comprehensive review of the best practices in leadership development is not the focus of this commentary. Rather, I provide a framework for consideration of key components of professional development, and I emphasize two frequently overlooked aspects of professional development which I have found to be critical to department chair success. Gmelch and Buller (2015) describe 3 essential components for preparation for academic leadership, including 1) regular practice in the skills necessary to be an effective leader, 2) a conceptual understanding of the role of academic leadership, and 3) a process of reflection that helps chairs to learn from mistakes and continue to grow.
There is no question that the list of skills, knowledge, and abilities that chairpersons need to develop is expansive and has been the focus of much of the professional literature on chairs. Some of the key skills include but are not limited to the following: planning, budget and financial analysis, management, leadership, human resource activities including hiring and evaluation, student and curricular matters, interpersonal skills and communication, knowledge and information, conflict management/resolution, program review, fundraising, alumni relations, principles of good course scheduling, change management, effective meeting protocols, and mentoring and coaching of faculty (Buller, 2015).
Many local and national opportunities exist to develop these skills, and while important, they are not the focus of this presentation. Beyond skill development, deans must support their chairs’ identity development as academic leaders by assisting chairs to develop a conceptual understanding of their role and by encouraging them to reflect on their experiences in order to learn from them. These often-overlooked aspects of chair professional development are an essential component to chair success and longevity in the role in the twenty-first century.
Conceptual Understanding of the Roles/Responsibilities of Academic Leadership
Developing a conceptual understanding of the leadership one exhibits as a department chairperson is a multi-faceted process that occurs over a period of time. One of the first aspects of this conceptual understanding develops as chairs begin to consider how their work as chairpersons differs from their prior professional academic work on a day-to-day basis. The solitude of scholarly pursuits and control of one’s time gives ways to more collaborative activities, meetings, and the occasional crisis which must be dealt with in real time.
Another aspect of this conceptual understanding involves developing an appreciation for how both management and leadership skills are required for success in the position. For many professors turned department chairs, the distinctions between management and leadership are obscure and must be clarified to ensure balance in the workload and success in the overall position. Some of the key features of each, required of chairpersons can be seen in this table (Kruse, 2020).
|Key management responsibilities||Key leadership responsibilities|
|Prioritizing departmental tasks||Building consensus and trust|
|Being consistently outcomes-driven||Possessing excellent listening skills|
|Matching outcomes with strategies||Encouraging all members to contribute ideas|
|Dealing with urgent issues while keeping time for other important tasks||Understanding and working with each faculty member’s individual skills, needs, and priorities|
|Learning to delegate effectively||Aligning activities to the university mission|
A deep conceptual understanding of department chairs as academic leaders also implies the development of insight into the many tensions chairs face that must be reconciled on a regular (daily) basis, rather than resolved. Some of the key tensions, as identified by Kruse (2020) can be seen in this table.
|Working for and representing administration||Working for and representing faculty|
|Limited authority||Broad Responsibility|
|Destructive conflict||Productive conflict|
|Cynicism and doubt||Optimism and trust|
|Self-care||Care for others|
I have seen many a chair wrestle over the years with these tensions in an effort to resolve them in concrete ways, to find a “solution” to the need for innovation or to counteract the cynicism and doubt of faculty, rather than to acknowledge and reconcile that innovation and convention, or cynicism and optimism among faculty coexist in an imperfect harmony. When department chairs recognize these tensions must be reconciled daily rather than resolved/solved, I have seen significant reductions in their frustration levels and in their productivity.
Finally, our conceptual understanding of the chairperson role must also acknowledge the high workload facing chairs, whose work is often invisible and goes largely unrewarded.We must also acknowledge that the consequences of the shift to corporate managerialism in higher education that we have seen over the past several decades has resulted in increased emotional and personal tolls for chairs who take on knowledge of others’ problems (e.g., health or family matters that require leaves of absence or time off) and who have responsibility for leading their units through budget cuts, reorganizations, or other changes that have very real consequences for the individuals within their units (Heffernan & Bosetti, 2020). Chairs close interactions with those affected by administrative decisions carry a significant emotional and personal burden as they transition from being a “colleague” to being a “supervisor.” By acknowledging these truths, we create spaces in which reflection and boundary-setting for personal and professional well-being can occur. As deans, our acknowledgement of the inherent challenges and opportunities our chairs face in their leadership positions better prepares them for success and longevity in their roles.
Using Reflection to Learn from Mistakes and Continue to Grow
One of the inherent challenges of administrative roles is that the heavy workload and “busy-ness” of the role often precludes deep reflective practice. However, leadership development is “first and foremost an inner journey. Self-knowledge, personal awareness, and corrective feedback must be part of the strategy for each leader’s development” (Gmelch & Buller, 2015, p. 11). Disciplinary backgrounds of chairs undoubtedly influence their familiarity with and comfort in engaging in reflection, but like other skills, reflection can be more fully developed through practice. Deans can assist chairs in the necessary process of reflection by building time for individual reflection into work schedules and by encouraging such reflection in their individual interactions with department chairs. Deans can also create informal peer mentoring opportunities for chairs to share experiences and learn from one another, and they can create more formal mechanisms in regular meetings with their group of chairs (Brinkley-Etzkorn & Lane, 2019). In such contexts, reflection is promoted by asking and answering questions such as: “What am I trying to accomplish?” “Why did I make this particular decision?” “Did my actions lead to the desired outcomes? and “How might I respond differently to similar situations in the future?”
Experienced chairs also highlight the importance of reflection and “knowing yourself” when providing advice to those considering becoming a department chair (Kruse, 2020). In particular, knowing yourself involves being honest about what comes naturally to you (e.g., responding in email communication) and what requires effort (e.g., planning a difficult conversation with a colleague about performance). Such insights often help chairs to identify areas for professional growth and self-development.
My college reorganization demonstrated to me the essential need to modify chair professional development from that which was relatively focused on skill and knowledge development to something focusing on skill development as well as on developing shared understandings of the leadership role and promoting reflective practice. Given all the changes we have observed in chairs’ roles over time, isn’t it time we revise our chair professional development to better reflect the realities of their experiences? Our institutions will be stronger and individual chairs will be better supported when deans partner with them to provide more comprehensive and ongoing professional development.
1 For purposes of clarity, the term department chairperson is used here to include all who hold formal academic department leadership positions, which may go by a variety of titles including head, chair, coordinator, or director.
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