It was at a summer meeting of the Chief Academic Officers (CAO) for the Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (WAICU) that the idea of a shared training for Department Chairs was first posited by Karen Friedlen, Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs at Mount Mary University. The idea met with initial approval and a task force was formed: Leah Dvorak, Ph.D., Assistant Vice President of Academics, Concordia University Wisconsin; Dean Pribbenow, Ph.D., Vice President for Academic Affairs, Edgewood College; Carole Trone, Ph.D., Senior Vice President for Educational Services, WAICU; and Wendy A. Weaver, Ph.D., Dean for Academic Affairs, Mount Mary University.
Several phases led to this successful collaboration. Establishing a task force, gathering information from CAOs, designing an initial draft of the agenda, and gathering information from Department Chairs all contributed to ensuring the workshop’s success. In fall 2016, all of the CAOs representing institutions in WAICU were polled for willingness to participate, best time to hold the training, and relevant topics for the training to cover. Plans were made for a one-day Department Chair Workshop in the spring that would be open to all WAICU department chairs at a minimal cost: $40 a person or $150 per participating institution. In order to keep costs down, the task force relied on the expertise of the CAOs rather than outside speakers. Dr. Leah Dvorak donated space at Concordia University Wisconsin. WAICU facilitated the communication, donated all of the print resources, and financed the lunch and refreshment costs that would not be fully covered by the group pricing. Dr. Carole Trone cited Dr. Rolf Wegenke, the President of WAICU, as particularly wanting to support and help fund a collaboration in the academic area.
One of the key objectives of the workshop was networking. Not only would networking provide an opportunity for inter-institutional partnerships, but would also provide camaraderie and multiple perspectives on common issues that Department Chairs encounter. An additional benefit of networking, similar to the benefits of networking within ACAD, is that through this process the administrators can appreciate that we all encounter variations of similar difficulties. The problems we face are not confined to—or caused by—our own institution.
Registration opened February 3, 2017, for the May 22, 2017, Department Chair Workshop. The hope was for 15-20 Department Chairs of varying levels of experience and from several institutions to participate in order to support the diversity of perspectives that would generate rich discussion. By the first of May, 76 Department Chairs, ranging from newly appointed beginners to 15-year veterans, deriving from over a dozen institutions, had registered. A few more showed up on the day of the Workshop. Some came from more than a day’s drive away. This level of participation demonstrated to the task force that they had accurately identified professional development that CAOs were willing to fund and that Department Chairs were willing to attend, even at the end of the school year when many were off-contract.
Among the materials sent in advance was a survey for the Department Chairs. Survey answers were shared with them at the beginning of the Workshop. Of those who responded, 93% answered that they were “satisfied,” “very satisfied,” or “extremely satisfied” with being chair. When asked to “indicate the reasons you serve as chair” and “check all that apply,” two answers topped the list: “to shape the department’s or division’s direction” and “Other.” Elaborating on “Other,” many cited helping students and other faculty. When ranking the “most important skills or abilities needed to serve as chair,” the top three rankings were in “Character and integrity,” “Ability to communicate,” and “Interpersonal skills.” Ranked as “most dreaded task” was terminating other faculty or staff.
Three major sessions accompanied the networking opportunities. “What are the Problems that Department Chairs Face” featured a brief overview of points from R. Kent Crookston’s book Working with Problem Faculty: A 6-Step Guide for Department Chairs. Then teams of department chairs from different institutions, loosely formed by discipline, worked on case studies designed by Dr. Leah Dvorak. “How to Build Your Toolkit for Successful Department Leadership” featured a panel of three CAOs. The panel was opened to general questions after having addressed some of the main concerns identified in the Department Chair Survey. Dr. Dean Pribbenow led the final session, the goal of which was sharing and discussing, within teams, one concrete initiative/barrier/challenge that each chair in the team would need to address in the upcoming year.
Post-workshop evaluations revealed that every respondent indicated that this workshop should be offered again; 58% of the participants responded. The “most beneficial activities” were identified as the case studies, interaction with colleagues, and the panel of CAOs. Representative of the comments on what was most beneficial were the following: “meeting others from different campuses and seeing we are struggling with the same questions” and “it was great getting to talk with the other chairs and get the benefit of their experience and hear how they have approached problems similar to the ones I experience.”