Advice for department chairs


I recently finished up a three-year stint as chair of my department. (At my institution, the role of department chair rotates among the senior members of the department — basically, anyone with tenure — based on seniority. Three years ago, it was my turn to take the mantle, as the next most senior person in line.) It was an interesting experience and I certainly learned a TON from it, but I am also relieved that it’s now someone else’s turn.

Since relinquishing my post, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the experience of being chair. It just so happened that I was chair during a time of great flux within the department. During the time I was chair, our department doubled in size in terms of the number of majors (and almost in the number of faculty). We became the largest major on campus. Our class sizes ballooned. We hired three new tenure-track faculty and several visiting faculty. We went from majority male faculty to majority female faculty, finally settling on equal gender parity in our faculty ranks. We increased our gender diversity among our majors. We transitioned from a small department to a medium-size department.

We definitely experienced some growing pains.

As I’ve reflected, on what I did right, what I screwed up, and what I figured out along the way, some definite themes have emerged. Themes about what the job actually entails, themes about what the administration doesn’t tell you when you take the job, themes about useful skills to hone. I thought I’d share them here.

So, if you find yourself poised to take the reins of your department, what can you expect? What should you expect? What’s in store for you? This is necessarily an incomplete list, and I’d love to hear your additions in the comments, but hopefully you’ll find it useful.

  1. Listen up! As chair, you are everyone’s sounding board: disgruntled students, confused students, happy students (hey, it does happen), disgruntled faculty, confused faculty, happy faculty, staff from your department, staff from other departments, administrators, etc. Everyone wants to talk to you about something. Honing your empathetic listening skills is one of the more valuable things you can do to prepare. Making time and space (physical, mental, and emotional) for and around these conversations in your day is also important.
  2. Your time is not fully your own. I am a morning person. In an ideal world, I’d spend the first part of my day working on the most important stuff on my to-do list, deferring email and other similar tasks until later in the morning. In reality, as chair there’s almost always something that needs your attention first thing in the morning. So I had to let go of my fantasy work life and accept the fact that yes, I did have to check my email first thing in the morning, if for no other reason to mentally prepare myself for what I’d face when I arrived at the office. And also, making time to check in with my admin each morning was really important. In fact, as chair you sort of have to expect that your day is never going to go exactly as planned, so scheduling in some time for the unexpected things that will inevitably pop up is key.
  3. Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run.* Being “politically savvy”, both about your department culture and the larger campus culture, is vital. As chair, your main tasks are to keep your department running smoothly and to advocate for your department to the administration. This means you have to know when it makes sense to push for resources from the administration and when you should let something go. (Your admin is your biggest ally and intel here, because likely s/he is plugged in to the wider campus culture in a way you are not, and can help you weigh when to push and when to back off. And also, when and how to go over someone’s head, if need be, or how to talk to specific offices on campus.) Similarly, understanding where you can influence your colleagues to change and where you’ll be hitting your head against a brick wall will save you hours of heartache and headaches. There are a few cultural things that I really wanted to change as chair, and I naively thought I could influence change in those areas once I had the “power” of the chair. (Those of you who are or have been chairs can stop laughing now.) I still feel strongly that those things need to change in my department, for the good of all of us in the long run. The hardest lesson I learned was that I had to let those fights go, because the majority of my colleagues thought differently.
  4. Anything you say can and will be used against you. Your words carry different weight when you become chair. Even if you’re interacting with someone in a non-chair capacity (shooting the breeze with colleagues, talking with students in your class), your words will be heard through the Chair Filter. You are now the Voice of the Department. I joke that I inherited my grandmother’s lack of a filter between my brain and my mouth, and I had to work hard sometimes to keep that in check. (Remembering that my main job was to listen more than I talked helped with that.) But it’s also important to be crystal clear when communicating to students or faculty or staff, particularly if it involves a problem or a policy or an exception to a policy. I followed up some of my important conversations with an email summarizing what I thought we had discussed/agreed upon, and I wish I had done this more often, because my words were twisted or taken out of context more often than I’d like to admit. Document, document, document!
  5. Think carefully about what you want your legacy to be. You do, as chair, have more influence than you think over setting the agenda for the department. When I became chair, I thought ahead three years and asked myself: what do I want people to say about what our department accomplished in these three years? What do I want our reputation as a department to be? How can I get us there? This helped me shape the conversations we had during department meetings, the tasks we assigned, and the policies we worked on. This also helped ground me when I had conversations with people outside our department, because I was crystal-clear on what I wanted the larger end goal to be. Think carefully about the direction you’d like to steer the ship, and then think about how you can work with your colleagues and students to make that happen.
  6. Leave time and space for self-care. The vast majority of interactions with students, faculty, staff, administrators, etc. I had as chair were positive. (There’s a reason I love working at my institution!) But as chair, you’ll have to deal with some ugly problems, situations, and behavior, from students, staff, and faculty. You’ll have some difficult conversations. You’ll be the bearer of bad news. You’ll learn things about people that you wish you didn’t have to know. Some of the stuff you’ll deal with is demoralizing or anger-inducing. I lost count over how many times I cried or threw things in my office after particularly challenging meetings or conversations. The best way to be a good, effective chair is to be emotionally, physically, and mentally healthy. Taking time for self-care, and time for yourself more generally, is crucial to this end.
  7. Enjoy the ride! Being chair afforded me the opportunity to forge closer relationships with other chairs and departments on campus, and with deans too. I learned a lot about how other departments and campus offices work and about how the college as a whole operates. I developed a wider, more holistic view of how our department fit into the whole of the institution, and about the values our institution holds. I haven’t ruled out moving into administration at some point, so I soaked up as much as I could from this experience. And the knowledge I have now that I didn’t have three years ago will make me a better colleague, both within my department and within my institution.

Current chairs, former chairs: I bet I’ve left a lot out. What would you add to this list? And those of you who are looking ahead to being chair: what advice would you like to hear that’s not on this list? Please share in the comments!

(*) with apologies to Kenny Rogers

6 thoughts on “Advice for department chairs

  1. While you touched on this at points, I would emphasize that you need to work to be as transparent as you can about the broad principles that guide the decisions you make as a chair or department head. If, for example, you are handling course assignments for faculty – be clear what broadly guides your decisions (e.g., rotation of seminar assignments, every one having rotations in lower division introductory courses, rotation on days and times of class offerings). Then, check your decisions against this criteria, ask yourself if you are being true to it? Then, when (not if) a faculty member comes to complain about their assignment, you can point to the criteria that guide your choice, not about a specific decision in a specific session. When (not if) they then complain about the assignment of another faculty member, again point them to your practices guidelines – do not engage in discussing the other faculty member’s assignments. If they persist in complaining, recommend that they can appeal your decision to the appropriate body (executive committee, associate dean, etc.). Seldom, if ever, do they wish to take it beyond trying to convince you that you are treating them unfairly, with the intent to get you to change your decision, or to influence future decisions.

    I applied the same approach to other decisions that tend to evoke strong feelings, such as salary increase recommendations. Fundamentally, you cannot make every one happy. Indeed, if making anyone happy is your goal, you should not become a department chair. What you need to do, is be able to sleep at night knowing that you treated people fairly and equitably, even when they tell you that you did not.

  2. Great points, Dan! Transparency is definitely important. And also, involving faculty in the decision making process (to the extent possible) can also head off some of the complaints. I’m lucky that my department was small enough to do that most of the time, but as we’ve grown it’s become harder, for sure.

  3. Terry – as always a great post. As somebody whose name is at least thrown into discussions for department chair these days, I’m curious if you could elaborate on #5. The limitations of power of a department chair are pretty obvious to me. What are the things a department chair can actually influence? What is a realistic positive legacy a department chair can leave in your experience?

  4. just to be clear, this was Amy Dalal’s post! (I’ve assiduously avoided being a chair, though my time might be coming one of these years.)

  5. Oops sorry Amy – as an author on a multi-author post I should have known better. Still curious to hear what you think is realistically achievable as a department chair?

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