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Letter to a New Department Chair

Quick thoughts for aspiring department chairs
July 30, 2019

Dean Coleman

Dean Coleman
Dean Coleman

Earlier this year, a former advisee indicated his department was interested in having him serve as chair and asked me for some advice. I sent along the following thoughts that came quickly to mind and perhaps some might be helpful to other aspiring department chairs.  

1. Everyone has a story and a history. Try to get some sense of it. Ideally, that means sitting down with everyone — certainly faculty, but staff also — and listen and learn how things are going for them and what would improve their quality of professional life. The question “how can I be helpful to you,” or some variant, goes a long way. This should all happen either before you begin or in the first weeks after you begin.

2. Almost every department, if not every department, has areas of potential improvement. You’ll want to spend some time poking around to discern those soft spots and how they might be addressed. To indicate some possibilities, it might be some aspect of the curriculum, something in graduate training, the department falling behind on key intellectual or methodological trends, aspects of internal department culture, or governance within the unit. On the flip side, there’s likely to be some areas of particular strength. Make sure those are underlined and promoted, assuming you think they are viable and meaningful strengths.

3. You are the face of the department with other parts of the university. Integrity matters, seeming reasonable matters, etc. The vast number of people are really just trying to do their jobs well. Approach them in that vein. Express appreciation where appropriate. Sometimes you’ll need to push back against initiatives you think are insufficiently thought out or wrong. Do so productively. For people on the receiving end of your comments, it’s more convincing for them to hear “this is why this won’t work so well” rather than “you are trying to do x so clearly you don’t care about y.”

4. Advocate for your department. Make the case. Make sure they (the upper echelons) know the great work being done. By the same token, acknowledge where the challenges are and how the department is working on those without pointing its collective fingers elsewhere. That builds credibility.

5. Being an advocate doesn’t mean being disrespectful, abrupt, dismissive, or questioning people’s motives. Everyone or virtually everyone is trying to do their best and has good motivations within environments inevitably tight on resources. Interact with them that way. Try to understand what they are trying to accomplish and see where and how you can help with that. Be a partner. Show that you can make distinctions. If you present every situation -- every retention, every request as part of a hire, every budget issue, as a five-alarm fire, you will have a hard time conveying when a true five-alarm fire occurs.

6. Commit to high standards and reinforce by your words and deeds that you believe in those standards.

7. You need to convey fair-mindedness and open-mindedness to all. People perceiving that others are getting special deals because they are closer to you can create a bad dynamic. Everyone is looking to you, so you have to be very careful about seeming extra-close to some colleagues and not others.

8. Treat the staff well and convey that you have the expectation that everyone sees the staff as partners in the mission who must be treated with respect. No exceptions. Faculty can sometimes be unaware how complaints about some aspect of their job spoken in front of staff can come across to staff as entitled or not realizing the privileges that come with being a faculty member that are not typically available to staff. If faculty don’t have the antenna, you have to provide it for them.

9. Reach out to alums. Let them know the department cares about them. I don’t know where your alums tend to reside, but consider a once a semester event where a faculty member speaks. Could be a breakfast. You can even charge $5-10 if the expenses are too much for the department budget.

10. Consider whether you can identify some people who are particular friends of the department — notable alums, donors, friends of the department — and send them an occasional quick note on good news going on in the department or a photo from campus. Keep in mind that alums and donors are often student-focused, so keep them up to speed on your students, new curriculum, ways they can help (e.g., internships, scholarships), and so on. If you are hoping to generate possible financial help, a tone of desperation (we’re going under!) or anger at the institution (the administration doesn’t care about us!) won’t help. People will want to invest in success or something that looks like it will make a difference. Give them a sense of the positive pathway that will improve the situation.

11. Identify your top N alums and/or supporters and send them an annual insider letter about department news. The letter should share good news but might also indicate some of the challenges, couched within an optimistic/positive tone. The idea is for this group to feel that you are confiding in them about challenges but that you are also optimistic about the possibilities.

12. Communicate in the department. Consider sending out a weekly or maybe every other week email that goes out to faculty, staff, and maybe students, which provides a wrap up on things going on at the college level that affect the departments, upcoming events, etc. Recognize and honor folks who have earned distinctions. This is all part of creating a community in the department.

13. Convey optimism. As in most any organization, the department will feed off of whatever impressions and vibe you give. Make sure faculty, staff, and students are being recognized for great work and are being nominated for prizes and awards where appropriate.

14. Keep in mind that you are considered a big deal. To alums, the department chair is a major figure. On campus, the voice of the department chair matters. People in both groups may treat you with a little deference. Present yourself in a way that reflects well on the department.

15. Be kind, keep your sense of humor, be approachable.

16. Find someone you can speak candidly with in confidence. This might be another chair or someone outside the university who gets the challenges of a leadership position. It could potentially be someone in another leadership role in the department but you’ll have to play that by ear.

17. There are a lot of “how to be a department chair” floating around the web. It’s worthwhile to search around and read a few.

18. You’ll spend more time dealing with “people situations” and people behaving badly than you’d probably expect. Know what the resources are on campus to help you out. If there are any "handling difficult situations/people/conversations" type of workshops, it might be worth checking out. Don't kick the "bad behavior" cans down the road for your successors to deal with.

19. I mentioned previously to treat staff respectfully. That’s a must-do. On the flip side you’ll want to be sure the staff structure and performance works as you need. All may be well or you may want to make some revisions in job tasks and work flow. These changes can come with some limits depending on the institution's employment rules and policy.

20. Try to determine if there are any quick wins. People talk about these a lot but often they are unicorns. But sometimes they are there. Could be as simple as discontinuing the need to fill out the much-disliked Form X.

21. Keep track of anything you ask faculty to do. I used to keep a spreadsheet of every committee assignment or other department work I had asked each faculty member to do to be sure I wasn’t overloading the same faculty over and over. That sheet should also include notable assignments they have in other units or at the campus service level. Fair distribution of service is crucial.

22. Understand how your budget works, including endowment or other gift funds and carry-forward or reserve funds. You will likely have an administrator who will help you in this area, but you need to know the nuts and bolts of how it works, where the resources are, and how they are being spent. Or not being spent when they could be gainfully deployed.

23. Take some time, but not too much time (say, 3-6 months max) to figure out what you’d like to have as particular focus areas during your term, areas where you want to “move the needle” in cliche speak. And then work on those areas.

24. You’ll need to balance the inevitable time tension between managing things (which matters a lot) and providing your strategic leadership around these key areas. The risk is that the former swamps the latter, so just be alert to that going in.

25. These positions can be really quite rewarding. Putting individuals in a position to thrive and moving a department you care about toward greater success can be immensely satisfying. Enjoy it!