October 2nd, 2018

The Case for Chairs Working Beyond Their Departments



Over the past two decades, the responsibilities of academic department chairs have grown in both number and complexity. The newer work for chairs has not replaced traditional duties but rather has been layered on top of them. Many of the emerging chair responsibilities are related to calls for accountability, expectations for improvement, and efforts to reform higher education. Chairs in particular have been impacted by these changes because they are the gatekeepers to disciplinary cultures and the faculty, the working units that manufacture the products of higher education. It is widely recognized that little will change without the participation and support of the faculty, and chairs are the critical people who can bring them to the table. In order to lead change of the necessary magnitude, chairs will have to become active not only with their departments and their faculty and staff, but also at the campus level and beyond where many of the ideas and models for change and improvement originate.

Those individuals who have worked on the academic side of higher education will be able to identify chair styles that range from the chair who exclusively takes care of the internal, management business of the department to those who also spend a good deal of time on school, campus, and national projects other than those related to dissemination at disciplinary conferences. While all would agree that intra-department tasks (assigning teaching, hiring adjuncts, recruiting new faculty, completing reports and other paperwork, evaluating faculty and staff, mentoring, advocating, etc.) are important and need to be done well, there is much more to effectively chairing academic departments at this point and a good deal of this work is enhanced or made possible by external exposure and collaboration across units. Examples of campus- or national-level initiatives that can impact the department or can effect significant improvements will follow.

Before proceeding further with the suggestion that the effective chair should have a more global work component, it is worth assessing how such activities might be perceived by those in the academy closest to the chair. That is, how might department faculty and the dean respond to the chair who is prominent on high-profile campus task forces or in national-level higher education organizations? While a good majority of both would be at least neutral, there will always be detractors. A complaint from both might be legitimate if the chair is not tending to the routine and planned tasks and activities in the department. Externally active chairs are advised to take the steps necessary to ensure that such tasks are performed well and deadlines are met in order to diminish complaints of this type.

Most deans are supportive of chairs who work beyond their departments, probably because the dean will have an ally—both the people they interact with and the problems they are seeking to solve have some overlap—and because it raises the school’s visibility at the campus level. However, there are occasions when some deans can become suspicious if chairs have more information on campus priorities than they do or receive it earlier. In cases where deans are insecure about what a chair is doing outside of the department, the chair should consider providing timely reports on the progress being made on the external work.

The favored way to quiet the critics is to choose outside work of widely recognized importance or projects that have the potential to benefit both the campus and the department. In some instances this can mean working to shape campus policy to prevent or diminish damage to department productivity or morale. This type of situation is most often the result of a mandate that comes from a powerful and incompletely informed voice outside of the institution. What follows are some examples of larger issues that chairs might consider worthy of their time in the sense that they all either address accountability or present improvement opportunities.

Curriculum reform. This can encompass general education changes at the campus level or national level reform dictated by accrediting bodies. For the former, chairs working on such a project bring a positional credibility to the discussions and should have a voice on what skills students should have. They are in a position to match these with the offerings of the department, thereby increasing the visibility of the discipline in the courses that students may select. Beyond that there may be opportunities to collaborate with other units to co-offer courses that integrate specific components of the proposed curriculum. The value of this type of chair engagement is enhanced in institutions where increased enrollments mean more income at the school and/or department level. The ability of a chair to influence curricular decisions at the national level where accrediting bodies are involved is decidedly less likely. Even if his or her voice is not often heard, the chair at least will have advance notice on what is likely to change and can prepare the department accordingly.

Promotion & Tenure (P&T) and Post-Tenure Review (PTR). There have been stress points regarding P&T policies in recent years that have centered on the forms of scholarship that may be considered and the nature of the evidence that may be presented. While accommodations have been made in many institutions for scholarship in teaching, there are new areas of faculty work that are highly valued by the institutions where a clear path to successful applications for P&T may not yet be defined. Civic engagement is one such an area of faculty work. Chairs working at the school or campus level on P&T guidelines can help clarify the expectations for these emerging scholarly areas and thus motivate faculty to continue their important work. PTR was a major national focus 15 to 20 years ago that was promoted to ensure that there were ways to hold those with tenure accountable for being continually productive. In recent years it has not been as prominent, but there is some evidence that it is returning as higher education faces increasing fiscal and performance pressures. A chair’s participation in policy development will be critical in setting expectations for faculty performance that are fair and equitable, an absolute necessity for reform that does not destroy morale.

Expanding or restructuring research. Research is alive and well in higher education. In fact, the emphasis on research is growing because of its potential impact on university bottom lines and because of its positive impact on undergraduate education. However, the way that research is conducted has changed, with collaborative research moving from a questionable practice to one that is lauded and even expected. With the recognition that many of the problems we face, whether social or scientific, are far too complex for any one individual to solve, we see new structures (centers, programs, institutes) appearing that bring together individuals from many disciplines. Along with the emerging interdisciplinary structures there will be new opportunities for seed funding, collaborations, joint hires, proposal preparation and other types of support for the research enterprise. Chairs will certainly want to be part of shaping such a venture, as it feeds back directly to faculty success and department productivity.

Changing budget models. In order to increase revenue growth, institutions are moving away from rigid, historically based budgeting to more flexible models that provide incentives for meeting student class needs and for generating income. As decisions are made regarding new budget models, it would be advantageous as a chair to be at that table to ensure that the new model is one that promotes department success. Participation would also give the chair early insight on what needs to change at the department level to capitalize on the new system.

There are other examples, such as setting faculty workloads, enhancing student retention, and developing distance education, which may be attractive initiatives in which chairs may wish to participate at the campus level or beyond. Clearly what has been provided here as examples of extra-department work for chairs would, as a sum, be beyond what a given chair could accomplish. Thus, every chair should be selective about which projects warrant the investment of time, and that determination should be based primarily on the potential benefit their outcomes bring to campus and the department. It is also recommended that chairs report regularly to the faculty and the dean any progress or results obtained in meeting the objectives of the ventures to ensure that the department benefits from the credibility that the chair earns by contributing to campus goals. The presence that the externally functioning chair creates also generates a reputation that the department is involved in “what matters.” Thus, chairs are encouraged to establish and maintain an external profile while working toward objectives valued by the department and campus.

N. Douglas Lees is a professor of biology and the associate dean for planning and finance at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.