In viewing the organizational structure of our colleges and universities, there is a common hierarchy of faculty, chairs, deans, and higher administration that includes a president or campus leader and may include a provost or the equivalent. Much has been written about the interaction of chairs with their faculty. Inherent in the study of the work that chairs do is the partnership they must forge with their deans.

We use the word partnership knowing full well that there are rare occasions when the relationship will be adversarial, often due to the passion of the chair to be an advocate for their department and the need for the dean to work for the common good of the school. Unless this is the outcome of most interactions, this is acceptable and normal providing both sides can compartmentalize the occasional negative issue and move on to the next item on the agenda. For the record, one of us (Lees) was a long-serving chair and the other (Rhodes) has not held that role. We share the opinion that being a department chair can be considered perhaps the most difficult job in academia because many challenging decisions must be made while in constant contact with the faculty and staff that are impacted by those decisions.

Likewise, chairs realize that today’s deans have enormous responsibilities and heavy workloads. They also realize that the success of the dean is tied to the success of those who report to them. Because chairs typically serve at the pleasure of the dean and because chairs depend on the dean for budgets, faculty/staff salary increments, hiring permission, and a number of other critical things, the chair-dean relationship becomes a complex but mutually dependent partnership. What we will explore in this two-part series is a set of chair behaviors or actions that will solidify that partnership and benefit both parties and the institution.

Prioritize student success and satisfaction

Student success starts with high-quality instruction. This translates into curricula that are relevant, carefully formulated, delivered with enthusiasm, employ effective pedagogies, and include high performance expectations. In a world where students face a rapidly changing landscape, we must give them a sound academic foundation on which they can build lifelong learning skills that allow them to adapt and thrive. Chairs can achieve this by setting high expectations for teaching and learning in the department, by utilizing campus resources that support teaching, and by strategically deploying faculty across the curriculum. Student success is also enhanced by effective mentoring that can be provided by peers, faculty, and staff.

While the standard institutional metric for student success is degree completion, preferably within four years for an undergraduate, there are additional measures of success that should be considered. For example, students and their parents may consider job placement, admission to professional school, or moving on to graduate work as part of the success equation. Institutions cannot guarantee the desired outcomes, but department advisors and faculty can assist directly, or by referral to the school/university career advising office, in the application processes and in the development of long-term and alternate plans.

The student satisfaction component can have a profound impact on the institution and its administrators. Data on this parameter is usually derived from end-of-semester surveys completed by students in the class. Consistently low scores (bottom quartile) may be indicative of poor instructor preparation or in-class behaviors that are off-putting to students. In any case, it is difficult to believe that low satisfaction is conducive to maximal learning.

To those who regard these data as unimportant, we ask what does a dissatisfied student say to a younger sibling or individuals (students, counselors, teachers) from the former high school when asked about her/his experience in the department? Negative commentary can damage institutional reputation and student recruitment, a problem that both the chair and dean work hard to prevent. Vigilant chairs will note the trends in satisfaction survey scores and comments and will be prepared to mentor instructors or refer them to the appropriate university office or center to identify the problem areas and develop plans for improvement.

Cultivate the institution’s greatest investment: the faculty

The single element that is directly responsible for the design and delivery of the classroom experience, the external funding and research/creativity products, and the high-profile engagement initiatives on our campuses is the expertise of the faculty. The responsibilities of the chair, dean, and others is to set expectations and standards for faculty work and to manage, encourage, support, and reward their efforts. Administrators also contribute to these outcomes but mostly within their faculty roles.

Facilitating faculty productivity and career success among a group of individuals who present with different experiences, ranks, responsibilities, personalities, motivations, and histories of success is a challenge of great magnitude. Making certain the institutional investment in its faculty pays dividends is a responsibility of all levels of administration but is delegated, for the most part, to the chair. In order to accomplish this task, the chair must be familiar with the interests, skills, and aspirations of each member of the faculty. This information will be indispensable to the chair in setting assignments, providing resources for development, and motivating everyone to give their best efforts. In addition, chairs must be able to recognize subtle changes in individual faculty productivity that occur at times over a three to four-decade career and be prepared with proven interventions to address them.

Special consideration by chairs is appropriate for probationary, non-tenure track (NTT) instructional, and adjunct faculty. Many new assistant professors, some of whom win their new positions in large part because of their research potential, come to their first academic appointment fresh from graduate school or a post-doctoral appointment where their recent work was primarily one-dimensional (writing a dissertation or completing a research assignment). If they have any teaching experience it was likely as a teaching assistant instructing laboratory sections or teaching an introductory course developed and overseen by a faculty member. They are now thrust into a situation where they must take full responsibility for a course(es), perhaps develop new ones, plan and equip labs, develop new, independent research agendas, and participate in faculty service activities. For some, this is a major adjustment, and chairs can help by arranging for assistance from campus offices and centers (teaching and research), providing released time, assigning them mentors, and guiding them in selecting service work (informative but not over-burdening). The chair plays a key role in setting the career trajectory (that includes promotion and tenure as well as promotion to full rank) for early career faculty.

Without NTT instructional and adjunct faculty, many of our institutions would fail. Together these two types of faculty teach many of the credit hours an institution offers. Their teaching is typically at the introductory levels, a time at which many of our students are academically vulnerable. Chairs will recognize the contributions of the NTT faculty and should assist their teaching efforts in the same ways afforded to tenure-track faculty. These faculty members should also have access to funds for their development as teachers and be eligible for full salary increments based entirely or largely on their teaching effectiveness. Wise chairs will also be publicly vocal on the critical role that NTT faculty play in their departments. Some institutions offer training for adjuncts and chairs are often able to offer increments to salary for those who perform well. In order to keep this cadre of instructors engaged in the department efforts they can be invited to open meetings of the faculty and to major events on campus, nominated for campus, school or department level awards for their excellent work, and invited to department social events.

Develop a wider vision

One of the universally accepted roles of the chair is to serve as an advocate for the department. There are some faculty (and a few chairs) who believe that advocacy is absolute. At its most extreme, this can result in an attitude of win at all cost, never back off the original position, and walk away with a bruised ego when the outcome is not what was desired. (For more on advocacy and leadership see Lees, 2018.)

There are two aspects of the wider vision concept that deserve some discussion. For example, in a situation where departments are competing for limited resources (a faculty line, graduate support, selection to submit a one-per-school grant application, nomination for an outstanding student or faculty award) the first asks that chairs objectively review and evaluate all requests to the dean and seek to identify how a dean might make a decision. The basis will likely extend beyond the merits of the department’s case and could involve the relationship to the strategic plan, known priorities of the campus or school, equity in resource distribution, breadth of the potential impact, and, frankly, which proposal/candidate makes the most compelling case. The chair as department advocate would support the local proposal or candidate at the outset, but upon careful reflection, might shift support to a proposal with a greater need, an idea with greater impact that better fits the institution’s goals, or the selection of a superior candidate. Having chairs with the ability to discern the “greater good” and the courage to act on that vision make the dean’s job easier when it comes to tough decisions.

The second aspect of the wider vision concept concerns the way in which chairs meet present and future challenges. The days of the single investigator and the vanilla curriculum are long gone. Research questions being asked are now so complex they extend beyond the expertise of a single person and thus require interdisciplinary teams to answer them. This mandates that academic programs preparing students to work at the boundaries of multiple disciplines must be appropriately interdisciplinary themselves. All of this will require collaborative mindsets on the part of the faculty and unequivocal leadership from the chair.

Simon J. Rhodes, PhD, is a professor of biology and dean of the school of science at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI).

N.Douglas Lees, PhD, is associate dean for planning & finance and professor and former chair of biology in the school of science at IUPUI.

Lees, N. D. (2018) Where Advocacy and Sound Leadership Must Part Company, Academic Leader, 34(2), 2, 6.