April 4th, 2022

Creating a Strong Chair-Dean Partnership: What Chairs Can Do from Their End (Part 2)


creating strong chair-dean relationship

In Part 1 of this two-part series on strengthening the relationship between chairs and deans, we discussed prioritizing student success and satisfaction, capitalizing on the institution’s greatest investment—the faculty— and developing a vision that goes beyond departmental considerations. Here we will continue with three additional points detailing what a chair can do to enhance the partnership, leading to better outcomes for the institution.

Create an environment in which all department personnel can do their best work

Departments, like schools and colleges, are integrated communities of students, staff, and faculty. An optimal departmental climate should be marked by collegial, respectful interactions within and between the various groups within the department and recognized as welcoming to external visitors, including those from other campus units, off-campus sales and service people, and those making deliveries. The environment should also support collaboration rather than competition and celebrate individual and group successes, both large and small. It also should foster open discussion where all voices are respectfully heard. Finally, it should be one where diversity is embraced, where everyone scans for bias and discriminatory behaviors, and where practices and policies are in place to ensure inclusivity in all aspects of the department’s operation.

A chair can stimulate the formation of an environment like this through both overt and subtle actions. For example, at the first faculty meeting (or retreat) at the start of a new academic year, the chair might invite a guest speaker to talk about collegiality and the benefits of faculty collaboration. These are largely non-controversial topics and most faculty are on-board with them. That can be followed by a discussion where a set of principles is developed for governing the behavior of department personnel and where change (e.g. criteria for promotion and tenure, merit pay, awards) is needed to recognize collaboration in a formal way. The chair can also foster the idea that all members of the community have value by highlighting individual accomplishments on meeting agendas, in announcements, in reports, etc. During conversations on important topics the wise chair will find ways to elicit the opinions of all those present. Once in place, the new, modified, or codified culture is promulgated to new members of the unit during the interview process by the chair, and perhaps, others.

Provide a timely “heads up” when there is a problem

This refers primarily to “people issues” but is applicable to other areas, including faculty unavailability (due to illness, accident, etc.), natural disasters, instrument failures, etc. On occasion, and hopefully not more frequently, chairs face complaints over grades or classroom situations, faculty decisions, policies at all levels, transfer credits, and similar items. Most of these situations are handled to the satisfaction of both parties at the department level. However, there are times when the two sides “agree to disagree” and the complainant leaves with the promise to “take this to the dean.” This should result in an immediate communication to the dean outlining who is on the way, the nature of the complaint, and your decision or position with a justification that includes all relevant university, school, and department policies. The dean may ask some follow-up questions or seek further details, but the preliminary contact will be appreciated because it saves time and gives the dean the opportunity to prepare for the visitor.

There are also occasions where chairs will have to deal with complaints from their faculty on HR issues (annual review outcomes, salary, promotion and tenure), working conditions (office space, classrooms, teaching assignments), and about other faculty. Again, most are dealt with within the department and do not get appealed to the dean.  It is worth the effort, however, to report them to the dean. One can never tell what the unhappy faculty member will say if he sees the dean at a campus event. Sharing this information also provides chairs with the opportunity to demonstrate familiarity with university policy and skill in dealing with sensitive issues.

Submit all required paperwork completely, accurately, and on-time

This point may seem trivial, but there are circumstances where tardy or incomplete documentation can subvert an important initiative, embarrass the upper administration, or lead to legal challenges down the road. The types of documentation include routine reports and applications where deadlines are constant, known, or can be anticipated. Examples include the department’s contribution to the school annual report, reappointment and P&T applications, and annual data on retention or assessment. Incomplete information or late submission can have many obvious negative impacts on the department, the school, and the faculty. Personnel documentation errors can have legal consequences.

A second type of information that a chair might be asked to provide is the ad hoc request that may come from the dean or from more elevated offices on campus or beyond. An example might be a request from the dean for data on academic year adjunct instructor costs in order to see if department budget adjustments are warranted. Incomplete or late data might result in a loss of new resources for the department. Another could be a case in which the campus is part of a multi-institution consortium where they have identified a grant opportunity potentially worth millions and one in which the department plays a key role. To assemble the required data for submission, the department is asked to submit detailed information in a specific format by a deadline. Unusable data or tardiness can result in the application not being submitted or being quickly rejected by the funding agency. In this case, everyone loses.

Chairs can avoid these catastrophes by keeping a calendar of deadlines for routine reporting and by alerting faculty early as to when (with a buffer!) their individual data is due. For ad hoc requests, the chair should immediately review what is being requested and determine whether the data is readily available and if there is sufficient time to assemble it. If not, the chair can quickly request assistance from the dean.


At the outset, we stated that the chair-dean partnership was a mutually dependent one in a way that is not dissimilar to the faculty-chair relationship. Chair effectiveness is judged largely by the level of excellence achieved by the faculty in teaching, research, and engagement. Deans are judged on the results that the collection of chairs produces and how they meet the responsibility for providing the resources and leadership necessary for chair success. What we have attempted here is list some areas of chair work that, if discharged appropriately, will allow deans to focus on the most challenging problems (budget, space, modernization) in the school and on the activities that move the school forward (donor cultivation, industry partnerships, collaborations with other schools, the formation of centers of excellence).

Douglas Lees, PhD is associate dean for planning & finance, professor and former chair of biology, in the School of Science at IUPUI.  Simon J. Rhodes is a professor of biology and dean of the School of Science at IUPUI.