Department chairs can play a significant role in promoting collaboration and cooperation for the benefit of individual faculty members and the unit. In an interview with Academic Leader, Patrick Lawrence, chair of the department of geography and planning at the University of Toledo, outlined several practical steps that can help chairs support faculty and build a collegial department.
- Consider how a faculty candidate might fit into and contribute to the department. Good hiring decisions are an important part of creating a collegial department. In addition to the candidate’s research and teaching record, consider how his or her personality will mix with those of people already in the department. It’s not always easy to get a sense of someone’s personality in the relatively short interview process. “First impressions are not always accurate or fair,” Lawrence says. But the more faculty members the candidate meets with, the better the sense of how that person might fit in the department. Lawrence recommends getting multiple perspectives and paying special attention to those faculty members who have proven themselves to be especially perceptive about assessing a candidate’s fit with the department’s culture.In addition, look at candidates’ records. Check letters of reference and contact colleagues from their previous departments, paying particular attention to whether they made significant contributions to department initiatives.
- Reach out to marginalized faculty members. Provide support and incentives and listen to the concerns of faculty members who are not as engaged as others. “Find out what their concerns are, what’s important to them. [Ask], ‘To what degree as a chair might I have the ability to support or provide resources to make sure people know we are a department working together, even though individuals have different views, different expertise, and different personalities?’” Lawrence says. “We have a couple of faculty members, for example, who are pretty much the only individuals in their respective areas of expertise, and I try to reach out to them with little things, asking, ‘Do you need equipment or additional travel support? If you’re looking for a graduate student to work with, can I try to help you advertise and promote your project?’”
- Clearly articulate what the department needs; value individual contributions. Each faculty member contributes to the goals of the department differently. As chair, Lawrence makes it a point to talk about the overall goals of the department, recognizing that “everybody’s making some type of contribution and that it all needs to fit together. We can’t simply have folks in one area doing a lot of research, getting grants, and working with graduate students. That’s great. That provides a lot to the department, but make sure they understand that there are faculty who are also teaching hundreds of students and advising students, which takes a lot of time and effort. It’s important to have everybody appreciate that everybody contributes something a little bit different to what we’re doing for the benefit of our students.”Lawrence makes it a point to find ways to recognize individual faculty members’ contributions and support them in their goals. In addition, to the extent possible, he tries to accommodate individual faculty members’ teaching preferences.
- Use appropriate communication. Lawrence reminds faculty that they have options when it comes to talking about their concerns. If the problem requires input from the department, he puts it on the department meeting agenda. If it’s a private concern, he encourages faculty to come to him to discuss it. “I really want to make sure that things aren’t festering behind the scenes and faculty aren’t getting frustrated or angry about a particular issue,” Lawrence says.
- Set expectations for senior faculty. Senior faculty play an important role in the culture of the department. “They have the responsibility as much as I do in terms of how they act among themselves and how they support and interact with younger faculty,” Lawrence says.
- Don’t make decisions randomly or unilaterally. Some decisions come from the administration. In these cases, Lawrence sees the role of chair as explaining why the decision came about and then leading discussions on how to manage the changes. For decisions within the purview of the department, Lawrence prefers to reach decisions through consensus rather than by majority vote. This approach is probably better suited to small groups. (Lawrence’s department has nine tenure or tenure-track faculty members.) “We work together collegially in meetings and discussions to come to decisions. Decisions aren’t made randomly or unilaterally. The faculty understand that the decisions being made are based on discussion and in the best interest of the department,” Lawrence says.
- Focus on the bigger picture. “As faculty we tend to focus on our individual interests. People often describe faculty as independent contractors, which is true to some degree, but I think ultimately we have to keep in mind the work environment we create. … Dysfunction, isolation, and conflict can wreak havoc on a program and on students, and the whole learning environment will suffer. One of the chair’s most important roles is to make sure that does not happen and to make sure that students can gain all the benefits we’re trying to give them. I always try to keep in mind that the reason we’re here, in large part, is the students. I think it’s important for the department to step back and think about that. It’s not just about us as faculty,” Lawrence says.
Rob Kelly is the former editor of Academic Leader.