Faculty members often become chairs under less-than-ideal circumstances or for the wrong reasons. An underprepared faculty member or one with an axe to grind can wreak havoc and lead to frequent department chair turnover. Recognizing this all-too-common cycle, Gian Pagnucci, chair of the English Department at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and Ethan Krase, chair of the English Department at Winona State University, offer the following recommendations to help smooth chair transitions and promote a well-functioning department.

  • Implement a long-term plan. The common practice is to select a new chair at the end of the academic year for a term that begins in the following academic year. “The time to start looking for a new chair if the term finishes in May is not April. Probably three or more years ahead of time, you need to identify people who could step in and become good chairs. Then you have to do a lot of specific things to prepare them to move into that role over time,” Pagnucci says. Considering future department chair transitions well in advance can help the department reach consensus on who should be the next chair, which avoids the problem of someone leading in the aftermath of a power struggle. “When a chair assumes a position as a result of a power struggle, you have a fractured department and the chair’s ability to do the work of chairing becomes compromised. During that three-year window, you start to build consensus on who could be good chairs,” Krase says. In Krase’s department, the new department chair is elected in September of the current chair’s last academic year as chair. This gives the incoming chair an entire academic year to work with the outgoing chair to better understand the position.
  • Provide faculty with leadership opportunities. Perhaps the most effective way to identify faculty members who might one day become chair (preferably those who have many years in the department ahead of them) is to encourage them to take on leadership roles. This could include being a program head, internship coordinator, or faculty retreat organizer. These are voluntary positions that sometimes carry budget authority and often put faculty in charge of meetings, “which gets them thinking, ‘I can do this small task. Maybe I can move to the bigger task of chair,’” Pagnucci says.“I think one of the things that’s critical in that is getting faculty to redefine their identity within the department,” Krase says. “By necessity, most faculty are focused on themselves, their teaching, and their research. But to try to move someone into a leadership role, you have to create ways for them to broaden what that identity might be within the department.”When faculty members succeed in these leadership roles, provide positive feedback and get them to think about serving as chair by saying things such as “You ran that retreat terrifically. Not only did you run it well, but I could see you leading the department,” Pagnucci says.
  • Form a faculty group to support the chair. Both Pagnucci’s and Krase’s departments have a group of faculty members who serve as a sounding board for the chair. In Krase’s department the committee meets monthly and has a regular place on the department meeting agenda to report its business. “It’s formal, but in a way a large part of its work is to be a sounding board for the chair if I’ve got something tricky or I’ve got something with multiple implications for the department or I just want to talk through something. A lot of that stuff never shows up in the minutes from that committee, but it is a place I can go and say ‘Here’s what the dean has said. What do you think?’” In Pagnucci’s department this committee, known as the Leadership Council, is composed of program leaders. The committee does not set policy—all faculty in the department vote on policy. The council provides “a way for me as chair to get input that leads toward a decision that then gets ratified by the department,” Pagnucci says.“You need a small group that can troubleshoot and look at various alternatives. Sometimes a group like that will come up with solutions that aren’t obvious,” Krase says. “By having this executive committee, people start to understand some of the things the chair is wrestling with, some of the directives that come from upper administration, and you start getting people to see that and getting them to start thinking about it. It’s a way of getting more people to understand what the administration is saying and working to get the whole department on board. That can be pretty useful.”
  • Document policies and procedures. Following established procedures is important for building trust among the faculty. Operating according to oral tradition creates problems. “It’s tough to make change in such an environment. Even if lots of people recognize that changes need to happen, it’s hard to make changes if you don’t have a document to work from,” Krase says.Operating without documented policies and procedures can be particularly difficult when new faculty members, who aren’t fully versed in the informal traditions of the department, come on board.
  • Maintain a positive environment. Whether you’re a new chair or you’re trying to set up the next chair for success, it’s important to create a sense of stability and positivity. At a basic level, this means acknowledging faculty members’ contributions to the department’s success and providing rewards whenever possible. “This is a job in which you say thank you and apologize a lot, even when you haven’t done anything wrong,” Krase says. It’s also important to avoid public confrontations with faculty members. “The chair of the department is somebody on whom the rest of the faculty members can count for good academic citizenship. As chair, you won’t be as effective if you succumb to the temptation of lashing out.The chair’s office has to be a place where things are stable and positive,” Krase says. In addition, it’s important to not pull rank. “You don’t ever want to say ‘I’m telling you because I’m chair.’That’s a no-win situation. Instead, you want everybody to feel that you as a group figured out the best way to go.” When faculty members participate in collective decision making, they may be more willing to take on leadership roles, Pagnucci says, adding that faculty members are likely to be more willing to take on leadership roles in a culture that embraces collective decision making.
  • Consult former chair(s) privately. Former chairs can play an important role in a department, but they need to be careful not to undermine the current chair’s leadership. “You have to really step back and let the new chair do the work of chairing. You don’t want to create a situation in which people are uncertain of who the chair is. I remember the outgoing chair in my department said something like ‘You can come in and ask me things, and I’ll tell you what I would do, but I’ll never tell anybody that I told you that’s what I would do,’” Krase says.

Contact Gian Pagnucci at pagnucci@iup.edu and Ethan Krase at ekrase@winona.edu

Reprinted from Academic Leader, 30.7 (2014): 5, 7. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.