A great deal has been written about department chairs in higher education who deal with a myriad of issues related to the faculty for whom they have leadership responsibility. Such an emphasis is appropriate when one considers that virtually everything our institutions deliver in teaching, scholarship, and service results from the expertise and effort of the faculty. Thus, the development of leadership skills of department chairs has become a major focus; however, the literature puts significantly less focus on helping chairs “manage” the next layer up—the dean.


Overall department health relies on a productive working relationship between the chair and the dean. At most institutions, the dean determines resource use through performing budget allocations, allowing faculty and staff vacancies to be filled, and making special considerations for new lines and academic programs. There are many other areas in which the dean influences critical components of department life.


Although it is helpful if the chair and the dean genuinely like each other, personalities and operating styles in higher education vary widely, and it is almost inevitable that there will be occasional mismatches between chairs and deans. In such cases, the chair will have to make a concerted effort to compartmentalize past interactions and focus on establishing personal credibility and providing the dean with candid, accurate advice and assessment. What follows are some things that chairs might consider as they develop strategies for establishing and maintaining a functional, productive relationship with the dean.


Recognize the interdependence between deans and chairs. Deans of core schools (e.g., Liberal Arts, Science, or both) face unique disciplinary challenges that deans in professional schools (e.g., Education, Engineering, Nursing) do not encounter. Although the dean of engineering may preside over Electrical, Mechanical, Civil, Aeronautical, Biomedical, and Nuclear Engineering departments, the dean of arts and sciences leads departments that range from Religious Studies to Chemistry, Computer Science to Comparative Literature, and Philosophy to Physics. In the former case, the units are all engineering, have a common accreditation process, and have more uniform cultures. In the latter, the natures, needs, and cultures of the departments are far more varied.


An arts and sciences dean whose discipline is history will likely need to depend on the chair to explain the special needs in terms of teaching and research, traditional or expected workloads, and cultural norms in the Department of Biology. Providing honest, accurate information and evaluations that can enable the dean to construct appropriate policies and make sound resource allocations will be key in establishing trust between the chair and the dean, moving forward.


Maintain meaningful communications. Although one can imagine several types of routine information that a chair might communicate to a dean, the focus here will be on two categories of news, each of which might have a major impact on the chair–dean relationship.


The first, what one might call “good news,” includes items such as a faculty member earning a large external grant award; winning a local, regional, or national teaching award; or having a volume published by a high-prestige academic press. Other examples might be department-level achievements such as a record number of enrollments or graduates, or the academically best-prepared freshman class on campus. You should give special attention to those items that are on the dean’s radar as goals and those that relate closely to the school’s strategic plan.


Other newsworthy items relate to student success. The story of the former military medic who just graduated and is going on to medical school, the single parent earning a degree after seven years of struggle, or the young person who overcame an abusive childhood to finish near the top of the class are the kinds of things that deans like to hear about. These stories and the factual information listed above often find their way into speeches, reports, and other dissemination vehicles from the dean.


The second type of critical information that chairs should communicate to the dean fall into the category of “heads up” issues. These are complaints that cannot be resolved or that are resolved, but not happily so for those lodging them. Most frequently these issues arise from students, but they can sometimes involve family members and other external constituents. They can be routine complaints such as grade disputes, school or department policy interpretations, and course prerequisites; or they can be more serious, involving issues of alleged misbehavior.


Serious charges of misbehavior should be handled through established university channels that always involve the dean. For those more common complaints brought first to the department, the chair should consider informing the dean of the nature of the complaint, the principles involved in its resolution, and the outcome. We recommend providing such a summary, even in cases where the complaint seems to have been successfully resolved, because it demonstrates the chair’s fairness and adherence to institutional policy and good practices and because one can never be sure whether such a case will be appealed to a higher level. The dean should first learn about the issue from the chair.


Know the dean’s people, which include the dean’s personal assistant and the associate deans. The personal assistant schedules appointments and keeps the dean’s overall calendar. This includes travel days and set-aside times for special projects and activities. Because such people work close to and closely with the dean, they gain some level of sensitivity from direct knowledge, personal conversations, and more subtle inputs that allow them to recognize when stress levels are high and to discern when the dean is experiencing a “bad” day. A chair who is on friendly and familiar terms with the assistant can ascertain the appropriate time to seek the dean’s input on a problem or when to make a request. In some cases timing is as important as the substance of the conversation.


Associate deans have the ear of the dean on matters related to their individual portfolios. Being on close terms with them allows the opportunity for chairs to voice their ideas to those who may then report those ideas to the dean. If the ideas or suggestions are favorably received by the associate deans, the messages they deliver may more quickly open the door to a direct conversation between the chair and the dean.


Approach the dean factually and emotionally prepared. There will be times when chairs must have challenging conversations with the dean. Such topics can vary and may include department performance, the behavior of a person or persons in the department, a looming and problematic P&T case, or a major request in a difficult fiscal climate. Such topics have the potential to move the conversation beyond cordial. Before the meeting, the chair should make a personal pledge to remain civil throughout. This means no raising of the voice, no raising of past issues that ended in disagreement, and no accusations. Calmly providing an explanation or justification is the best approach, and even if the case is not won, at least there is likely to be less lingering negativity when the next conversation takes place.


The chair should also come to the meeting well-versed on the agenda. This will require a time for reflecting on what the dean might ask. Bring or be prepared to add all the information you have about the issue before you. If the meeting is in regard to a resource request (e.g., new faculty or staff lines, new program, new or renovated space), having details on estimated costs and return on investment would be appropriate. Along with the factual details, a well-articulated vision of what this request, if granted, will accomplish in the future will be key. For example, estimated new enrollments, increases in new majors, new external funding opportunities, and elevated department and institutional profile could be on the list. Deans may ask such questions, and it is far better to have the answers at your fingertips than to send them along later.


Finally, recognize that deans regularly entertain requests from departments and individuals and that the resources available are woefully inadequate to meet them all. Thus, the chair’s plan/request will have many competitors. Although strong chair advocacy for the department’s request is expected, it should also be noted that advocacy is not absolute. Chairs should recognize when there is a better idea or a more compelling case from elsewhere and gracefully step aside for this round. This will not gain a short-term “win,” but the dean will recognize that the chair has a global vision of what is best, and the chair thereby earns credibility that can be persuasive in later competitions.


The four points made here apply mostly to the chair–dean relationship, one that is built on frequent interactions. However, one could make the case that they are also relevant to other levels of administration, such as deans and the provost.


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


Reprinted from Academic Leader, 30.7 (2014): 1, 6. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.