December 18th, 2017

Planning Priorities for Leaving the Chair Position: Part 1

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academic department chairs

Although not often in mind at the outset of life as an academic department chair, the time will come for all academic department chairs to exit their administrative roles. What prompts the departure’s timing can be as simple as the expiration of the term limit at institutions where there is a tradition or policy of leadership that has time limits on service. In schools where there are no prescribed limits on chair service, the motivations for leaving the post of chair are more complex. Among them are a desire to turn full attention the things that drew department chairs to higher education—teaching or research; new administrative leadership that may take a path incompatible with the chair’s goals; a feeling of having accomplished as much as possible; performance issues, whether real or perceived, that lead to dwindling support; and ambition for higher administrative positions. With regard to the latter, although some faculty members are wary of colleagues who set an administrative career track, it seems it is far better to move talented individuals from within the academy to senior leadership posts than to have those from other professions assume these positions.

Regardless of the circumstances of the departure, all chairs, except those entering permanent retirement, will undergo a professional role change. Most return to the faculty where their administrative work will be exchanged for new assignments in teaching and/or research. For those with further administrative aspirations, the role may change to dean, program or center director, etc., locally or at another institution, or to another chair position elsewhere. Being prepared for these new roles is a personal responsibility that should have been planned well in advance. In addition, in any case, the chairs will be leaving their academic units to new leadership, and there is a responsibility to the institution to take the steps necessary to make certain that the transition is a smooth one. Fulfilling this obligation will also require some forethought.

Chairs returning to faculty roles in teaching and/or research at major research universities have fewer challenges because their institutions have ample department staff and resources that have allowed the chair time to maintain a high scholarship profile. In the sciences and technological disciplines, where external funding is an expectation, the chair is likely to have a funded laboratory that is supervised by a senior scientist. Thus, the change would be additional projects (and funding) with a modest increase in teaching. The scenario is quite different in public comprehensive and urban universities, where teaching loads are higher, department staff are fewer, resources are limited, and student demographics are such that chairs must spend considerable time dealing with student populations that are unevenly prepared for higher education, all while trying to maintain a viable program of scholarship.

Chairs at small colleges that historically were teaching-focused may face an elevated research expectation when they return to faculty life. Research productivity has become a more important parameter in faculty advancement and merit decisions at such institutions, a phenomenon driven in part by the recognition of undergraduate research as a powerful pedagogy. In addition, there are a plethora of innovative approaches in teaching that busy chairs may not have had time to experience.

If the decision is made to move back to the faculty ranks, what can chairs do to make sure they are prepared for new work and will be smoothly assimilated into the faculty? One strategy is to identify a collaborator (in teaching or research) from within the department or from another, related department on campus. If in teaching, the collaborator would be regarded as an expert from whom the chair could learn and with whom the chair could co-teach. If it is a research collaboration, the chair would offer intellectual input into research direction and experimental or project design, coauthor proposals for funding, and help with manuscript writing while leaving the day-to-day operations of the research group to the collaborator.

 

“Planning Priorities for Leaving the Chair Position” is continued in Part 2.

 

N. Douglas Lees, Ph.D., is associate dean for planning and finance, professor, and former chair of biology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

Reprinted from “Planning Priorities for Leaving the Chair Position” in Academic Leader 31.6(2015)2,5 © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.