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Career Advice

Leadership tips for university department chairs

Setting the right tone and putting faculty first are key.


Anyone who has ever held a department chair’s position knows that the job can be among the most challenging on university campuses. Chairs have to walk a tightrope to balance their professorial responsibilities of teaching, research and service with the administrative requirements of budgeting, scheduling and personnel management. Often they work longer hours than their departmental colleagues and things can unintentionally slip off the radar if they aren’t careful. But with the right skills and understanding, chairs can often gain a game-changing advantage that frequently eludes them – the support of the people in their departments.

Get to know your people
University of Alabama management professor Kim Sydow Campbell wrote, in her book Thinking and Interacting Like a Leader, that one of the biggest mistakes made by managers is overestimating the quality of their relationships with the people who work for them. This is largely due to poor communication skills. Most leaders, including department chairs, don’t always recognize that they can be deficient in some areas of professional or interpersonal communication.
If you become chair of a department, one of the first things you could do is schedule 30- to 45-minute individual meetings with each faculty member. The goal is simply to get to know every one of them personally. Make it your mission to learn about them, find out what their passions are. The meetings give faculty an opportunity to learn details of your vision for the department and how you plan to manage things. The most important thing for you to do during those meetings: listen. Not just to what they say but also to what they don’t tell you directly. In time, faculty will recognize that you’re happy to discuss items that they feel are important, and during crunch times you’ll find it easier to approach them when something needs to be done.

Empower and encourage
You need to find ways to keep faculty motivated in the classroom. Professors can often burn out if they keep teaching the same material semester after semester. Encourage your faculty to attend conferences and make connections in the community, which can lead to some interesting exercises.

While I was dean, one of my faculty members found ways to incorporate student consulting projects into her marketing management class, working with businesses that were seeking some help. It was a win for both the students and businesses. Not everything that faculty members try in the classroom or with their research will succeed, but when they feel confident enough to try, it’s still a win. The end result for many can be improved scores on teaching evaluations and knowledge that they can pass along to new faculty.

Be appropriately supportive
There are many ways that chairs can be supportive that can earn big points with faculty members. But failing to recognize when to be supportive can be hazardous. A case in point: when I began my research in Canadian tourism marketing, my chair was very unsupportive. He expressed his sentiment in front of our dean that studying anything about Canada was a waste of time. Little did he know that our dean had completed his undergraduate education at the University of Guelph! When I changed schools about a year later, I made sure that I had the support of the administration for my Canadian studies. That led to numerous conference presentations and publications that helped boost the institution’s reputation for supporting research.

There are times when chairs must act courageously to support their people. I once witnessed a colleague refusing to direct his department to take on an admissions-related task that he felt was not the responsibility of professors. His view was that faculty members calling prospective students was a bad move, and he refused to pressure members of his department into doing it. His department was grateful that he took the stand, knowing very well that such a move by other chairs was not universal.

Department-wide collegiality may be a pipe-dream for many chairs, but they are leaders who can set the tone for the entire department. Remember that in the end relationships matter and that your faculty should come first. If you take the time to get to know your people, encourage and empower them and be supportive, this dream can become a reality with a little effort.

Richard Parker is a graduate of McGill University’s Educational Leadership program and served as chair of the department of marketing at High Point University in North Carolina from 2009 to 2014. He now teaches at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.

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  1. Stephen Price / December 5, 2014 at 18:03

    Dr. Parker’s advice on being a department chair is salient as it relates to relations with faculty. An interesting thing is that he doesn’t once mention non-faculty, except with the example of resisting a student recruitment initiative.

    I would therefore add to his advice that the staff of a department can benefit from encouragement and similar attention, and that, whatever the staff resources of a department may be, those staff who suddenly report up into your position become important to achieving the department’s goals. Understanding how to keep them engaged, just as one understands how to keep faculty engaged, is an important part to being a successful chair.

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