Advice to a New (or Not-So-New) Chair

Some helpful advice...

  • Learn what is expected of you.

    Carefully discuss your role with your dean, if you have not already done so. It is helpful to discuss your understanding of your role with your departmental colleagues as well. Finally it is a good idea to set up a meeting at the end of the first semester and the academic year to discuss with the dean how well you have met his or her expectations.

  • Get to know your faculty.

    You should regularly visit faculty members in their offices even to just drop by to ask how their classes are going or to inquire about the status of a scholarly project. It is important for you to know what your faculty members are thinking and to have a sense of their moods, attitudes, and goals.

  • Be sensitive to the needs of staff and students.

    Though you will primarily work with faculty, it is important to be sensitive to students and staff members as well. Remember that the word will get out if you are disrespectful or discourteous to students and staff.

  • Set a good example for faculty.

    You must lead by example by having a good work ethic and demonstrating the qualities you would like to see in others. The chairperson helps set the tone for the department. There will be days when it is hard to put on a smile, but like it or not, your behavior will affect the morale of the department.

  • Be somebody who cares.

    Though most chairpersons are not trained counselors, you can demonstrate that you care about faculty and that you will do whatever you can to help them be productive and valued. You can listen, empathize, and use your best instincts to recommend a course of action for faculty to take.

  • Be careful when hiring and be honest when evaluating.

    Poor hiring decisions and inflated evaluations occur mostly because chairs do not work hard enough to follow up on references or to document a weak evaluation. No matter how much work is involved, careful hiring and evaluating are worth the time and anguish.

  • Work at effective communication.

    Determine what types of information faculty members need and use the appropriate channel for communicating that information. Just because e-mail is easier doesn’t mean that it is effective. Personal communication goes a long way in developing rapport with faculty members.

  • Avoid favoritism.

    You can not afford to have faculty members believe you give special treatment to some of your colleagues. You can not give favorable schedules or allocate funding based on congeniality or fear of a faculty member.

  • Plan.

    Your department needs a set of goals, a vision for where you are going, an honest review of the department’s strengths and weaknesses, and an assessment of what resources are needed to accomplish the goals.

  • Study the art of decision-making.

    Identify what decisions you can make alone and those that you should make with the faculty and/or the dean. Be willing to make tough decisions, but use a thorough decision-making process to come to your decision.

  • Develop written policies and procedures (and follow them).

    The best way to ensure equity among faculty is to have procedures governing such things as travel funds, released-time assignments, allocation of departmental funds for equipment, supplies, etc. And of course, it is critical that you consistently use those procedures for decision-making.

  • Keep good records.

    It is helpful to have a record of every meeting you call. It should include: the date and time of the meeting, who was present, what it was about, what decisions were reached, what action steps must be taken, and what follow up is needed. Likewise it is helpful to have a good correspondence file, a record of all budget transactions, and notes from performance counseling sessions.

  • Consult others.

    There will be times when you are not quite sure what to do in your role. It is essential that you consult with others when this occurs; you may contact senior faculty in your department, other chairpersons on campus, your dean, legal counsel, human resources staff, etc. You will find that most people are willing to share their advice and time.

  • Learn to say “no”.

    There is a human tendency to want to please everyone, but this is impossible for a chairperson. You will ultimately have to deny requests, but again you will be in a better position to do so if you treat all faculty members fairly and have a systematic process for your decision-making.

  • Pay attention to the budget.

    Make sure that you consistently monitor your budget and make adjustments as is necessary. Don’t be afraid to ask questions if you are unclear about how the budgeting process works.

  • Be willing to deal with the difficult issues.

    Chairs must learn how to confront and manage the negative behaviors of faculty, staff, and students. For many chairs, this is the most challenging part of the job. Obviously prevention of conflict is the best approach and many of the suggestions above will help with that effort. But even so, there will be times when you must confront a valued colleague, hold a performance session with a staff member, or deal with a disruptive student. Take the time to learn how to manage conflict: attend a workshop, talk with colleagues, read a book, but do take action.

  • Use your creative talents.

    Be willing to be more than the run-of-the-mill chair. To be an effective chair, you will need to do more than respond to complaints and see that classes are covered. Start new initiatives; tap yours and others’ creative talents. Remember to encourage change and innovation and to forgive failures.

  • Make time for yourself:

    Develop a professional development plan. Successful chairs participate in their professions and are respected by their professional colleagues. If you do not do this, you will become resentful and ultimately will not serve your colleagues and students well.