Ten Things to Ponder after you are Elected Department Chair

Today I’m attending a “Chair’s Chat” as part of an annual UW-Madison “Campus Showcase” of best practices.  Current Department Chairs like me have been asked to “share one or two tips that they feel other chairs might find useful” as part of the discussion:

Each department chair has found or developed some approach or system that works well for her or his department. Many of those approaches or systems are adaptable or useful in other departments. In this session, each attendee is invited to share one or two tips that they feel other chairs might find useful. In past years, chairs have shared books, approaches to restructuring, online applications for faculty hiring, administrative functions and staffing, retirement planning, hiring for diversity, and improving department culture. This year examples will include educational innovation and new revenue approaches.

I have been pondering this challenge more than I probably should (given the overwhelming time and workload demands of being a Department Chair) but I’m just unable to come up with anything specific that seems appropriate for this forum.  I mean, there are lots of little tips and tricks that I use, I guess, from color-coding my email to scanning in my hand-written notes of meetings, but when I think about the larger role that university leaders of all sorts are currently expected to play in questions of assessment and accountability, research and learning innovation, administrative and instructional cost efficiencies, and alumni and donor relations, well, little strategies like that might make one’s day more manageable but they don’t really provide any clear leadership guidance.

So instead, I took a completely different strategy, and tried to think at a very broad and idealistic level about what exactly it was that I was elected to do in this role of Department Chair.  After nearly four years in the job, here’s what I’ve come up with; it’s by no means complete (in fact, it’s entirely idiosyncratic) but I hope it provides current and future colleagues in the same spot with some useful starting points for thinking through their own goals and responsibilities as they shift from a life of “research, teaching and service” to the equally complicated and contradictory world of “administration.”

Ten Things to Ponder after you are Elected Department Chair

10. Prepare to refer to yourself as having been “elected” as Department Chair, to gently remind your colleagues that if they don’t approve of the way you are doing your job, they have the power to do something about it each Spring (and to volunteer themselves).

9. Be clear that your governance role is not to simply moderate debate among departmental colleagues of differing roles and interests, but to mitigate the inevitable effects of differing levels of power among your faculty and staff in those debates.

8. Plan to respond to any and every disparaging comment about a fellow colleague made within your earshot with a gentle answer that starts, “Now, now, I know you don’t mean that; let’s remember the important things that _____ brings to the department … ”

7. Do not be afraid to politely and succinctly express your displeasure about any College policy to your Associate Dean, as long as you offer both evidence for that policy’s limitations and a concrete suggestion for improving that policy at the same time.

6. Understand that nobody else in your department sees the absolute worst of your colleagues’ behavior in the same way that you do, and guard that knowledge wisely; but also understand that nobody else in your department sees the absolute best of your colleagues’ work in the same way that you do, and share that knowledge widely.

5. Though you will be pained by both, keep in mind the profound difference between making a mistake — after which you should admit your error, express regret, and ask forgiveness — and suffering a defeat — after which you should understand the reasons for your setback, reaffirm your principles, and find a way to do better next time.

4. Be aware that nobody else in your department communicates with as broad a range of stakeholders as you do — faculty and staff, students and alumni, parents and employers — and try to craft every email, memo, and report as part of a story of what your department does, and does well, that is both appropriate and inspiring for all.

3. Consider that your job as Chair is not simply to make your faculty and staff happy, or to make your students and their parents happy, or to make your alumni and donors happy, or to make your professional or academic peers happy, or to make your Associate Dean and Dean happy, or even to make yourself happy; rather, it is to balance the often contradictory interests of all of those stakeholders in service of the broad public interest.

2. Remember to seek out other Department Chairs to talk with them regularly, because you will unfortunately find it difficult to talk with your own department colleagues any longer in a way that allows them (and you) to even momentarily forget about your distinctive administrative, supervisory, fiduciary, marketing, and leadership role.

1. Never forget that not only did you willingly agree to do this job, but also that you are undoubtedly learning a great deal about your state, your university, your discipline, your department, your peers, your students, and yourself with every day that you survive it.

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