Department Chairperson, the

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Over time, the profile of academic department chairpersons, often referred to as chairs, has remained fairly constant. They are tenured faculty, primarily male, and between the ages of forty and sixty. For the most part, chairs are internal appointees, either selected by their deans or elected by their departments and then appointed by their deans for terms of usually three to five years.

In some colleges, faculty become chairs out of a sense of duty with little enthusiasm for the job. Many times these chairs see themselves as scholars who temporarily accept responsibility for administrative tasks so other professors can continue their teaching and scholarly pursuits. In fact, few department chairs view themselves as administrators, and less than one-third of them will seek a higher administrative position. Their primary function is to champion their faculty. They work for and with faculty, providing protection from central administrative intrusion and support for faculty academic endeavors.

In the first instance, department chairs guard faculty autonomy and academic freedom by filtering and interpreting demands placed on faculty and departments by college deans. In the second, they foster collegiality, honor specialized expertise, and promote excellence in teaching, research, and service to the department, college, and university by ensuring that department work gets shared equitably, that a collaborative work environment exists, and that requisite resources are allocated properly.

The dilemma for many department chairs arises from their treatment as faculty in some venues, such as evaluation for promotion and merit, and as administrators in others, where eleven- or twelve-month contracts preclude research time. In addition, the task of carrying out administrative mandates can often pit them against their faculty peers.

Chairperson Roles

Chairs engage in four primary categories of tasks: faculty development, management, scholarship, and leadership. Each role is important to success as a department chair.

Faculty development. As faculty developers, chairs are responsible for supervising the recruitment, selection, and evaluation of faculty and for enhancing faculty teaching, research, and morale through development and support. Certain behaviors help build and monitor an environment that prizes effective teaching, research excellence, and service to the community of scholars in which they reside. These actions fall into several categories that include, but are not limited to, selection, support, development, networking, recognition, rewarding, and reinforcement.

Selection refers to the establishment of deliberate and well thought out faculty hiring policies, which are in accord with departmental practices and governing procedures and clearly delineate what the department values. Chairs support faculty in their academic endeavors by encouraging faculty to attend learned societies and professional meetings, and by sponsoring activities such as team teaching, collaborative research efforts, and peer mentoring.

Development of faculty is closely related to providing support. Here, the chair shows concern for each faculty member's growth as both an instructional leader and an academic expert. Providing departmental reimbursement of the expenses that faculty incur while attending workshops and seminars on effective teaching or professional conferences where they present their research to peers outside their departments sends the message that excellence counts. So does creating individual development plans annually with faculty members.

When a department chair promotes networking, faculty can engage in dialogue with each other and debate about effective practice. Mentoring also occurs, with veteran faculty teaching new colleagues the bureaucratic ropes of a department and an institution.

Recognition and rewarding go hand-in-hand. The first refers to such intangibles as praise, verbal communication, and expressions of appreciation. The second denotes tangible benefits, such as merit increases, promotions, better teaching assignments, and release time for pursuing research agendas that accrue to a faculty member as a result of good teaching, research, and departmental citizenship.

Finally, reinforcement is used to provide for continued success of the department. An effective chair builds on a foundation set by the development of sound plans for achieving teaching and research effectiveness and engaging in institutional service where progress gets monitored, recognized, and rewarded regularly.

Management. As managers, chairs oversee the day-to-day fiduciary requirements of the department. They assign duties to faculty, plan meetings, plan and evaluate curriculum, keep faculty informed of college priorities, and coordinate department activities. In addition, they manage the department's fiscal resources and non-academic staff, prepare budgets, keep accurate records, and serve as the department's representative to the administration. In some instances, chairs also select and supervise graduate students and attempt to obtain external funding for departmental projects.

Scholarship. The chair's role as a scholar is perhaps the most comfortable one and at the same time most frustrating. It is comfortable because it encompasses one's academic identity; it can be frustrating because time previously devoted to academic endeavors is now siphoned off by managerial and other duties. In order to retain stature as scholars, department chairs must maintain research plans, obtain resources for personal research, and remain current in their academic discipline.

Leadership. Leadership may well be considered by many academic department chairs the most elusive of their roles. Tasks related to leadership focus on either faculty or the department as a whole. The first group includes encouraging faculty research, publication, and professional development. Departmental leadership tasks aim at maintaining a conducive work environment and setting long-range departmental goals. An important part of this second leadership role involves soliciting ideas from faculty to improve the department.

Leadership tasks are often summarily ignored by otherwise well-meaning department chairs. Many surmise that this occurs because chairs come to the position without leadership training or prior administrative experience, and without a clear understanding of the complexity of the role or the cost to their academic careers and personal lives that it can exact. Typically, chairs are not prepared or equipped to deal with increasing legal and organizational demands, and they harbor only vague notions of what it means to be entrepreneurial or responsive to changes in institutional direction. As a result, they misconstrue leadership to mean management, and in doing so, immerse themselves in a process of maintenance rather than one based on creativity and innovation.

A Challenging, Important Position

Interestingly, experts estimate that more than 80 percent of all administrative decisions in universities take place at the department level. In the early twenty-first century, department chairs face a complex, changing environment. The success of a department chair depends upon department members acting with integrity; engaging in open communication; exhibiting a willingness to accept criticism; valuing human potential, growth, and accomplishment; and manifesting a collective spirit. Strong institutional cultures or governance policies and practices can prove strong inhibitors to any such efforts. Subcultures built on a tradition of mistrust may also render chairs powerless.

Proactive chairs undertake their tasks with the determination to develop faculty as researchers and teachers, the will to persevere as a scholar, a concern for the fiscal viability of the department, and the administrative savvy and foresight to ensure departmental regeneration. As such, department chairs fill one of the most important, yet most challenging, administrative positions in the academy.

See also: Academic Dean, The; Board of Trustees, College and University; Chief Academic Officers, College and University; Colleges and Universities, Organizational Structure of; Faculty Senates, College and University; Governance and Decision-Making in Colleges and Universities; Presidency, College and University.


Gmelch, Walter H., and Miskin, Val D. 1995. Chairing an Academic Department. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Hecht, Irene W. D.; Higgerson, Mary Lou; Gmelch, Walter H.; and Tucker, Allan.1999. The Department Chair as Academic Leader. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press/American Council on Education.

Lucas, Ann F., et al. 2000. Leading Academic Change: Essential Roles for Department Chairs. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Mimi Wolverton

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Department Chairperson, the

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