Day: November 16, 2022

Cool Chair in the Hot Seat

lyra211 asked here:
How about your what-to-do/what-not-to-do for new chairs? (I am becoming chair next summer and therefore it’s on my mind a lot.)

I’m going to be of very limited help here, since I haven’t been chair, but I know for a fact that several of the regular readers have been or currently are chair. Folks, please share your wisdom with lyra211!

I’ve personally worked under four different chairs since I became faculty. Here are some of the issues that I’ve gleaned from my cushy vantage point of being a regular, albeit unusually grumpy, member of the faculty. I think everything I suggest below is doable, at least in principle:

Figure out how often you need to have faculty and/or tenured-faculty meetings. Always have an agenda. Be merciless (merciless!) about staying on time and on point. I’ve had chairs who kept us for two hours every week and chairs who managed to get stuff done in an hour every two weeks. The department still ran, so… Some things are clearly not as necessary as they seem.

Figure out what things absolutely have to happen in terms of service and what don’t. Cut whatever service roles you can cut. Get good people on the service tasks that absolutely have to happen.

Excellent working relationship with the staff is necessary. Find a way to show them your appreciation that isn’t yet another burden on their time (e.g., monthly lunch with them might be appreciated, but likely isn’t; a gift card probably is, or a lunch they can eat on their own if they so choose).

Student recruitment and retention are extremely important. See if you can improve things there. We are there for the students first and foremost. They are what makes a university a university.

Depending on your levels of extroversion, you may tolerate face time well, or extremely poorly. Being chair is a marathon, not a sprint, so you have to keep up both your strength and your will to live. If you don’t tolerate face time too well, minimize the shit out of it. Whatever can be an email, make an email. Whatever can be a monthly instead of a weekly meeting, make it so.

A lot of things are supposed to come in front of the executive committee (all tenured professors) that technically wouldn’t have to come in front of it and can be handled by a smaller subcommittee or someone in a vice chair capacity. Use that. Delegate authority to handle stuff to capable colleagues or committees. The delegation process itself might have to go in front the executive committee, but it will be worth it.

People will take out all sorts of shit on you when you are chair, doubly (triply so) if you are a woman. Find a way to dissociate from that garbage because most of the time it isn’t really about you at all (although people sure like to transfer the blame to you, especially when they are the real culprit). As a wise woman who excels in a leadership position once said, remember that their lashing out is a reflection of some underlying stress that usually has little to do with you. If you can have this stuff roll off your back and leave the stresses of work at work, you will likely thrive in the chair position. If you take it all personally (as I know I would), you will be miserable. Don’t be like me!

Your research will take a hit. It might be a big hit. You might not mind the hit since you’ve been itching to do something new anyway. Or you might resent the hit and look forward to not being chair anymore. If the latter, try to stay afloat, but don’t beat yourself up. You won’t be able to publish as much as a regular faculty member, but as long as you’re not completely out of  students, money, and ideas, you will bounce back. Consider it a research hibernation of sorts. You’re not dead, just waiting for spring.

If you are an extrovert, or an introvert with good interpersonal skills and acting abilities who can mimic an extrovert, and you are effective at working with donors and alumni and bringing money to your department, college, and university, you will be absolutely beloved by the higher-ups, and in turn they will have an easier time swallowing whatever else (other than more hard  money) you need for your department.

Readers who’ve been or are currently serving as department chair, please share your nuggets of leadership wisdom with lyra211!