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!


  1. Support your staff.
    Support your staff.
    Support your staff.

    Triage the ideas that faculty bring you. Some you should support, mostly by giving them departmental blessing and resources and then getting out of the way so that people can take ownership and make it into department culture. Some you should make nice noises about and then ignore. A few you should strangle in the crib, but only if they might result in felonies, lawsuits, or labs literally exploding. It isn’t worth your time to strangle a mostly harmless but pointless idea.

    Support your staff.

    Don’t wholly abandon teaching.

    Fund your own ideas last, but do fund them. People trusted you to do good things for the department, so make them happen. But make sure they aren’t crowding out your colleagues.

    Support your staff.

    Commit to working from somewhere outside the office one half day per week. Home, coffee shop, research lab, wherever. But have a block of protected time outside the office.

    The Dean is not your buddy. The Dean might support you, but the Dean is not your buddy.

    Support your staff.

    Lunch with other chairs is the ultimate mental health boost.

    Support your staff.

  2. Something I’ve seen from friends who have been chair:

    If you’ve got a teaching reduction, USE IT. Don’t teach classes just because it’s too difficult to find an adjunct or to argue for funds for a lecturer. Short term fighting up front means you won’t be dying during the school year.

  3. Read up on effective communication and how to run a good meeting. Read about how to be a good leader (when you have authority) and how to exert parallel and upward influence effectively (when you don’t). A lot of what’s written is directed at a business audience, but can still apply to an academic environment. Some of what’s written may be terrible advice for you in your situation (I found that was true for me), but even seeing terrible advice can help you think things through in a useful way.

  4. Not a chair, but a faculty member here.

    Learn how to effectively delegate various tasks and do not micromanage.

    Get advice when necessary and make decisions. Your decisions will not always be right, but making decisions promptly is better than not making them.

    No matter what you do, someone will be unhappy with you. The past chairs I have seen here who worked hard on pleasing everyone ended up making everyone upset, so do not even try.

  5. These are all extremely helpful ideas, thanks so much!

    Our admin is the best in the entire world, and I already tell her so regularly (her kid and my younger kid are best buddies at preschool, so we already have an out-of-work relationship as well as a work relationship). Good idea to recognize it more formally, though. Isn’t it awkward to get a gift card or other gift for an admin when they have to do the purchase order and stuff?

    Historically we have gone years with zero faculty meetings; at the moment we’re on an every-other-week schedule, which I think is a pretty good cadence for our little department. It certainly results in more fire prevention rather than putting out fires, which I think is a positive development.

    As for delegating, it’s not clear that there’s really anyone to delegate to… we are a department of five, and as I understand it much of the chair’s purpose is to shield the other members of the department from administrative BS.

    My first year as chair will also be the first time in 15 years(!) that my department is doing a review with a self-study and visiting committee and everything. Not the optimal thing for a rookie chair to start out with, alas, but I’m hoping I can lean on the former chairs. I’m hoping to leverage it to change stuff that I currently think is stupid — one major example is that the chair currently does all our major advising, which seems like a lose-lose situation for both the students and the chair. I don’t really have the power to change it while I’m not chair, and when I am chair it will seem very self-interested to focus on changing it. Hopefully I can just make sure that the situation comes to the attention of the visiting committee.

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