I once had a conversation with a colleague who was finishing up a term as a faculty administrator. I asked him what he thought his greatest accomplishment had been. His answer was revealing. He said that he had kept the department running smoothly and stayed on top of the paperwork. His assessment was probably accurate, but it pointed up to me the distinction between managing and leading.
As department chairs we do have to keep our units running smoothly and stay on top of the paperwork. Attentive management creates a healthy work environment, fosters confidence among the faculty and students, and even sometimes earns you political capital in the reporting structure of your institution. It is easy, however, to become too caught up in the managerial side of being chair. The culture of many institutions now is shifting a larger and larger portion of university bureaucracy onto the plates of chairs–what I sometimes refer to as the work of “administrivia.” It is easy to be consumed by this work and to make it our defining purpose.
But being an effective chair also requires being a leader.
There are, of course, many ways to lead and different leadership styles (and the graphic for this post is meant as a humorous aside, not a guide!). And these will be pursued in more detail in future posts. But for now, I want to make the perhaps obvious, but often-overlooked, observation that if a department chair is only a manager, and not also a leader, the department will suffer.
The trick then becomes finding the time, amidst the administrivia, to cultivate an effective leadership style and then to identify where you are going to lead your department.
This past week I attended the Academic Chairpersons Conference for the first time. Now in its 31st year, I’m wishing I’d discovered it sooner. In the first post on this blog I bemoaned the lack of training and preparation that many chairs face. This conference provided an excellent remedy and offered sessions ranging from assessment to handling student complaints to time management.
I had previously attended a similar conference focused on chairs of arts and sciences departments. And admittedly, this one casts the net wider and included chairs of departments I rarely interact with, even at my own university. Although there are some distinctly disciplinary issues that chairs contend with, not surprisingly, we share more challenges than not. Heads nodded vigorously every time someone shared an anecdote about the difficult faculty member or the university’s “business plan.”
I took copious notes, collected numerous handouts, and listened appreciatively to the wisdom and strategies of my colleagues. But now what? As with so many conferences, I ask myself the question, how will this experience change my work? This blog will provide one opportunity to think aloud, strategize, and implement some of the best practices I learned about. But I will also pose this as a broader question: given the chance for professional development as a chair, what do we then do with that knowledge? How do we bring those lessons back to our home campuses, especially when those lessons might be in conflict with the prevailing culture at our institutions?
In keeping with the practice of my two predecessors as chair, I keep my office door open unless I absolutely have to work without distraction. So faculty stop in. To chat and say hello, but also to seek validation and a patient listener. They want recognition of their achievements (a funded grant, an article accepted). Sometimes they’re struggling with a problem (they didn’t get the grant, the article was rejected) and they need a place to vent. And in all of this they want to be heard.
In my first months as chair I found this a bit overwhelming. As much as I believed in the ethos of the open door office, I often wanted to close my door so that I could get on with the Things I Needed to Accomplish and Changes I Wanted to Make. I had not anticipated this part of the job. And then I realized that listener was part of my job description. And that it would actually help me to achieve with the Things I Needed to Accomplish and the Changes I Wanted to Make. As a chair who takes seriously her role as advocate for the faculty, it doesn’t hurt to applaud their achievements and to validate their disappointments and challenges. And faculty who feel valued and listened to, are more likely to be engaged and responsive in their various roles. And so I take a deep breath and I listen. It is also, if you pay close attention, an excellent way to gain insight into the priorities, plans, and attitudes of the faculty without having to ask stilted questions like “what are your priorities?”
This listening is not without perils and challenges. Particularly as a female chair, I am cautious in what I am proposing here. You have perhaps noticed that I have studiously avoided words like “nurture.” I do not want to conflate my willingness to listen with the assumption of a parental, or more dangerously, maternal role. And, yes, regardless of any gendered overlays, there should be limits. I cannot spend all of my time listening, and there are times and circumstances when faculty should turn to other people in their lives to fill this need. And all of this ultimately begs a very important question: what is the role of the chair in relationship with departmental faculty? Advocate? Manager? Peer?
A future post will ponder that broader question, but for now, after five and half years in this role, I can safely say that I have rarely regretted taking fifteen minutes to listen to what a faculty member needed to say and have heard.