Tag Archives: faculty

The Fine Art of Delegating

Delegating.  Put it at the top of the list of things I do badly.  After five years of being chair I know this about myself and still haven’t figured out a way to do it better.  So in this period of slowed-down summer timetables, I offer the following reflections on why academic chairs need to delegate and some strategies for how to do it.

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The most obvious reason for delegating is to reduce or at least redistribute your workload.  Even though we all know that we can’t do it all, we consistently behave otherwise.  Call it micromanaging, call it control issues, but whatever you do, call an end to it.  I doubt any of us need more to do.

Another reason to delegate is that your colleagues need to be both cognizant of and invested in the work of the department.  If you do everything, magically and behind the scenes, you risk creating a faculty culture of disengagement where faculty don’t know, for example, the work that goes into identifying and recruiting students for the departmental honor society.  Or the logistics of organizing an event with a visiting speaker.  And what happens when you’re not chair anymore?  There will be a profound lack of institutional knowledge and memory that will make your successor’s job that much more difficult.  Further, as we know from our best classroom practices, the more students participate, the more they are invested in their education.  So, too, with faculty.  Delegating will help to create a participatory and engaged department culture.

Delegating also signals your confidence in your colleagues.  Managing everything yourself may make others think that you don’t trust them with certain responsibilities.  Even if that’s not the case, you don’t want to mistakenly foster that impression.

So, there are clearly benefits to delegating.  But doing it should be purposeful and directed.

To begin with, delegate strategically.  Simply going into a faculty meeting and asking for volunteers to work on various tasks or projects may not always be the best strategy.  You may not get the best people for the job.  Instead, try to match people well–play to the strengths and passions of your faculty.  It’s no good assigning someone with poor organizational skills to a project that will involve managing complicated spreadsheets.  Someone with a talent for chatting and conversation is the one you want to send to the open house for freshmen who are choosing a major.  Such maneuvering can even be a way to get otherwise reluctant faculty to take on projects.  If Dr. X has consistently expressed concerns about the declining number of majors then maybe Dr. X could work on designing an outreach program.

Next, build in some accountability.  Delegating makes me nervous because it means releasing control of a task or project.  I do much better when I release it with expectations like “Report back to me by such and a such a time,” or “Bring me a draft of the document in a week,” or “Please be prepared to make a report at the next faculty meeting.  You get the idea.

Finally, be prepared for delegating to fail sometimes.  Even the most strategic and deliberate delegation with clearly articulated expectations may flop if there is a failure of responsibility and follow through.  And the buck does stop with you, so you will need to pick up the pieces.  Try to figure out what didn’t work in that particular instance and apply it to future decisions.  In all, the benefits of letting go will outweigh those instances where it doesn’t work.

Chairs and Customer Service

As the language and models of customer service creep into the discourse about higher education, it prompts a series of questions about the role of administrators. If students are customers, receiving a product from faculty, it threatens to turn administrators into managers. And turning administrators into managers will transform their relationship with faculty in ways that do not serve the larger aims of the university.

Writing earlier this year about the creep of corporate language and models into ads for faculty positions in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Prof. David Perry made a series of cogent points about why regarding the student as a customer disrupts and corrupts the relationship between faculty and students.  It is a model that has rippling effects across the university. It led me to wonder, what impact does such a model have on the role of university administrators, specifically the academic chair?

When I became an academic chair I saw my role (very) broadly as one where I would promote the mission of my departmental curriculum and programs and advocate for my faculty.  You might immediately be struck by the fact that this description does not include the word “student.”  That’s not because I don’t think the students matter.  They do.  But it’s because I believe that if I do those two things well, the students will be well-served.  An engaging, well-designed curriculum and co-curricular activities create opportunities for student learning and growth and promote their confidence in the department.  Advocating for faculty certainly means supporting their efforts and communicating their achievements and concerns to the upper administration (supporting their applications for merit pay or arguing for appropriate teaching workloads, for example). But advocacy also means helping them identify areas to work on (e.g. promoting pedagogical initiatives designed to enhance their teaching, creating writing groups to help them move their research forward) and then providing professional development opportunities and resources to help them do that work.

In 2013, for example, I got support from our Provost’s office to work with a group of department faculty on how we teach writing in our survey courses.  Our survey courses require a heavy writing component and this is often a stumbling block for our first-semester students.  This project allowed us to focus on that element of these courses in an effort to improve teaching at the department level, but the project also ultimately serves the university’s larger goal of improving student retention.

The five faculty who piloted this project responded enthusiastically, worked collaboratively, and provided their students with a richer learning experience. Faculty who are led and supported in these ways will be engaged, motivated, and well-equipped to serve their students.

Curiously, this is even an approach that some parts of the corporate world have embraced.   Herb Kelleher, the then-CEO of Southwest Airlines, once famously responded to a disgruntled customer who wrote letters of complaint after each flight: Dear Mrs. Crabapple: We will miss you. Love, Herb.” His point was not to be rude to this customer, but it was to suggest that the customer is not always right and that he supported his employees over the unreasonable demands of customers. In other words, he was taking seriously the experience and morale of the people who worked for him, with the knowledge that their satisfaction would translate into a positive experience for the people boarding his planes.

Obviously, this is an extreme example, but it makes a broader point. If the goal of the university is to educate and transform lives and create a responsible citizenry then we should take seriously the question of how to accomplish this. One of the best ways to ensure that students have a rich and rewarding experience is not to focus on them as customers, but to invest in the people entrusted with providing that experience: the faculty.

If we adopt a “student-as-customer” driven model, the role of the department chair is completely transformed and shifts to one of manager.  Rather than promoting their departmental mission and supporting their faculty, chairs would manage student expectations and complaints, and monitor the faculty to ensure that they were delivering a satisfactory experience.

In the same way that this cheapens the experience of faculty and student interaction, it threatens to change the relationship between administration and faculty in unpleasant and unproductive ways.  This does not mean that administrators should ignore student complaints or problematic faculty behavior.  But if we reduce the student to customer (and as David Perry so persuasively argues “Students are not customers to be served. They are far more important than that.”) we transform the culture in which we adjudicate and resolve these conflicts for the worse.  Administrators become managers, wagging their fingers at an increasingly defensive faculty worried about student complaints, instead of leaders and facilitators (which is what I believe the best administrators are) working to help faculty realize their full potential.

The question, then, is not either/or.  We should not choose between the faculty and the students.  We should, however, make a deliberate decision about the kind of department cultures we want to create and where we want to put our (finite) energies.  If I have done my job right behind the scenes and outside the classroom and worked to cultivate an engaged and motivated faculty, the students–hopefully conceived of as something much more significant than mere customers–can only benefit.

Open Door Policy

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/eb/Open_door_button_1996_Stock_(cropped).jpgIn 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.