Chair Philosophy

I recognize that each university has its system of management, which generates unique issues and processes. Also, each academic department has its history and way of doing things. The following statement is an effort to outline general management principles. I suspect that specific issues and tasks would vary depending on the nature of the department. With that said, here is what I believe.

What I believe an academic department should be

I sense that a department should be a scholarly and creative community of students and faculty. An innovative and academic society must be tolerant of divergent and fringe ideas from the fringe that most new ideas develop. It occurs in and out of the classroom. It is essential to a healthy and supportive department. The sense of community separates us from other forms of education and work.

In a scholarly community, faculty and students engage in the learning process to promote intellectual development in a supportive and nurturing environment. An academic community is not merely the research, publication, or production of ideas; it requires the freedom and ability to engage in intellectual discourse that fosters the development and extension of new ideas.

A creative community is one in which faculty and students feel safe. Faculty and students are encouraged, supported, and protected in such a way as to promote exploration, experience, and creativity. A creative community is much more than its product. It must celebrate the process as well as the emergent outcomes.

The role of the chair

The primary function of the chair is service: service to students, the faculty, and the administration. The chair needs to ease the way so that the department can accomplish its primary mission: teaching. This leadership includes allocating resources, facilitating decision-making and planning, representing the department to the administration, mediating faculty disputes, and addressing those tasks required to keep the primary departmental purpose moving forward. Often these activities are not done in isolation. The faculty should be involved in the process.

The chair’s role is to assist the faculty in their personal and professional growth. The reasons that a faculty member chooses to teach are probably as varied as the number of faculty on campus. Teaching is only one aspect of a faculty member’s aspirations in most cases. To have a faculty who is satisfied with their work experiences, personal and professional goals must be fulfilled. The chair needs to be mindful of these goals and assist faculty members in accomplishing them.

The role of the faculty

A chair is not a peer and has institutional, legal, and departmental responsibilities and accountability to multiple constituencies both in and outside the department. A faculty member is accountable to the department and the chair.

For a chair to succeed, the faculty must accept a followership role. This acceptance means engaging in service and taking a leadership role beyond that in an academic department. A faculty member also must have a community or departmental orientation, using what is best for the department as a decision rule. Finally, the faculty must be willing to engage in shared governance, providing the input and participation necessary to move the department forward.

Departmental decision-making

Although each institution has a slightly different administrative structure that would define the decision-making parameters, there are fundamentally three areas that a chair must address within the daily administration of a department: departmental governance, facilitating administrative processes, and supervision. These areas are often interrelated and, at times, will conflict. A chair must be flexible enough to recognize which type of decision-making is most appropriate for what situation. Let me outline each of these areas in turn.  

Departmental governance – Departmental governance is often known as faculty governance. The faculty must play a key role in shaping the department through its decisions.

In departmental governance, the faculty has a mixture of rights and responsibilities that provide direction and focus for the department. The most fundamental of these responsibilities is the department’s definition: what are the department’s focus, goals, and objectives? Faculty needs to address departmental direction or blueprint, the development of policies and procedures, the committee structure, the curriculum, admission criteria, tenure and promotion, and decisions on governance that do not conflict with the legally defined role of the supervisor. 

The role of the department chair in departmental governance is to serve as a catalyst and facilitate the decision-making process. These roles involve providing ideas, suggestions, and feedback to keep the process moving forward and hold people accountable for decisions. The chair, also a faculty member, should have a voice equal to any other faculty member in this process.

Facilitating administrative processes – I define the mundane things that need daily to free the faculty to teach and do research as those in the administrative processes category. Activities and processes include fund-raising, internal and external public relations, promoting technology, ensuring equipment works, adequate office supplies, scheduling, coordinating enrollment management and recruiting room scheduling, monitoring student performance, and implementing agreed-upon policies and procedures.

Often the chair is responsible for these activities because the faculty is not interested in these tasks. As is frequently the case with a graduate program, program responsibilities may fall to faculty members. Faculty participation may also be necessary to manage or participate in events that surround these types of issues.

Decision-making is typically on a case-by-case basis. The department chair should consult with the faculty as necessary to facilitate the smooth operation of the department. If left to my own devices, my decision tree tends to flow as follows:

  • What is best for the department (and, by implication, the institution)?
  • What is best for the students?
  • What is best for the faculty?
  • What is best for the individual faculty member?
  • Flip a coin (a decision is better than no choice)

Supervision – Supervision is the area that is usually the most controversial. The issues in this section are typically those the department chair as a supervisor must make decisions by a university or legal definition. Departmental input informs these decisions, but the chair is held accountable. Examples of the issues that fall into this category include performance evaluations, acting as the departmental fiscal agent, representing the department to the administration, assigning duties, hiring and evaluating faculty, and discipline.

The chair is both responsible and accountable for making decisions in this area. The chair must seek the faculty’s input and makes decisions that are in the best interest of the department.