Roles and Responsibilities of Department Chairs
By Irene W.D. Hecht
In talking with several hundred department-chairs each year, we find that many say they were not prepared for the role shift from faculty to chairs. Particularly, chairs being promoted from inside the department do not anticipate their life to be much different. While new chairs foresee having new responsibilities, they are not always prepared for the shift in how faculty colleagues and others treat them. Almost immediately, new chairs discover that long-time faculty colleagues (and friends) respond to them differently. Some faculty, for example, will assume that the new chair is "too busy" to join the informal lunch bunch now that s/he is an "administrator." Others will be less candid than previously in discussing issues affecting the department. Some may even avoid the chair. Yet, the same group of faculty colleagues are likely to hold high expectations for the performance of the new chair. Close acquaintances will expect the new chair to "fix" those policies and procedures about which he or she used to commiserate with faculty colleagues. Most faculty will expect the new chair to be able to "hold the line" with the administration on every issue because they trust the new chair to know the situation and have a full understanding of the department's needs. Walking the fine line between the role of colleagues and department chair can be difficult.
John Bennett identified three major transitions that new department chairs experience. The first shift comes in moving from being a specialist to functioning as a generalist. As a faculty member, an individual specializes in one academic area. However, when an individual becomes a department chair, he or she must have a thorough understanding of the full spectrum of department offerings. Moreover, faculty colleagues expect the new chair to represent all specializations within the department with equal enthusiasm. In addition to being held accountable for more content, the new chair is also responsible for a substantive grasp of the total department as soon as possible, because other faculty will be suspicious and critical of any chair who can only advocate his or her teaching and research specialty.
The second transition the department chair experiences is the shift from functioning as an individual to running a collective. For the most part, faculty work independently at their own pace. Other than holding assigned classes or attending scheduled meetings, faculty determine when they work on course preparation, research, or other projects. On most campuses faculty set their own office hours, and determine when they come and go, around class and meeting times. Department chairs, however, must orchestrate the work done by this group of individuals who work independently. Worse yet, some chair duties cause the new chair to interfere with the independence of faculty members. Chairs, for example assign courses and class times, schedule meetings, and solicit attendance at special events such as recruitment or placement fairs and award programs. Chairs need to balance their respect for faculty autonomy with their responsibility for carrying out the department mission.
The third major transition described by Bennett is the shift from loyalty to one's discipline to loyalty to the institution. Chairs must represent the institution's perspective. There will be times when chairs may need to sacrifice a discipline need or a department preference for an institutional need. These tough decisions are likely to make chairs unpopular with faculty who recognize only the discipline perspective and may believe that the chair should place the department first in every situation. Whether or not the department implements a student learning outcomes assessment program may not be a matter for the department to decide. Similarly, campus policy on course enrollment and the need to involve faculty in student recruitment and retention activities are likely to be matters on which the chair cannot refuse the department's support and participation. Individuals who remain loyal to the discipline and fail to learn the institution's perspective and respond to campus needs become liabilities to the institution and undermined the standing of the department on the campus.
Downloaded from Tomorrow’s Professor listserv July 13, 2001. The excerpt is taken from: The Department Chair as Academic Leader. © 1999 by The American Council on Education and The Oryx Press Published by The Oryx Press, reprinted with permission.