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Hitting the Ground Running: Making Strategic Changes

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I believe that there is a honeymoon period during which people in an organization are willing to give a new leader some latitude and try new things. Thus, it is important to hit the ground running. 



The posting below looks at what new department chairs need to pay attention to to get off to a fast start.  It is by John Paxton is head of the Department of Computer Science at Montana State University. Email: This article is based on a presentation at the 27th annual Academic Chairpersons Conference, February 11-12, 2010, Orlando, Florida.  The article below is from The Department Chair: A Resource for Academic Administrators, Winter, 2011, Vol. 21, No. 3. For further information on how to subscribe, as well as pricing and discount information, please contact, Sandy Quade, Account Manager, John Wiley & Sons, Phone: (203) 643-8066 ( or see:


Rick Reis

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Hitting the Ground Running: Making Strategic Changes


I stepped into the department head role unexpectedly in August 2007 when the former head accepted a dean's position elsewhere. The challenges that the department faced at the time were declining student enrollments, relatively low research productivity, and loose alignment with the university's vision to be more interdisciplinary. Since then, the department has made significant improvements in five different strategic areas: curriculum, research, space and facilities, development, and public relations. I believe that there

is a honeymoon period during which people in an organization are willing to give a new leader some latitude and try new things. Thus, it is important to hit the ground running.



Structural changes. Three structural changes were made. First and most significantly, we split our bachelor of science degree into two options: a traditional professional option and a new interdisciplinary option. The interdisciplinary option allows a student to pursue a minor of choice. During a student's senior year, a capstone project that relates computing to the selected minor is undertaken. This option caters to students who have interests outside of computing and aligns with our institution's vision to be more interdisciplinary.

We also made our minor more flexible and added a courses-only option for our masters' students to better cater to employees of local industry such as RightNow Technologies and Zoot Enterprises.

Course changes. One new course to highlight is an interdisciplinary Web design course that was first offered in the spring 2009 semester. We developed and now team-teach the course in equal partnership with the art department. The course has attracted one

hundred students from diverse disciplines in each of its first three offerings and is likely to serve two hundred students per semester now that it has an "arts" core designation.

Instructor enhancements. Because our faculty is fairly small, we have hired industry practitioners to teach certain regular offerings (such as software engineering and computer security) and special onetime offerings (such as user interface design). Students have responded favorably to being taught by industry practitioners and being exposed to cutting-edge industry tools.

Results. Student enrollments in regular computer science courses have increased by more than 10% and the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology cited the interdisciplinary option as a strength of our program.


The strategy used to increase research expenditures is twofold. First, incentives were aligned with desired behavior by articulating a standard teaching load (two courses per semester), a course buy-out policy (providing one ninth of one's salary), and general standards

for promotion using research as the area of excellence. Second, good hires were made in this area. Results. Funded research has increased 150% from fiscal year 2007 to fiscal year 2010. One of our faculty members won an NSF Career Award.

Space and Facilities

It is important to understand the space that your department controls and to ensure that it is being used effectively. To this end, our department has made three significant changes.

First, eight graduate student areas were largely reorganized. Graduate students who work with the same professor or on related research projects are now seated in the same room. In addition, many of the graduate student rooms have been named (e.g., Data Mining Lab) to foster future grant applications.

Second, an underutilized room has been converted into a space that functions as a robotics laboratory and small classroom. In order to make computer science more appealing, some of our early courses now incorporate a short robotic unit, and we have added new elective

courses in the areas of robot vision and robot navigation. The room doubles as a showroom for prospective students.

Third, an underutilized student lounge was given a facelift. The room is now used for student club meetings, by students between classes, by students studying together, and even by the occasional student who wants to nap on the sofa!


When I first became department head, development was the area that I least understood. Two and a half years later, I understand that development, if done successfully, greatly enhances an organization.

Advisory board. A strong advisory board can provide critical feedback on current directions and future opportunities and assist the department in better understanding current industry needs. This in turn can provide ideas for development opportunities.


Our advisory board has been updated with nine new members since 2007. In general, advisory board members who can contribute incisive feedback to the department and who are in positions of leadership within their companies have proven especially valuable.

Industry Affiliates Program. Our department began its Industry Affiliates Program in 2007. Industry Affiliates members pay a yearly membership fee (currently $25,000 to join at the gold membership level and $15,000 to join at the silver membership level) in return for various benefits. Presently, we have three members in our Industry Affiliates Program and hope to grow this number once the economy has better recovered. The annual revenues that we receive ($55,000 in 2009) enable us to hire a half-time associate research professor

in an area of critical need (software engineering).

RightNow Technologies Distinguished Professor. In 2006-2007, the department had failed on a faculty search that included a generous three year start-up package provided by RightNow Technologies. After discussions with key people, the search criteria were reformulated to cast a wider net. The resulting search was successful and allowed us to hire a midcareer researcher from Johns Hopkins University

for the fall 2008 semester.

The success of this search was critically important from a development standpoint. Making an impactful hire not only allowed the department to benefit from the start-up monies, but also makes it more likely that this company will continue to support us in the future.

Other ideas. Development benefits range from scholarships for students, to support for an adjunct instructor to teach a course, to being given the use of a boardroom for an annual retreat. Development is an area where outside-the- box thinking can be very effective.

It is important to remember that development is an ongoing process and does not stop when a gift is made. Remember to thank your donors.

Public Relations

Stakeholders want to be associated with an organization where positive things are happening and information regarding the organization is easy to obtain. To reach our stakeholders more effectively, we have turned to our departmental website and other communication tools. Website. In summer 2007, our website was out of date, incomplete, and difficult to maintain. Our system administrator recommended porting our website to Drupal, an open source, content management platform that allows nontechnical users to make changes to the website using a relatively straightforward editing system. During the spring 2008 semester, two students undertook an independent study project to make a shadow copy of the current website using Drupal, and we went live with the new version in summer 2008.

Whether it is recruiting a new faculty member, allowing a prospective student to more easily learn about our curriculum, recruiting a new member for our advisory board, or letting a potential donor know more about our organization, having an up-to-date and informative website is crucial.

Other ideas. We have promoted our department members by applying for various awards at both the college and university levels. In the spring 2009 semester, department members won three College of Engineering awards and one university-wide award. Winning awards acknowledges outstanding work being done by department members and sends a positive message to the outside world about the quality of

the organization.


Although I work differently as a department head than I did as a faculty member, I am enjoying the challenges of the position greatly. I enjoy working with the organization's stakeholders to improve it, learning new skills, and meeting new people.

In order to make strategic changes, here are a few final suggestions for new department heads: understand your context, seek buy-in, be patient but persistent, seek opportunity in adversity, utilize students when practical, be willing to do some of the work yourself but also be willing to delegate, choose your battles carefully, read relevant literature (e.g., Gardner, 1990; Sample, 2002), and finally, celebrate wins whether they are big or small.


Gardner, J. W. (1990). On leadership. New York: Free Press.

Sample, S. (2002). The contrarian's guide to leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.