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The Entrepreneurial Role of the Department Chair

Tomorrow's Academy

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Chairs who embrace this type of behavior most fervently are those who will lead successful units in the challenging times we now face. Such chairs must realize the risks involved in these efforts and be willing to accept some failures along the way. The up-front investments that chairs place on the table-and thus risk losing-may include fiscal and other resources, time and energy, personal credibility, and political capital. 



The posting below looks at a variety of ways that chairs can play an entrepreneurial role in enhancing the quality and effectiveness of a department. It is by N. Douglas Lees, associate dean for planning and finance at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and author of Chairing Academic Departments (Jossey-Bass, 2006). The article is from The Department Chair: A Resource for Academic Administrators, Winter 2014, Vol. 24, 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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Tomorrow's Academia 

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The Entrepreneurial Role of the Department Chair


A dictionary definition of entrepreneur is \"one willing to take risks to generate profits\" or something close in meaning. It is a business term applicable to most of our academic settings only with some liberalized expansion of what is being risked and which types of profits may be realized. Clearly, the business expectation that money would be the answer to both could also be the answer for some of the entrepreneurial work done in our colleges and universities. However, the academic entrepreneur may risk other valuable commodities and be more than willing to accept other forms of \"profitable\" outcomes.

The conversation here will focus on the entrepreneurial work conducted by academic chairs, who engage in this type of work to varying degrees. At one end of the spectrum are chairs who attend exclusively to the basic responsibilities of the position (scheduling and assigning classes, hiring adjuncts, completing paperwork, mentoring and evaluating faculty, etc.), while at the other end are chairs who also frequently look for ways to improve the status quo; generate new opportunities in teaching, research, and outreach; create new income streams; and enhance visibility in ways that lead to multiple desirable outcomes. Chairs who embrace this type of behavior most fervently are those who will lead successful units in the challenging times we now face. Such chairs must realize the risks involved in these efforts and be willing to accept some failures along the way. The up-front investments that chairs place on the table - and thus risk losing - may include fiscal and other resources, time and energy, personal credibility, and political capital.

Although administrators beyond the chair may have ideas about how to leverage innovation, chairs are closest to the intellectual engines of our institutions - the faculty - and are thus able to best match knowledge, skills, and motivation with opportunity. Further, they possess the disciplinary expertise necessary for implementation. This implies that the chair is familiar with each faculty member's teaching, research, and/or engagement interests, tolerance for change and sense of academic adventure, and personality in terms of patience with different perspectives and cultures.

Beyond a detailed professional and personal profile of each faculty member there is another attribute that is required for successful entrepreneurial ventures: the chair must be comfortable with, and even embrace, working outside of the home department. Entrepreneurial success will be limited if the chair defines his or her work strictly within the confines of the department. Those of us who work on large campuses with multiple schools know of such chairs. They are the ones who have been in their positions for five or six years yet some campus veteran asks, \"Who is the chair of the X department?\" Although some creative things can be done within the department, the potential for impact is much greater when chairs actively seek out opportunities across campus and beyond.

Chairs who are strategically engaged beyond the department will be exposed to opportunities that can directly or indirectly benefit the department by enhancing the instructional, research, or civic engagement/outreach profiles of its individual faculty. Although times are financially challenging, there is open season on creative new approaches to much of what we do and a significant shift in cultures and traditional expectations for faculty work that now place a premium on collaboration and interdisciplinary activities. For example, the chair of a department that does not usually offer courses central to general education may attend campus meetings on the subject and suggest a team-taught course that integrates several disciplines (adding educational coherency) including his or her own, such that it would be an attractive \"integrating experience\" within the context of the core curriculum. This, of course, can happen only if the chair has a faculty member(s) eager to team-teach a course. Successfully accomplishing this proposal would result in \"profits\" that include department \"visibility,\" access to a new student cohort, increased revenue generation, and scholarship opportunities for the faculty member. The risks are the chair's and faculty's time and effort and the resources needed to cover the faculty member's departmental teaching load, at least until others (adjuncts, advanced graduate students) could be trained for this work. This and all other such ventures also carry the risk of losing credibility if the people involved are difficult to work with or do not follow through on quality implementation. Hence, the earlier caution that chairs be familiar with the personal and personality characteristics of their faculty members must be considered at the outset.

Moving up in complexity, an entrepreneurial chair might envision an innovative, interdisciplinary degree or certificate program for the campus. This would be facilitated by the chair who is familiar with what other units have to offer in the way of interest and expertise. Such programs can attract new students, entice existing students, bring departmental and institutional visibility, and create a renewed \"relevance\" for the unit. For example, a certificate in health communication may accomplish all of these things for the communications department on a campus where there is a strong health professional school presence and a large number of students with health-related aspirations. Such a program may require the collaboration of chairs in units such as sociology, foreign languages, cultural studies, and those preparing health practitioners.

Research is an area of faculty responsibility where the entrepreneurial chair can have a great impact, whether it is a high-profile expectation on campus or just a modest one. Because of the increasingly complex nature of the questions we are asking or the problems we are trying to solve in the hard and social sciences, the range of expertise required is infrequently found in a single individual. Thus, collaborative teams are brought together formally or informally to tackle these issues in interdisciplinary ways. Centers are formal structures found in small colleges to large research universities that are established to gather faculty from multiple units who seek to address clusters of such issues. For example, a Center for American Studies might include faculty from history, political science, religion, and sociology, while a Center for Neuroscience could have faculty members from medicine, biology, chemistry, and behavioral sciences. Several cross-disciplinary projects in each of these examples can easily be envisioned. Chairs should be aware of existing campus centers and be prepared to form new ones based on campus-level expertise and interests as well as the foresight to see where the future lies in terms of student interest and external funding potential.

Chairs can also foster scholarship opportunities for faculty on an informal, individual basis. On a small campus, connecting faculty with one another may be easier because the chair has the benefit of knowing most faculty, but the potential matches may be fewer. On a large, complex campus, the externally active chair may be able to make some connections directly but may also depend on general network connections (people who know people) to identify others. These types of one-on-one connections facilitated by chairs are best initiated at the time of faculty recruitment. A chair who has several campus faculty colleagues and potential collaborators identified and scheduled to meet with the candidate during the interview has created a powerful incentive for a positive response to an offer. Young faculty want to be affiliated with others who share their interests, who can offer resources not otherwise available, and who can introduce them to other \"players\" in the field.

The globally engaged chair also will have increased opportunities to involve the department and its faculty in meaningful outreach activities. Partnerships with local businesses and industries for employee training and the local K-12 systems for teacher enhancement can lead to several high-profile outcomes including internship and volunteer opportunities for students, visibility in the media, and the eligibility to apply for external funding. Myriad other civic engagement activities are possible, and the true entrepreneurial chair will focus on those with the potential to yield multiple \"profits\" for the department, its faculty, and its students. All of this, of course, also adds to the overall institutional luster.

The current fiscal climate dictates that we find new ways to create new income streams as well as enhance our value in the eyes of our publics. To be successful there must be changes at all levels of our institutions. Within our context, departments and their leadership are critical focal points in this process. Chairs can no longer afford to be exclusively disciplinary domain centric in their work. Does this mean still more work for chairs? Not necessarily. It does mean, however, that chairs will have to work and think differently. This may provide an opportunity or impetus for chairs to examine some of their traditional managerial tasks (class scheduling, budget oversight) and delegate them to staff and faculty.

The entrepreneurial chair is highly visible in venues beyond the department and the institution. While interacting with constituents from other disciplines and enterprises, the chair scans the environment for possible opportunities for individual faculty and the department as a whole. If something of promise is identified or envisioned, the chair must possess the courage to engage the potential collaborators and take some resource risks to gain interest and indicate commitment in order to keep the dialogue moving. Some of these efforts will be successful while others will not get off the ground or may crash and burn later. This is acceptable as no one closes every deal and it only takes a few successes to significantly change the trajectory and momentum of the department. The important element is the persistence of the entrepreneurial mindset.