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The Challenges of Chairing a Large and a Small Department

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Fourteen years ago I was chair of the largest department on campus.... Today, I am chair of the smallest department on campus...From this unique vantage point, I would like to share some of the highs and lows of managing both situations and discuss the current challenges small departments may face on college campuses.


The posting below looks at the challenges of chairing large and small departments. It is by Catriona T. Higgs* and is from The Department Chair: A Resource for Academic Administrators, Winter, 2016, Vol. 26, 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 Challenges of Chairing a Large and a Small Department


Fourteen years ago I was chair of the largest department on campus. I oversaw three programs, four minors, twenty-seven faculty, and seven hundred students. It was a significant responsibility and demanding of my time and energy. Today, I am chair of the smallest department on campus, overseeing one program, one minor, two faculty, and 160 students. The demands are no less significant than my previous position, and the work is no less important. From this unique vantage point, I would like to share some of the highs and lows of managing both situations and discuss the current challenges small departments may face on college campuses.

Managing a Large Department

For a host of different reasons, it would seem that managing a large department would be more difficult for a chair. The faculty dynamics alone are challenging to navigate, and a myriad of programs with limited resources means that there are hard (and sometimes unpopular) choices that have to be made. However, there are some major advantages to this situation that include the following:

• The ability to delegate university/ department/accreditation/curricular responsibilities to faculty and

committees based on interest levels and expertise

• Sharing onerous duties such as serving on representative college and university committees and admissions demands including Saturday visitations, summer previews, and meetings with prospective and transfer students

• Larger budgets and more resources


My role as chair of this large department was primarily administrative. I made sure that tasks were assigned and monitored the progress of these tasks to ensure that deadlines were met and projects completed. For these efforts, I was awarded a three-quarter release time, which was commensurate with the responsibilities and faculty managed. The largest burden was the constant evaluation of faculty and the headaches that arose from scheduling twenty-seven faculty in four buildings for more than one hundred classes every semester.

Managing a Small Department

Only having to deal with two other faculty members may seem like heaven to chairs who are used to handling faculty complaints, issues, and petty rivalries. There is something to be said for managing a department of three. I know my colleagues very well and, because we are such a small department, there is no passing the buck or skirting duties. The concept of social loafing doesn’t exist, and I don’t have to constantly think of ways to motivate less-than-eager tenured faculty who feel it is other people’s responsibility (generally the nontenured) to complete tasks. Although a small department does not have the headaches that accompany personnel issues, there are numerous problems:

• There is no one to delegate to. As chair, I am involved in all aspects of the department. There is no higher-level administrative decision-making. Every task, every committee, and every responsibility falls on me and the two other faculty.

• All university departments are expected to contribute to the functioning of the larger body, both at the college and university levels. We are therefore expected to produce all relevant documents and assume all responsibilities on college and university committees just like departments four times our size, including reports, admissions duties, and the like.

• Our resources, especially our budget, are very limited.

I now also receive only a quarter release time to fulfill all of these duties, when in reality a half-time release would be much fairer given the tremendous workload. As we are a unionized faculty and our contract is subject to the collective bargaining agreement negotiated between management and faculty, all release time for administrative work is based on the number of faculty managed. There is also a danger that, because resources are limited and faculty are spread so thin, our contributions to the college and university are lost or unnoticed. We operate in a college where our discipline is peripheral, so it is essential that we stand out and be noticed. In order to remain relevant and visible I have done the following:

Highlighted the achievements of our students and alumni both within the university and outside. Annually, I produce a list of accomplishments for the year and send this to our dean, provost, and president. We use public relations to broadcast significant achievements (for example, in summer 2015, two of our students worked the MLB All Star Game in Cincinnati, two worked the Para Pan Olympics in Toronto, and one of our students was accepted for the USOC Flame Program in Colorado Springs).

Encouraged faculty to serve on high-visibility university-wide committees such as the institutional review board, curriculum committee, liberal studies, and tenure and promotions. The interaction with other university faculty is important and helps to support our status and credibility as a viable department unit.

Prioritized reports or input requests from the dean or other administrators. Completing these requests as soon as possible sends an important message that we are “on top of things” and that we are using the resources provided efficiently and effectively.

Volunteered (and encouraged other faculty to volunteer) to serve on committees that hire senior-level managers (deans, vice presidents, etc.). It is important to ascertain their potential knowledge and support of our discipline and also to enhance the credibility of our department.

Encouraged innovation in the ways that classes are offered. Our scheduling has to be very flexible. We have made use of online delivery, especially in the summer and winter terms. We are thus able to cover fifty-eight core credits and offer all classes (but one) at least twice a year. I have also encouraged faculty to think of different ways of delivering information. For example, we recently negotiated with a software company to provide us with their product (used in the industry and in only three other universities in the nation) at a reduced cost. This product will enable us to provide our students with a unique way of learning the skills necessary to be successful in sales.

Rewarded professional performance. I have encouraged faculty (both of whom are tenured and hold high rank) to continue to present and publish and consult in the discipline. This provides district and national visibility for the program.

Generated revenue through two annual fundraising events. We are able to supplement our department budget with these funds and buy software, sponsor trips, and meet other financial needs that help to address our overall mission.


Today’s chair is expected to do more with less, and those who chair small departments understand the challenges of leading in this climate. It is widely recognized that the chair’s role in effecting change and shaping department policies is pivotal within the academy. It is easy to bemoan the luxuries of chairs who have numerous faculty on whom to rely, but I see the major benefits of chairing a small department as outweighing the disadvantages. Planning and managing the department’s resources may be more challenging, but there is no part of the daily operation of the unit that I am not involved with or do not have control over. I am also fortunate to work with faculty who share the same vision and strategic plans for the future. These positive aspects make an almost impossible job possible. 


*Catriona T. Higgs is professor and chair of the Department of Sport Management at Slippery Rock University. Email: