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A Conversation with New Chairs

Tomorrow's Academy

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For new chairs, I recommend thinking about three simple questions. This exercise helps to clarify values and provides a starting point on how to begin a career in administration.



The posting below looks at the leadership skills needed to be a good department chair. It is by Allen Furr, a professor of sociology and faculty fellow for leadership at Auburn University. Email:, and is from The Department Chair: A Resource for Academic Administrators, April 14, 2018. Vol. 28, No. 4. Copyright © 2018 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. 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}




Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Structured Silence


Tomorrow’s Academy

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A Conversation with New Chairs

Well, you are a department head. No doubt you have already heard that being a chair is a hard, thankless, and sometimes seemingly hopeless job. When I first became a chair, people actually said to me, “Glad it's you and not me” and “I couldn't take it and quit.” My predecessor told me to be prepared to see my colleagues in a new light, and another, trying to give me sage advice, warned that being chair takes “half your time, every other minute.” One colleague even came to me and simply asked, “Are you crazy?”

At that point, a reasonable person may have reconsidered the decision to move into administration, but I carried on, thinking that it couldn't be so bad. I was wrong. Within a month of assuming the chair's position, and just a couple of weeks before classes started, a tenured professor abruptly resigned, and a couple of months later, an adjunct professor was accused (quite wrongly) of fomenting mass violence, an accusation that triggered an email campaign by a large political network that targeted my university president and me. I was instructed to conduct an immediate investigation and report to my dean. Were my friends right in warning me not to become chair?

Once these two events passed, however, I settled into the business of doing what I had aspired to do—be the head of a strong and productive department. In short order, however, I had learned that being a chair meant more than scheduling classes and buying supplies.

Normal operations proved to be just as much of a challenge. In this environment of decentralization and accountability, department chairs have greater responsibility over personnel and resources and must be aware of and accountable for all facets of liability, risk, and compliance. Furthermore, chairs have increasing responsibility for the tenor of the workplace environment. Consequently, with these duties and the move toward a more corporate management model, chairs, I soon discovered, are considered part of the university's leadership structure.

Chairs, however, are often ill prepared for leadership, and many neither consider themselves as embodying leadership qualities nor identify as leaders. But leaders they are, and I learned that lesson at the department meeting held in response to the accusation of violence levied against our colleague. The allegation elicited many emotions among department members, including anger, fear, and paranoia. At that meeting, all eyes were on me, the chair. The expectations of my colleagues were for me to manage this crisis and to lead them through it, minimize the damage, protect the integrity of the accused and the department, and ensure the safety of all faculty and staff members.

When any problem or opportunity arises, department members turn to the chair for guidance and answers. They are looking for leadership, and you need to be ready.

This requires developing leadership skills and gaining a degree of comfort holding (and wielding) authority. But where do you begin? Department chairs are not professional managers. Rather, they are accomplished academicians who are trained to excel in their fields of study, not to perform managerial and administrative tasks. Many find themselves as the department head without a clear idea of why they are doing it. For new chairs, I recommend thinking about three simple questions. This exercise helps to clarify values and provides a starting point on how to begin a career in administration.

First, ask yourself why you became a chair. You probably responded with one of the following: the added income, a desire for an administrative career, it was my turn or no one else was available, or the belief that you can do better than the previous chair. There is one follow‐up question: When you were in graduate school and an assistant professor, did you desire to become a chair? I've asked that question to dozens of chairs, and only one has yet to say yes. Young professors rarely envision an administrative career.

Deciding to become chair is not a casual decision, and some may feel an internal inconsistency or dissonance in making the decision. You may have heard or even said yourself that becoming an administrator is a sellout. Many hold the perception that administrators are people who can no longer do the academics well or who perhaps never could. Administrators, as the saying often goes, are no longer “one of us.”

I contend that it is honorable to want to be an academic leader if your motivation is in the right place. First, someone has to do it; you know you will do it right. Second, and more importantly, academicians are more productive and successful when the work environment enhances creativity, and you can help craft that environment. Your job as chair must be focused on creating an environment that fosters successful academic activity. A summary of the social psychology research on motivation tells that, assuming a reasonable income and other material benefits are present, professionals are motivated by three things: (1) professionals want purpose and meaning in their work; (2) they want to master their profession and improve their craft; and (3) they do their best work in conditions of self‐directedness — that is, they desire to be in control of their own work and to have little supervision.

As chair, you are in a position to maximize these fields of motivation, and if enhancing them is your primary motivator for being a chair, I believe you are on a path to success.

Understanding your motivation is important, and the more it is rooted in creating an environment that promotes professional performance and the careers of your colleagues, the more fulfilling you are going to find the job.

Here is the second question: What kind of chair do you want to be? Think about who you are as a leader and what constitutes a good leader. What is your orientation to academic leadership? Do you want to focus on being dynamic or maintaining stability? Do you see yourself as wanting to work within the department or outside of it, engaging with senior administrators, the discipline, or the community (Chu 2012)?

The practical side of knowing what kind of chair you want to be, however, emphasizes relating to colleagues and knowing your own preferences and goals in making decisions, especially financial ones.

There are two key areas I encourage you to think most about. First, be aware of your own biases, tendencies, and weak points. You are not going to like all parts of the job, and you likely will not be good at everything. For example, are you good at the big picture but have difficulty handling details?

The second focus area is to remember that you no longer relate to authority from the same position as your colleagues. Now you are the authority, and your colleagues, even those with whom you are friends, relate to you as the boss. When you speak, you must hear yourself as the chair because your colleagues do.

As a personal exercise, I encourage you to write your legacy now. Record the goals you want to accomplish and how you plan to achieve them. Also write how you want to be remembered as chair, and then devise a plan that will accomplish that legacy.

The third question is: What kind of chair do you need to be? Once you assume the duties of chair, if not before you start, among the first things you should do is to assess the current climate of the department: you should conduct an organizational audit. In this audit, your primary goals are to assess problems and successes and to determine what the department does right and wrong. Also meet with all colleagues and evaluate their personal strengths and limitations and their work, and then determine how you can contribute to their professional goals. In addition, assess how each person relates to authority.

Pay attention to department dynamics and gauge the guiding values and norms of how the department conducts business. What is critical here is getting a clear conceptual road map of the department's culture. How do people talk to one another and solve (or create) problems? Regarding conflict management and enhancement of performance, establish what works well and what does not.

From what you learn in this audit, make a plan using strengths as the tools and limitations as targets for setting goals.

Once you have assessed your motives, orientation to leadership, and the organizational environments in which you find yourself, the better prepared you will be. We know that effective chairs are fair and evenhanded, honest, and good communicators. Chairs are most successful if they have goals that are “we” and not “me” oriented (Leaming 2007). These qualities are easy to demonstrate if motivated to create an environment that promotes excellence in performance for everyone. If that is your goal, then you will find a way to make it work, and you will always have the satisfaction of knowing how you contributed to the promotion of others' careers, the development of your discipline, and the education of your students. And no one will ever question your decision to become a department chair.