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The Chair as First Responder in Times of Crisis

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In many ways, department chairs may function as first respondersfrom within the college or university and play a key role in supporting faculty as they recover and rebuild.


The posting below looks at the department chair’s role in times of large scale crisis. It is by Lynn M. Hemmer* and is from The Department Chair: A Resource for Academic Administrators, Winter 2019, Vol. XX, No. 3. Copyright © 2019 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

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The Chair as First Responder in Times of Crisis

In the United States, the hurricane season typically begins June 1 and ends November 30. The institutions of higher education (IHE) that are most likely to be affected by a hurricane pay particularly close attention to early formation and preparedness. If the hurricane makes landfall (either direct or nearby), the IHE may have to shift to recovery and resilience. However, even if the buildings and infrastructure of the IHE are spared a hurricane’s wrath, nearby homes and communities may be more vulnerable and suffer overwhelming loss and destruction. 

Late in the evening of August 25, 2017, Hurricane Harvey slammed the Texas coast as a Category 4 storm, devastating communities in its path. Destructive winds, historic rainfall, and storm surges affected more than sixty counties. Many coastal towns sustained heavy damage not only to buildings and homes but also to their infrastructure. In the immediate aftermath, many of the affected communities were without electricity, water, and cell phone service. For many, myself included, lives were upended and our communities were in crisis mode. 

Certainly, the most comprehensive crisis management plan can never fully prepare someone to deal with the extensive and long-lasting damage brought about by a Category 4 hurricane. However, this article isn’t about the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey but rather the role department chairs can play in considering the new needs of faculty affected by an event such as a hurricane. The suggestions presented in this article emerged from faculty retrospective reflections fourteen months after experiencing Hurricane Harvey and vary in focus from administration operations, coping strategies, communication, and empathy. 

The Chair’s Role: The Norm

There already exists an overwhelming complexity of demands placed on department chairs. During times of normalcy, these demands include being able to effectively navigate the systems of the organization, develop and use interpersonal skills, manage power relationships, understand and enact the cultural norms of the organization, and mentor faculty. Chairs are also in pivotal leadership positions to provide insight into the thinking, planning, and execution of administrative and programmatic decisions. Faculty (especially those new to the profession) often rely on department chairs for support as they engage in research and produce scholarship while acclimating to and navigating in the higher education system. In turn, chairs must not only possess an understanding of the wide range of professional needs of faculty but also be proactive and empowering in their support. 

Higher education settings are also known as time-competitive environments where uncertainty (e.g., promotion and tenure) is pervasive for faculty. This uncertainty can be further exacerbated following a catastrophic event such as a hurricane. As such, the department chair’s role is likely to be compounded due to ongoing strain on faculty related to trauma and can require changes to normal function.

In many ways, department chairs may function as first responders from within the college or university and play a key role in supporting faculty as they recover and rebuild. Similar in concept to emergency personnel first responders, the chair may be the first administrator from the IHE to check in with faculty before, during, and following a hurricane. This new role may be a departure from traditional roles and challenge chairs to think differently about operational performance and expectations, especially to ensure that a secondary trauma isn’t projected onto affected faculty due to rigid organizational boundaries. As the first responder, in this context, the chair must be equipped to perform an initial assessment (triage) of faculty needs, followed by more targeted assessments. 

The goal of the first phone call is to make faculty feel comfortable and heard while the chair also starts to collect critical information: Are faculty and their families safe? Do they have a particular immediate need? During this call, the department chair allows faculty to speak freely about their current situations and concerns by being an active listener. In this sense, it is okay to ask questions to better understand what is happening to them. In some cases, the chair may be able to point them to needed resources, although not always. Regardless, the chair can offer reassurances, as an individual and on behalf of the organization. Key to this initial conversation is to not underestimate the power of empathy.

In the days (and months) immediately following a hurricane, emotions become more complex processes as stress levels rise. Understanding that emotions are configured and shaped not only by the stress of experiencing a hurricane but also by one’s changed environment (e.g., homelessness, lack of basic services) allows chairs a useful perspective through which they are able to respond and perhaps use this information to guide their thinking and actions to help faculty.

Strong, compassionate department chairs see things for what they are; they recognize the crisis at hand and its significance on faculty well-being. Their formula for success when responding to a crisis such as a hurricane is part dispositional, part personal, and part action oriented. They find ways to reach out to faculty, maintain communication, focus on the personal losses suffered by faculty, reduce faculty feelings of isolation, provide information, identify organizational resources, be encouraging, put a positive spin on a challenge, reassure faculty, be an active listener, show genuine empathy and sympathy when appropriate, remain calm, and focus more on the human element and less on the operational environment.

Survive, Recover, Rebuild

Since Hurricane Harvey, Irma and Maria followed in 2017 and Florence and Michael and in 2018. Finding ways to help affected faculty navigate crisis conditions is paramount. From my own perspective as a faculty member in which I was displaced from my home for over one month, followed by an inordinate amount of hurricane cleanup, I have much appreciation for a strong department chair, especially in times of crisis. I recognize from that aspect of leadership that there is an art to dealing with sudden and unexpected events. It is important to also acknowledge that some critical issues may not be resolved by the chair and that certain issues are beyond the capacity of the role. However, chairs’ actions should reflect their unique positions as faculty leaders, responsible for the organization and positioning the department in a meaningful way, to include faculty support beyond the promotion and tenure process. When strength of character and values are combined, it is also possible to provide faculty support by using resilience, responsiveness, and flexibility. 

Offer Assistance to Other Colleges during Emergencies

When the mass shooting occurred at Umpqua Community College in 2016, Mary Spilde was the president of Lane Community College, the closest college to Umpqua. 

Lane officials were invited to help at Umpqua, and two carloads arrived, not knowing what to expect, Spilde said. But with many details that needed attention, Lane officials found plenty to do. Spilde explained lessons she learned at a session at the American Association of Community Colleges annual convention:

Plan, plan, plan. Spilde realized there were many details she needed to think through if there were an emergency on campus.

Where would evacuated students and staff go? If evacuees left their backpacks and keys on campus, how would the administration help? If the campus is a crime scene, where can classes and work continue on a temporary basis?

Think about email and voicemail screening. Umpqua’s president could not keep up with the email about the incident and needed someone to sort through it. A call from the White House also got buried in voicemail.

Consider support administrators need. Lane officials paired with their counterparts at Umpqua. Spilde made sure Umpqua’s president had a ride everywhere she needed to go and had food and water. She also helped the president write an important speech. 

Control media presence and other visitors. Officials parked media next to campus and allowed reporters on campus only for scheduled media sessions. They also asked members of religious organizations to stay in one place on campus and let students come to them, after complaints that they were alarming students.

Manage dignitaries.When President Barack Obama visited, Spilde helped decide who would be in the space with him.

Create redundant alert systems.Umpqua’s system was down, but the backup worked.

Communicate after the event. Think about how to tell the story, and don’t get distracted by other versions.

By Joan Hope, editor of Dean & Provost, also published by Jossey-Bass, a 

Wiley Brand. To learn more, go to


About the Author

Lynn M. Hemmer is associate professor and coordinator of the educational administration program at Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi. Email: