Academic Department Chair: Two Years In

I’ve waited nearly two years to make my first post about being a chair of an academic department. Frankly, I’ve needed time to get used to the job. When I was hired, I was told it would take a year just to start figuring things out. That was true. It’s also true that I’m still figuring things out.

Let’s back up a bit. In August 2016, I joined the Department of Communications at the University of North Alabama as chair. Prior to arriving in Florence, I had been a practicing journalist who eventually made my way through grad school and into the academy full time (with a teaching gig in Seoul, South Korea, along the way). You can find all of that on my curriculum vitae (see my home page for the latest version).

If this post is to be valuable to anyone in any way, it might be as a brief exploration of the opportunities and general frustrations that accompany this kind of job. For any of the long-time department chairs, deans, and provosts out there, you’re welcome to offer some sage advice here or through my UNA contact page. For faculty members thinking about pursuing a department chair position sooner or later, perhaps a few of these thoughts will help you prep for the job.

 

OPPORTUNITIES

1) Reexamining the Curriculum

Academic departments, especially those focusing on mass media education, have a responsibility to stay professionally relevant, academically rigorous, and appropriately experimental. This requires a consistent-but-flexible curriculum. Core courses are in the core for a reason: the concepts and practices they address are important. However, reexamining how those courses are taught should always be a priority.

It can be exciting to experiment with new course designs, and as chair, I get to set the tone for how we do it. Failure is fine. Everything we try won’t be an instant winner. But through failure, we learn how to get better. Departments that seek to punish faculty for taking appropriate risks don’t typically innovate. Forget that.

2) Mentoring Faculty

I don’t claim to be the world’s greatest mentor. I do claim to try, though. Mentoring faculty requires a lot of paying attention and patience. For some, it can be as simple as letting them know their perspectives are appreciated. For others, it’s creating a supportive culture so they can discuss their achievements and frustrations.

For faculty members who are older and have been in the academy longer, the mentoring process could include learning what new endeavors they might like to pursue and then helping them do it. For younger faculty members, be active in their career and help them set and reach goals.

Avoid micromanagement (because it sucks, it stifles innovation, and it kills motivation). Find opportunities for faculty colleagues to become better educators and professionals. I hold fast to this philosophy: when you help those around you become successful, you become successful, as well.

3) Building (or Rebuilding) Programs

This is immensely satisfying. As a department chair, you’ll have a little more leverage at your disposal to pursue broader visions for your academic programs. Depending on the state of the program once you get there, it could take a little time to determine what that vision looks like. Executing the vision will take time, too, so as a practical matter, save your sanity by recognizing it may take several years of incremental progress before the task is finally done. Also, I think it’s best to avoid the “leaving a legacy” trap. Instead, focus on creating sustainable programs that improve future prospects for your faculty, staff and students.

 

FRUSTRATIONS

1) Too Many Organizations to Join

This was already a frustration of mine as a faculty member, and it became amplified as a department chair. I do not have enough departmental or — let’s be real, here — personal funds to join every organization that’s relevant to my job. In my case, there are several professional organizations that I have found useful over the years; there are several academic organizations that focus on specific professional fields: journalism, broadcast media, public relations, advertising, etc.; there are academic organizations that focus on research, which I need to keep producing to maintain my job in the academy; and then there are organizations dedicated to departmental accreditation, leadership, etc.

It’s too much.

I’m guessing there’s some empathic head-nodding happening among some of you who are still with me on this post. I’ve found myself having to reevaluate past memberships — and let them go — because I can no longer justify having them in my current position. Also, like many of you, I find myself hopping from organization to organization year after year paying a membership fee simply to attend the conference and present my research. It’s the “one-and-done” issue for faculty.

2) Less Time Teaching

I actually like my administrative duties, but they take up a lot of time. Because they do, I’m required to only teach six credit-hours (two courses) every fall and spring semester. I really enjoy teaching, so spending less time with students is mildly frustrating. I knew that was the reality coming into the job, but there’s still a slight feeling of missing something. I sometimes feel cut off from students and classroom experiences, and there’s the ever-present guilt that I should know more students’ names than I do. I now have a better understanding of why academic administrators sometimes choose to step away from those duties and return to the classroom full time.

3) Serving Multiple Masters

Upper-level administrators are often fond of saying that being a department chair is the most difficult job on campus. Here’s why: we serve multiple masters. Chairs answer directly to the college dean and associate dean(s). At the same time, chairs must be advocates for departmental faculty and responsive to their concerns. It’s also the chair’s duty to be responsive to students’ needs and concerns.

Department chairs are routinely placed in the center of this three-ring circus. Most of the time, I’d say it’s not a difficult place to be. The frustration occurs when competing interests (and expectations) land on your desk. If there’s a conflict between the dean’s plans and the faculty’s priorities, it’s on you to work through that. If there’s a complaint from a student regarding a faculty member’s course, you’ve got to navigate those concerns. It’s part of the job, but it also means there’s likely always someone who won’t appreciate your decision.

 

Occasional frustrations aside, the fantastic opportunities that come with the job are what make it a privilege. I appreciate the on-the-job education I get every day, and I hope I’m proving to be up to the task.

 

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