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How to Chair a University Department and Not Be Terrible at It

Lessons from five years running a political science department that could apply to almost any job in management.
Margery Reed Hall at the University of Denver.

Margery Reed Hall at the University of Denver.

This summer, I am completing a five-year stint as chair of my department. I know a lot more about chairing than I did when I took on the position, so I thought this might be a good time to share some lessons for those now taking on similar positions in their institutions or considering doing so in the future.

I should note at the outset that your individual circumstances and results will vary. I chaired a relatively small political science department (we had eight tenure-track faculty members and one administrative support position when I started). I was also fortunate enough to chair a pretty collegial group. There were no lawsuits or threats among us, and no forced resignations, although I know such things occur in other departments. My tenure was a relatively happy one.

I'll also say that, in general, it's a lot of work. I received some temporary salary increase and course reductions for taking on the job, and that was eventually enough compensation, but it really wasn't during my first year, when being chair pretty much overwhelmed me. Even in a friendly and functional department, it takes up a lot of time. But looking back over my time in the role, I can see the impact that I've had on the department, and I believe it was, on balance, a positive one. This is much more the kind of department I want to work in for the rest of my career than it was when I started.

OK, a few key lessons I’d like to impart:

Personnel Is Everything

The most important decisions your department will make concern whom to hire and whom to promote. Having good people will improve your department's reputation and make it easier to hire other good people down the road. But, more directly, the quality of your colleagues will substantially affect your own professional happiness for years or decades to come. Now, this importance will vary given the size of your department. If you're in a large institution with 50 or so colleagues, you're not going to love everyone, and it's fairly easy to hide from annoying people. In a small department, you don't have such freedom.

I've found it worthwhile to evaluate job candidates on many different dimensions. Yes, I want colleagues with interesting research, a high propensity to publish, and strong classroom skills, but I also want colleagues who are kind and considerate. As Emily Farris notes, we're all smart; what distinguishes one of us from another is decency. That's a lot to look for in a graduate student, but I find that it's worth making the effort. And one of the best ways to find kind and considerate colleagues is to treat job candidates kindly and considerately. Be as transparent and prompt as possible about the hiring process. Don't leave them in the dark for weeks. Make their visit an interesting one and schedule up their time. Once you've hired them, help orient them to departmental life and create channels for them to communicate their fears and concerns.

When it comes to tenure and promotion, it's valuable to be as transparent as possible about expectations. It's never too early to have a conversation with a junior colleague about how their research is coming along and what a successful case usually looks like. Don't wait until their fifth year to ask what their research is about. Introduce them to more senior people or book editors who can help make their progress a bit easier.

On the topic of hiring, I'd like to address a particular comment to my fellow white guys out there: We know there are all sorts of biases working against women and people of color, both implicitly and explicitly, within academia. There are reasons why graduate students appear increasingly diverse while full professors are still mostly white men. There are roadblocks, and they're not being imposed by just a small cadre of bigots. It's not enough for us to simply not be assholes (although that's probably an improvement over the way things have operated previously). Work with your campus inclusiveness office to make sure you are encouraging the most diverse job applicant pools possible. Make sure that you and your colleagues on hiring committees are trained to recognize existing roadblocks and to promote inclusiveness in hiring. It's worth the effort.

Treat Your Non-Tenure-Track Faculty Like Human Beings

If you have adjuncts, instructors, or visiting faculty, there's a good chance they're teaching a lot more students than your tenure-line faculty are, for pretty measly pay. And they likely operate on a year-long contract, at best. Do what you can to treat them well. Take them out for the occasional meal, and get to know what their long-term goals are. Include them in departmental social activities. Maybe invite them to give a talk on a research project they're doing. Keep them informed about benefits they might not be aware of, such as travel funds or parental leave. Advocate to your university for better adjunct pay. This isn't just decency; it's also a wise investment in your department's future. You may need their help down the line, and it's good if they think well of the department. Also, since they're doing a lot of the student contact, it's good if they're not miserable all the time.

Don't Blow Off the Teaching Schedule

Personnel may be the most important thing, but the teaching schedule will likely eat up most of your time. It's the task that is never quite finished. I've seen different approaches to drawing up the schedule. Some small departments just have a long meeting with a dry-erase board and everyone says what they want to teach and they argue until the task is done. I prefer to solicit everyone's preferences and then work on the schedule with my assistant, making sure we're getting the right number of seats offered on the right days. It's a big, messy puzzle. And even when you're done, you're probably not done. Someone will get offered leave time at the last minute or something, and you'll need to scramble to move courses around or hire temporary faculty. But it's worth taking the time to go over your draft schedule with each faculty member and make sure they're teaching what they think they're teaching. Doing this job well can avoid a lot of problems down the road in terms of canceled classes or students complaining they can't get the courses they need to graduate.

Make Agenda Control Your Friend

I was committed to holding as few departmental meetings as possible each year and making each of those as productive as possible. This is a challenge because, as you probably know, not that many decisions will get made in a department meeting. If important decisions need to be made, provide your colleagues with the data they'll need to make it several days in advance. Be as concise as possible in your presentation of the information. Try to structure the department's decisions in terms of a few clear options, rather than just opening it up to anyone to suggest anything.

Fight, if Necessary

One of the chair's primary jobs is to serve as an advocate for their colleagues' needs. Do they need better classroom facilities, larger research budgets, better travel accommodations, a less aggressive air conditioner? They're coming to you, and the only way that complaint gets to someone who can do something about it is if you make it happen.

You won't get everything you ask for, but you will have to advocate for some of it. Hopefully, you'll develop a good working relationship with your dean or whoever your immediate supervisor is, but you should be prepared to be a pain in the ass if necessary.

Recognize That You Can't Please Everyone

I'm pretty conflict-averse, and I made an effort to govern the department through consensus most of the time. But occasionally you'll have to make calls that some of your colleagues just won't like. That's part of the gig. It's worth checking in with your colleagues and listening to their concerns and letting them know that you're taking those concerns seriously even if you're not always abiding by them. You may displease your colleagues, but at least you won't blindside or dismiss them.

Create Social Capital

Yes, people primarily want to keep their heads down and get their work done, but, for the most part, they also want to be part of a community. Have cake in the office on people's birthdays. Take colleagues out for coffee once in a while—even the ones you're not especially close with—just to see how things are going for them. In recent years, we've made a practice of organizing meal deliveries for new parents and having annual parties to recognize promotions, new hires, and publications. I've made a point of baking a cake for each new book my colleagues publish, although this may be overkill. But these community-building efforts can reap rewards down the line, helping to avoid buried resentments and communications failures.

Set Realistic Goals for Yourself

Your own research will take a hit while you're chair. There's no way around that. But so will that of your colleague who is editing a journal or running an association, or the one who is pioneering a new teaching program, or the one the chancellor just tapped to spearhead a new university initiative, or the one that just became the director of graduate studies, or the one that just became a parent, or something else. There are very few of us who are solely working on our scholarship. And after a year or so on the job, you'll develop a new equilibrium and figure out ways to get some research done. At least for a while, I made a point of staying away from campus one day a week so I could do some writing, only dealing with emergency departmental business on those days. Co-authors were life-savers at various points in my time as chair. You'll figure out what systems work best for you. But allow yourself the time to transition.

Also, recognize that you're going to make mistakes. Some of those, your colleagues won't notice or care about, but some will affect them directly. It's important to own up to those mistakes and work to address them promptly. They won't go away on their own.

Undoubtedly, some of the work will suck. And the work will change your relationship with your colleagues, especially when you start evaluating their work and making salary recommendations. But unlike some other university service you may take on, being chair is unquestionably important. It directly affects your life and that of your colleagues, and the decisions you make will have an impact for decades to come. It's a job worth doing well.