Being department chair, round 2

I'll be sticking around as department chair for the entire year. Here are three first impressions of the job.

Being department chair, round 2

Coming out of my sabbatical with Steelcase, one thing I knew was that I wanted to start transitioning from being "just" a classroom instructor into leadership roles in higher education. I had spent a year around some truly inspiring, innovative leaders at Steelcase and felt that what I'd learned from working alongside them and picking their brains could be put to use in making higher education better. So I ran for assistant chair in my department, a role that would fill in some significant gaps in my background (budget, personnel, etc.) while getting me behind the scenes to see how departmental leadership works. Then, after my three-year term was over in 2022, the plan was that I'd figure out the next move, maybe think about running for chair when my current chair's term was up.

Man plans, God laughs is how the old saying goes.

At the start of this summer, our chair went on leave for two months for health reasons, and since I was teaching and therefore not going anywhere for the summer, I was appointed interim department chair during her leave. Transitioning into that position, even for just a few weeks in the least busy part of the year, was a big step up in terms of responsibility. Despite the quiet time of year, I still had to deal with some serious issues, and I learned a lot in the process. Still, I was breathing a sigh of relief as my chair's leave came to a close.

But then I learned that my chair, who had said she would be retiring at the end of her term in 2023, was deciding to retire now — effective August 5 – in order to continue focusing on health and family. After quite a bit of discussion within the department, it was decided that my two-month stint as chair would be extended through the 2019-2020 academic year.

None of this was in the plan. I certainly did not expect to be chairing a big, complex academic department – 34 tenure-track faculty and thousands of students every semester – just one year after starting as assistant chair, which was my first-ever leadership position. And I've been honest about how I struggled in that position, so I definitely do not feel like a "natural". But despite being unlikely and unexpected, I feel like being chair on this interim basis is the right thing for me right now for several reasons, not least of which is that I will get to learn a lot this year. And as I learn, I intend to write about what I'm learning – both the successes and the failures – right here where I've always done such things.

Although I don't officially start in this position until this week, I've been gradually ramping up the responsibilities I've taken on, and here are three things I've noticed:

  1. People are complicated. Perhaps you've noticed this before, but academic types tend to have complex personalities and complicated backstories. So when you communicate with someone, or with a group of people, not only does each individual's context but also the network of how all those contexts relate to each other has to be taken into account. A pejorative term for that network of contexts is "politics". I'm a little more optimistic than that, and I think that all of the faculty in our department are fundamentally good people trying to to their jobs, and these complexities hold all the details of how they want to get it done. But even this point of view means that, for example, when some time-sensitive critical decision has to be made, who you communicate with and the order in which you communicate with people matters. It can be tiring for a laid-back politics-avoiding person like myself.
  2. What you don't do, is at least as important as what you do. In my earlier article about being interim department chair, I wrote about the importance of being disciplined with time and scheduling. That insight feels more right every day. Every decision I make to schedule a meeting or respond to an email or phone call is also a decision not to meet, email, or talk to someone else at the same time. Everyone emailing or calling you will make it sound like their thing is critically important. But to make the right decisions, to know what to work on and what to therefore push to the side, involves being able to discern what's truly important and right for the moment versus what is only an apparent crisis.
  3. Expect the unexpected. Despite the appearance of being set in its ways and impossibly conservative, higher education has a shocking amount of volatility in what can, and does, go on during a typical working day. I have stories that I cannot tell about events that happened in the department last year that involved the police, EMT's, combinations of these, and others. And already this summer, just when we thought we had things under control, something out of the blue would happen to upend all those plans. I've learned that while you should plan things, your plans are contingent upon events you can't foresee, so stay on your toes and build good relationships with the people around you.

I didn't have to agree to be department chair; I could have pleaded ignorance (plenty of that to go around) or inexperience (same) or found some other reason, and someone else would have stepped up. But I ultimately thought this would be a good idea because not only does it fit where I want to go in my career, it meshes well with my ultimate goal of making students and faculty better and happier with what they are doing. I feel like being chair puts me in a position where, like a lead blocker on a football team's offensive line, I can get out in front of people who have interesting and innovative things to accomplish and knock other people and things out of their way so that they can move the ball forward. Even if it's just for a year, that seems worth it.