My experiences as a department chair: A 3x3 reflection

My experiences as a department chair: A 3x3 reflection

Last week, my one-year interim term as chair of the Mathematics Department came to an end. I was appointed last summer upon the unexpected retirement of our previous chair, who had been a professor and leader at my university for over 30 years. At the time, the uncertainty and disruption in the wake of this shakeup were the most challenging things the department had ever faced. Little did any of us know that we were just getting started.

People have kidded me that I picked a heck of a year to have my first experience leading an academic department. It's definitely been challenging — and honestly, exhausting. Although I don't exactly miss being chair, I learned and grew an incredible amount in the experience. I can say completely without irony that the period from March through April 2020, as we were hit with the reality of Covid-19 and the Big Pivot to online instruction, were without question the best eight weeks of my career. Every day brought purposeful work that was challenging and made a positive, observable impact in my students' and colleagues' lives.

There's a lot I could share about the experience, but for now, here's a "3x3" — three things I learned, three things that surprised me, and three questions I still have about being department chair in the wild ride that was the 2019-2020 academic year.

Three things I learned

  1. You can't do the job alone. When I started the chair position, I had half a year of assistant chair experience under my belt – and that was it. I had no prior chair experience, no training manual, no shadowing of my predecessor, no onboarding from the Dean's office. I learned very quickly that I had to have a support network to whom I could go with questions and ideas, and who would come to me to give me unvarnished feedback. This was a big challenge for me, because I'd always operated as an independent contractor in the past, and I found that I don't always like feedback as much as I sometimes say I do.
  2. Inaccessibility is important. One of the smartest things I did as a chair was to declare myself to be off the grid from 8:00-11:00am every weekday, to work on strategically important department chair tasks without interruptions. I wrote about how this worked here. As a chair, there are people who want a piece of you all day long and will get pieces of you all day long if you allow it, to the point that all you are, are the pieces that are left over.  (Pretty early on, drop-in visits by people with a "quick question" – which was never quick and sometimes not a question – became the bane of my existence.) Other chairs might be able to maintain an open-door policy without ending up working nights and weekends all the time, but I needed those off-grid times to keep the needle moving on the important stuff and preserve my sanity. This rubbed some people the wrong way, but it had to be done.
  3. The most important thing is teachability. It doesn't matter how much experience you have coming into the chair position – if you don't have the ability, and the humility, to learn a lot of things, very quickly and all the time, then you'll be academic roadkill. In this sense, my inexperience worked to my advantage because I knew that I didn't know a lot. Following the advice of Michael Watkins in his book The First 90 Days (which became my handbook for the position), I made a learning plan for the first 90 days of being chair and worked on it every day, often in my morning off-grid times. That learning mindset served me well, not only to get up speed but especially when March 2020 hit and everybody had to start back at zero. It's like something I heard while on sabbatical at SteelcaseThe only thing that separates us from the competition is that we learn faster than they do.

Three things that surprised me

  1. I was surprised at how few projects I worked on during the year. GTD defines a project as "outcomes that will require more than one action step to complete and that you can mark off as finished in the next 12 months". As a regular faculty member, I'm often juggling a dozen or more projects at any given time, some simple (grading a homework assignment) and some complex (planning a webinar). But I found that very little of my chair work could be classified as a project. Most of the time, my action items were just one-step actions like Check with Prof. Alice about her reassigned time for next year or Fill out the HR forms for faculty teaching online. Or, they were loosely related actions centered around an area of responsibility, rather than an easily-articulated outcome. It definitely forced a shift in my GTD thinking.
  2. I was also surprised at how much of the work was simply deciding whether something in my inbox was actionable. In the GTD workflow, you process your inbox one item at a time first by deciding whether the item is actionable. In the past, this was always a snap decision that took virtually no time. As chair, though, stuff lands in your inbox and sometimes it takes a significant amount of time, maybe a half hour or more, to get past this step. A good example is the weekly calendar sent to chairs by the Dean's office. On the surface, it's a calendar, so it's just information that needs to be put onto my own calendar. But I soon learned that between the lines, there would be several implicit action items that I had to pluck out and put into my system; and questions about whether I needed to take action to get ready for some item on the calendar. I spent a lot of time doing this, simply defining what an item was.
  3. Our procedures and documentation are both wildly overgrown and seriously deficient. Our department prides itself on clear and transparent documentation for procedures like promotion and annual merit review, and rightly so. But I was surprised at how much of the procedures we have don't seem to serve any purpose. In fact there were definitely times this past year when I completely skipped steps in certain major procedures, on purpose, just to see if anybody would notice, and so far nobody has (and I'm not telling now). At the same time, despite our occasional excess with documentation, there are places where no documentation was ever given for things that seem really important. It reminded me of a yard that has some patches of grass that are incredibly overgrown alongside patches that are just dirt with nothing growing. (Maybe I shouldn't be surprised by this one.)

Three questions I still have

  1. What's the right balance between "leading from the front" and "leading from behind"? I like the lean manufacturing concept that the person closest to the problem should have ownership of the problem and the power and autonomy to address it. On the other hand, sometimes a problem can be so big that it requires the chair to step out in front and lead the way. Also, in higher ed, delegation is tricky because faculty are already overworked and exhausted and most don't need one more thing to be responsible for. How do you build a culture where people are empowered to solve problems on their own level, while still providing the leadership they need?
  2. Relatedly, what's the right balance between executive decision making and seeking consensus? A few times as chair, I was surprised when I got pushback from faculty for making a decision that I figured was mine to make – "You should have asked us first" is the gist of it. In some cases consensus-seeking is undoubtedly the best route, like decisions about whether faculty are allowed to teach online in the Fall. But I struggle with the concept that every choice or decision has to be preceded by getting faculty buy-in first. To me this seems like a path to stagnation; like Henry Ford said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” The right approach is somewhere in between, but where?
  3. What's this all going to look like in 5-10 years? Everything in higher ed is up for grabs right now. It's even an open question as to how many institutions are simply going to survive the 2020-2021 academic year. And for those that do survive, what will faculty work look like? Faculty governance? Tenure and promotion? Classroom teaching? The place of research? The size of administration? The kinds of academic programming that are kept versus those that are killed off? Department chairs have a unique role in that chaotic mix as the boundary layer between frontline faculty and upper administration, and over the next decade they will be increasingly important because of it.
Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.