The disappearing department chair: Why boundaries and inaccessibility are essential

The disappearing department chair: Why boundaries and inaccessibility are essential

Getting into my rental car in Detroit last week, I decided to check my email before hitting the road to come home. It was Friday before the first day of classes, and as the newly-installed chair of the Mathematics Department, I'd taken a bit of a risk in spending the day away from the department, because the Friday before classes start is the witching hour: the time when major catastrophes-in-progress tend to come over the horizon. So before I went off-grid for the three-hour drive, I peeked one more time into the tunnel for oncoming trains.

Curiously, there were six messages indicating missed voicemail messages from my office phone. That's weird because I rarely get office calls. Our phone system is set up to auto-transcribe those and send them in email; some glitch prevented the transcription from working but I could see the senders. Two of the messages were from one of our student workers --- one from Thursday night, another from Friday morning. I emailed her back to ask what she needed. She replied that she was just running late for work and needed to call and let people know, and my name was the one listed on the department website as the contact person.

I froze when I read that last part. I was listed as the contact for the Math Department? I checked on the website, and sure enough, at the bottom of the page where it says "Contact", it listed my name, my email, my phone number. That meant that every student, every parent, every advisor who had any question whatsoever about mathematics at my university was going to be calling me about it first. No wonder I had all those voicemail messages; and as I thought about classes getting ready to start, and the sheer number of emails and calls that "the department" could be getting, and how much time it would take to triage all those calls and emails, and how much time I needed to buckle down and just do my job --- well, I began to question my life choices.

It was through this episode, and a few smaller ones similar to it that took place this past week, that I learned (perhaps rediscovered) a big lesson this week as department chair:

Effective work requires setting and defending boundaries, and being regularly inaccessible.

This seems strongly opposed to the usual narrative in higher education, that a person's dedication as a professor or administrator is directly proportional to their accessibility. The most beloved professors, so it goes, are the ones who are always available to their students; the most liked  administrators are the ones whose "doors are always open". There's definitely a kernel of truth in this: Professors should be generous with their time with students, and good leadership does require transparency and a willingness to be with the people you are leading.

But accessibility can also be taken too far. Consider a professor who puts in a full day of work, then comes back on campus at 7:00pm to lead more study sessions or hold office hours several nights a week (or on the weekends). That prof is more accessible, yes; but she is also giving up time that she needs for other things that will make her effective as a professor --- rest, recharging, and pursuit of other creative activities, to say nothing of spending time with family or friends. She is giving herself to her job to the point where there's nothing left over for her --- or of her. What's the point of being accessible as a prof if you can't be a whole person?

And consider my situation with being listed as the department's contact. If that stood, I was likely to get phone calls at all times of the day. If I needed to work in a focused way on a important  task --- which I have to do all the time --- that block of deep work can, and probably would, have holes poked into it like Swiss cheese if I made myself that accessible. This would cause me to be constantly distracted by the work I didn't have done (see: Zeigarnik effect) and I'd be so accessible that I'd be useless when meeting with someone.

We all want to be open and accessible to our students and colleagues. The relationships we build with them are what define the best parts of higher education. But a professional life without boundaries is one where we are so diffused by the demands of that very accessibility that we can no longer be fully present with the people we say we are trying to serve.

As I was getting ready to step into the department chair role, one of the best resources I encountered was the book The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins. It's a book for leadership transitions in business, but works very well for higher ed. This quote resonated with me:

If you fail to establish solid boundaries defining what you are willing and not willing to do, the people around you -- bosses, peers, and direct reports -- will take whatever you have to give. The more you give, the less they will respect you and the more they will ask of you -- another vicious cycle. Eventually you will feel angry and resentful that you're being nibbled to death, but you will have no one to blame but yourself. If you cannot establish boundaries for yourself, you cannot expect others to do it for you.

Being open and accessible is good. Being unreservedly open with no boundaries, and being constantly accessible, is unsustainable and unhealthy. In the end, we may be giving people a lot of ourselves, but the self we are giving them is impoverished and just plain tired. The simple fact is that in order to serve people well, we have to make time to be apart from them.

I've been employing three strategies and rules for myself to set boundaries and give myself time to focus on doing the work that really matters to the people I serve:

  1. Schedule time boxes during the week during which you are not available, and manage expectations about your availability during those times.  Time boxing is consistently ranked as one of the most effective productivity methods out there, and for good reasons. It just refers to the concept of blocking or "boxing" out time on one's calendar through the week and dedicating each box to a single task or project. I started using time boxing while on sabbatical to add structure and focus to my work days. These days, as department chair, I've started putting some of my time boxes inside a larger box called focused work time by declaring 9:00am to 11:00am Monday-Thursday to be times during which I am doing deep work and am not available. During these times, I don't answer the door, the phone, or email. In fact my phone is in airplane mode, and I might not even be on campus. I've had a conversation with our administrative staff and emphasized that this is time for me to focus on important departmental tasks without any interruptions whatsoever --- so please do not call, knock on the door, or text me. They can just email me and I'll get to it later. If this seems extravagant --- 2 hours a day, 8 hours a week! --- just remember that by sealing yourself off, you're getting things done more efficiently, so it saves time in the long run.
Here's what this looks like on my office door.

2. Don't waste time during your "inaccessible" boxes. Carving out this kind of inaccessible time comes at a cost --- you're giving up time with others to pay for it. So it's important to actually do focused work during these times and not fritter it away on daydreaming or off-task activities. View those focused, "inaccessible" times as a series of sprints, where you work flat-out with complete focus on one task for short periods of time, then take a short break, then do it again. This is the essence of the pomodoro method whereby an hour of time is split into 25 minutes of sprint-like work, followed by a 5 minute break, followed by another 25 minute sprint + 5 minute break. It's quite amazing what you can get done in an hour when you view and practice it this way. Whatever method you choose, the main thing is to ruthlessly eliminate time-wasting behavior during those times you're taking for yourself.

3. Also schedule time boxes during which you are fully accessible. The point of being inaccessible from time to time is to be fully present with others when it is time to be accessible. So, schedule those times too. Generous student drop-in hours[1], dedicated times for appointment-making, times when your door really is open and when someone comes in, they know it's OK and they know they're going to get the full attention of your best self.

Finally, a word about meetings: I have a lot of these nowadays, and there's no better place for setting boundaries. Conversely the worst thing in the world is a meeting with no fixed ending time (or nobody willing to enforce it). If a student schedules an appointment to talk to me (as the chair) about one of their professors, they get 20 minutes;  I promise that they will be heard during that meeting, and they get my absolute undivided attention in that meeting... for 20 minutes. Likewise, if I call a meeting, then I'm making sure to give an agenda that has its own internal schedule (we'll discuss topic A from 1:00 to 1:20, then topic B from 1:20 to 1:30, etc.) and when we get to 5 minutes before the ending time, we will stop, brainstorm next actions, and then leave. Boundaries can be a beautiful thing especially when you think about how scarce time is.

So, what did I do about the website where my name was listed? Simple: I emailed our administrative staff and had them remove any mention of my name, email, or phone number from the top level of our website. I made myself a little less accessible. (There's another page linked to the main page where that info resides anyway.) I didn't have to explain myself at all --- the administrative staff immediately told me that I was way too busy to be handling phone calls for the department and changed it right away. So I'm less accessible, but only because I want to be more effective.

A better term for "office hours". ↩︎

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

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