Three things I learned as (interim) department chair

Three things I learned as (interim) department chair

Coming into this summer, I had it all planned out. I was going to work primarily on a handful of work projects (teaching an online course, prepping for a workshop, finishing a couple of research projects) a few hours a day, then spend the rest of the day with my kids. But we all know what Mike Tyson said about plans.

What disrupted my plans (I won't say it was truly like a punch in the mouth) was my department chair going on an unexpected medical leave for two months. I am one of two Assistant Chairs in the department, a position I started almost one year ago, and my fellow Assistant Chair was traveling a lot this summer whereas I was sticking around to teach my course. So somebody needed to step in and be interim Department Chair in her absence; I was the logical person to ask, although maybe not the best choice in terms of experience or ability. I felt like that guy on "Designated Survivor" who is a random undersecretary of something, who is then thrust into being the chief executive through a chance arrangement of circumstances and being in a certain place at a certain time.

This week, my chair finishes her leave and I'll be going back to just an Assistant Chair. Despite summers being a relatively slow time in the department, I've had some wild experiences in my short time as interim, everything from having to figure out how to cut my department's operating budget by over 30% for next year to intervening in a verbal altercation between students in the middle of a class session. Initially there was a steep learning curve. I had precisely no idea about how any of the financials in our department work, a pitifully weak grasp of how things like course scheduling and personnel reviews were supposed to be done, and on top of that I inherited a large backlog of tasks that had to be triaged, many of which I also had no idea how to do.

Although I've had to learn a lot of details and particulars, when you boil it all down,  it seems to me that being an effective department chair requires just three things. (And keep in mind the tiny sample size I'm working with.)

You have to be very organized and absolutely disciplined with time and organization. Even though it was a slow time, I was getting a constant stream of emails from students, colleagues, staff, deans, etc. about one thing or another, and --- can you believe it? --- everyone thought their issue was urgent. And maybe they're right! But given the number of projects a chair has to keep in mind, as well as items that aren't projects yet but just issues to keep track of, and the quantity of materials and communication we receive, failing to have a system for keeping it all in place and in perspective will make you dead in the water.

And it's not just organization but discipline to that organization that matters. If I've boxed off 9:00-10:30am to work on my online course and at 9:45 I get an email with something that seems important or even urgent, I have to have the discipline to shelve the email and keep working on what I said I was going to work on, until the time box is expired. There is always something that seems loud, frantic, and urgent showing up demanding to be done before all the other stuff is done, but you can only do one thing at a time, and you can't be in a position where your attention always goes to the "latest and loudest". You have to impose order on your tasks and time, and stick to that order unless it's totally impossible, or else none of it gets done. This is true for every academic but 1000x more true for department chairs, who --- as managers --- have to keep perspective on everything happening in order to allocate resources and help people properly.

Also, you have to be able to see things from other people's points of view --- sometimes multiple POV's at the same time. I have my own viewpoints on, for example, faculty computing technology; but the IT department has a different view, and the faculty member down the hall needing an upgrade has a third point of view. If I lock in on just one of those, any decision I make pertaining to this issue is going to be approximately 2/3 wrong. Everyone brings their own biases and perspectives to an issue and as chair, my job first and foremost is not to impose my will on a situation, but primarily just to shut up and listen and sort out what the real issues are. (And without the perspective that a properly functioning system of organization gives you, that's just not possible.) And more than once, this was in a meeting where several perspectives were in play simultaneously. Comprehending an entire network of conflicting assumptions, biases, and goals while trying to discern the best decision for the group — that's a skill, maybe a gift, and it's essential to being a department chair, it seems.

Finally and I think most importantly, you have to have a good support network. I learned early to lean in on the people around me – out of necessity. I started a lot of emails and face-to-face conversations during the first month of my short term as chair with "I know this may sound like a dumb question, but I was wondering..." I tapped into the comprehensive budget knowledge of our administrative staff in the department; the faculty in the department who know the most about advising and curriculum; a department colleague who works with freshmen orientation to make decisions about scheduling; and more. At first I was reluctant because I thought I was bugging them, but then I realized it would be stupid not to make use of the people around me who know things that I don't.

It's equally important, if not moreso, to have a network for personal and moral support – people who can encourage and guide and serve as sounding boards. I have a few of those, both in and outside of my department. I knew I could go to them at any time and get perspective on just the job of being chair. This article from a rookie provost goes into this really well. There's a substantial amount of impostor syndrome that goes with taking on a leadership position like provost or department chair --- it is possible for otherwise decent people to be inexplicably cruel to people in those roles, and even when they aren't, the sense of being constantly judged is real. Having people around to help with this emotional load is absolutely critical.

And I think that's it. Those three things are the essentials. Everything else can be delegated, automated, or learned on the spot. Looking back on the good and the bad leadership I've worked with in the past --- not only department chairs but deans, etc.--- it strikes me that most of the really bad leadership I've experienced boils down to a failure in organization, in personal discipline, or in empathy, or some linear combination of those things --- exacerbated by the leader trying to go it alone.

Most people who I told about my sudden "elevation" to Department Chair responded with, "I'm so sorry!" But I have to say, it's been a really good experience and there were a lot of things that I liked about it. My favorite part was getting the opportunity to debrief all of our pre-tenured faculty on their annual performance reviews for last year. I asked each one of them this question: What are some areas in your work where you are experiencing obstacles in attaining your personal and career goals, and what can we in the leadership be doing to get those things out of your way? Because that's how I view the role of assistant chair or department chair: Like a lead blocker on a football team's offensive line, pushing things out of the way so that the person with the ball can surge ahead. Despite the hard work and my own lack of experience and knowledge, I think keeping that idea in mind made the experience something truly worthwhile.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

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