The 3 R’s: Reinforcement, Resources, and Respect
Department chairs and program directors are responsible for leading and serving the faculty, staff and students of their academic departments and programs. They must juggle the demands of managing the diverse interests of faculty, administrators, and students while at the same time keeping up with department administrivia, and communicating and executing the higher academic administration’s goals and strategies. This is no easy task even in the best of times and without strong leaders at this foundational level of academic leadership, institutions struggle to achieve their academic goals and mission. In the Inside Higher Ed editorial, “Department Chairs in Distress”, 114 department chairs responded to a series of surveys on their experience over the last 18 months. The chairs articulated many similar and significant challenges they have experienced leading their departments, including:
- The “lack of forethought and decisiveness” from leaders across the institution and the need to adapt to an endless stream of changing directives;
- The difficulty of motivating colleagues and supporting students in the midst of crisis;
- The barriers to leading effectively in a fully or partially remote environment; and
- The “emotional load” of serving as chair during such a difficult period (Gigliotti, 2021a).
Making sure that department chairs have the support they need should be at the top of academic leadership’s priorities.
In a recent survey, chairs identified that they felt unprepared for leading and motivating colleagues in the midst of crisis, particularly when many faculty, staff and administrators were working remotely (Gigliotti, 2021a). Shoring up junior leaders and helping them develop leadership skills is vital to any organization’s success. Ensuring that this happens in higher education institutions in today’s climate is imperative. Some things to think about to support chairs include: ensuring that they have access to mentors, online leadership training and content and peer groups with whom they can share best practices.
Even outside of a time of crisis it is a good idea for deans or other seasoned leaders from academic affairs to meet regularly, one-on-one, with chairs to share their leadership experiences and skills. Many senior leaders will have served as chairs in their careers and the guidance and coaching they can provide can be invaluable. Being intentional and making these opportunities for mentorship a priority is a good step in helping chairs feel more prepared for leadership challenges.
Another way to support chairs is to make online leadership training courses available to them. Providing easy-to-access, compelling digital content is a great way to provide foundational and even advanced leadership training. Offering on-demand digital training means chairs can take advantage of just-in-time learning as their schedules allow. Many companies, such as Magna Publications, offer on-demand seminars specifically designed for chairs.
It is healthy and important that all leaders have a group of peers with whom they can share their challenges and questions and even occasionally their frustrations and fears. Encouraging chairs to find a group of trusted individuals who understand the highs and lows of chairship is another way to support them.
Building up chairs through investment in mentorship programs, training and group support is a good start in making sure that the institution has a strong foundation of academic leaders.
Even before the pandemic, the chair’s challenge of managing administrative tasks was overwhelming. Researchers have suggested that chairs are responsible for at least 54 different types of tasks and added that these tasks encompass upwards of 41 different roles. The categories of these tasks and roles include “department governance and office management, curriculum and program development, faculty matters, student matters, communication with external publics, financial and facilities management, data management and institutional support” (Gigliotti, 2021b).
One chair described the administrative overhead associated with her chairship this way, “pre-pandemic I had an unending set of forms to locate and complete, hundreds of monthly reports to generate, and many more discreet processes to manage. I could have spent 40 hours a week trying to accomplish these tasks which were primarily clerical tasks. Since the pandemic, I spend my evenings and weekends catching up on these tasks after managing crisis after crisis all work week.”
Support your chairs by providing them with the technology resources they need to manage the administrative parts of their work. Processes need to be automated, work among stakeholders needs to be integrated and efficiency needs to be prioritized.
One scholar anticipates accelerated adoption of technology to support academic tasks, such as academic operations and academic personnel management. “The pandemic is apt to accelerate trends that were already underway, and one area that will likely be most impacted by the pandemic involves the further integration of technology…into the college and university workplace” (Gigliotti, 2020b).
Academic operations platforms, such as APL nextED, provide chairs and other academic leaders with a centralized place to automate work, share information, collaborate with their teams and report on data. Implementing a system like APL nextED provides chairs with the support they need and means they will have more time to lead and most importantly to care for their teams and themselves.
Chairs have the closest proximity of all academic leaders to the key stakeholders in higher education, the students and the faculty. They engage at the intersection of upper-level academic leadership and these key stakeholders and during the pandemic became the primary communication channel between the administration and the faculty and students.
Besides working closely with students, faculty and administrators, they have a deep understanding of the academic policies and operations that form the administrative infrastructure of the institution. They work regularly with the support personnel who carry out the day-to-day operations of the institution.
Acknowledgment from senior leadership is an important way to support chairs. Asking chairs to share their views and insights shows respect for them and the work they do. Bringing chairs into goal setting and strategy sessions demonstrates an appreciation for the unique perspective chairs can offer. Allowing chairs to contribute and be part of setting the institution’s vision and course can go a long way in helping chairs feel empowered and respected and can foster a deeper understanding of shared goals and objectives that flows to the faculty, students, and staff.
Enhance the Faculty Experience with Accessible Technology.
Schedule a demo to learn how you can support your department chairs and your whole academic team with APL nextED’s academic operations platform.
“Department Chairs in Distress” by Ralph A. Gigliotti (Gigliotti, 2021a)
“The Impact of COVID-19 on Academic Department Chairs: Heightened Complexity, Accentuated Liminality, and Competing Perceptions of Reinvention” by Ralph A. Gigliotti (Gigliotti, 2021b)