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Roles and Responsibilities of Department Chairs

Tomorrow's Academy

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Close acquaintances will expect the new chair to "fix" those policies and procedures about which he or she used to commiserate with faculty colleagues.


The excerpt below looks at three major transitions a faculty member

experiences in going from professor to department chair. It is from:


Lou Higgerson, Walter H. Gmelch, and Allen Tucker. ? 1999 by The

American Council on Education and The Oryx Press Published by The

Oryx Press, 4041 North Central at Indian School Road. Phoenix Arizona

85012-3397 Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Academy

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Changing roles from faculty member to department chair

In talking with several hundred department-chairs each year, we find

that many say they were not prepared for the role shift from faculty

to chairs. Particularly, chairs being promoted from inside the

department do not anticipate their life to be much different. While

new chairs foresee having new responsibilities, they are not always

prepared for the shift in how faculty colleagues and others treat

them. Almost immediately, new chairs discover that long-time faculty

colleagues (and friends) respond to them differently. Some faculty,

for example, will assume that the new chair is "too busy" to join the

informal lunch bunch now that s/he is an "administrator." Others will

be less candid than previously in discussing issues affecting the

department. Some may even avoid the chair. Yet, the same group of

faculty colleagues are likely to hold high expectations for the

performance of the new chair. Close acquaintances will expect the new

chair to "fix" those policies and procedures about which he or she

used to commiserate with faculty colleagues. Most faculty will expect

the new chair to be able to "hold the line" with the administration

on every issue because they trust the new chair to know the situation

and have a full understanding of the department's needs. Walking the

fine line between the role of colleagues and department chair can be


John Bennett (1983, 2-6) identified three major transitions that new

department chairs experience. The first shift comes in moving from

being a specialist to functioning as a generalist. As a faculty

member, an individual specializes in one academic area. However, when

an individual becomes a department chair, he or she must have a

thorough understanding of the full spectrum of department offerings.

Moreover, faculty colleagues expect the new chair to represent all

specializations within the department with equal enthusiasm. In

addition, to being held accountable for more content, the new chair

is also responsible for a substantive grasp of the total department

as soon as possible., because other faculty will be suspicious and

critical of any chair who can only advocate his or her teaching and

research specialty.

The second transition the department chair experiences is the shift

from functioning as an individual to running a collective. For the

most part, faculty work independently at their own pace. Other than

holding assigned classes or attending scheduled meetings, faculty

determine when they work on course preparation, research, or other

projects. On most campuses faculty set their own office hours, and

determine when they come and go, around class and meeting times.

Department chairs, however, must orchestrate the work done by this

group of individuals who work independently. Worse yet, some chair

duties cause the new chair to interfere with the independence of

faculty members. Chairs, for example assign courses and class times,

schedule meetings, and solicit attendance at special events such as

recruitment or placement fairs and award programs. Chairs need to

balance their respect for faculty autonomy with their responsibility

for carrying out the department mission.

The third major transition described by Bennett is the shift from

loyalty to one's discipline to loyalty to the institution. Chairs

must represent the institution's perspective. There will be times

when chairs may need to sacrifice a discipline need or a department

preference for an institutional need. These tough decisions are

likely to make chairs unpopular with faculty who recognize only the

discipline perspective and may believe that the chair should place

the department first in every situation. Whether or not the

department implements a student learning outcomes assessment program

may not be a matter for the department to decide. Similarly, campus

policy on course enrollment and the need to involve faculty in

student recruitment and retention activities are likely to be matters

on which the chair cannot refuse the department's support and

participation. Individuals who remain loyal to the discipline and

fail to learn the institution's perspective and respond to campus

needs become liabilities to the institution and undermined the

standing of the department on the campus.


Bennett, J.B. 1988. Department chairs: Leadership in the trenches. In

Leaders for a new era: Strategies for higher education, edited by

M.F. Green, 57-73. New York: American Council on Education/McMillan.

Bennett contends that the "core academic success" of institutions of

higher education rests upon the quality and capabilities of the

chairs. Working from this premise, the author discusses the ambiguous

but important role of the chair, the rewards and frustrations

associated with the position, and the leadership opportunities for


--------------. 1983. Managing the academic department: Cases and

notes. New York: American Council on Education/McMillan.

This text presents short case studies on the responsibilities usually

assigned to department chairs. Chapter 1 contains a description of

the department chair position.