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Communication Skills for Department Chairs

Tomorrow's Academy

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The campus is a political environment in that departments compete for finite resources. Unlike life in corporate America, competitors are not usually eliminated. To fare well from one year to the next, academic departments need effective alliances. Academic departments that provide important services to other units on campus are difficult to cut. Similarly, departments that enjoy a positive profile with important off-campus constituencies find it easier to demonstrate their value to the institution.


The posting below gives some excellent suggestions on how departments can for beneficial alliances with both other on-campus departments and off-campus organizations and institutions. It is from Chapter 8 - Builidng Alliances in, Communication Skills for Department Chairs, by

Mary Lou Higgerson. Anker Publishing Company, Inc., Bolton, MA. Copyright © 1996 by Anker Publishing Company, Inc. All rights reserved. ISBN 1-882982-13-4 Anker Publishing Company, Inc. 176 Ballville Road P.O. Box 249 Bolton, MA 01740-0249. [] Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Academy

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Academic departments do not exist in a vacuum but are dynamic units that must respond to external conditions and pressures. Durable departments build an intricate web of alliances with numerous constituencies. An alliance is a mutually beneficial relationship between two or more parties. Effective alliances with both campus and noncampus groups strengthen the department's posture within the institution. The campus is a political environment in that departments compete for finite resources. Unlike life in corporate America, competitors are not usually eliminated. To fare well from one year to the next, academic departments need effective alliances. Academic departments that provide important services to other units on campus are difficult to cut. Similarly, departments that enjoy a positive profile with important off-campus constituencies find it easier to demonstrate their value to the institution.

As the primary representative of the department, the chair must exercise leadership in establishing effective alliances. In describing the skills required today by leaders in higher education, Green (1988, p. 40) argue the need for coalition building. As Green points out, if one views the campus as a "political community with varied interest groups and diffused power," the leader's job will be to "build coalitions and consensus." An academic department that insulates itself from external groups becomes vulnerable to externally imposed change that may not be in the department's best interest. Department chairs can safeguard the future welfare of their departments by cultivating effective alliances.

The Objective

One goal of this chapter is to equip department chairs with specific strategies for building effective alliances so chairs can increase their departments' power in a political environment by cultivating important alliances. A second goal is to help chairs recognize when and how to use alliances. The benefit of having alliances is lost if the department chair does not know when and how to mobilize partners in support of the department.

Defining the Task

The term alliance refers to a mutually beneficial relationship between two or more parties. The department chair's purpose is to create a focused dialogue that allows for the establishment of common ground between the department and the various interest groups. Building alliances is the process of bringing together credible constituencies that have an interest in advancing a mutually beneficial agenda. An effective coalition creates movement. Sometimes this movement is in changing the direction of an issue. Te department, for example, may use its alliance with alumni to persuade the central administration that a certain action is harmful to the department. At other times, a coalition creates movement by accelerating progress toward desired objectives. For example, an academic department may team up with area industry to promote the value of department research.

While the benefit of building alliances is obvious, the process of creating successful and effective coalitions is hard work. The task requires continuous effort. Even when the department enjoys successful alliances, the chair must nurture these relationships. A partner can only effectively advance a mutually beneficial agenda if that partner remains informed and motivated. For important alliances to remain supportive of an academic department, they must remain focused on both the needs and the achievements of the department. This requires continuous communication with the department. The department chair bears the major responsibility for engaging in dialogue with important constituencies.

Relevant Communication Concepts and Strategies

Not all alliances are successful or useful. Department chairs need to invest their energy wisely in order to cultivate alliances that carry the greatest benefit for their departments. The following strategies will help department chairs carry out this responsibility.

Select partners who are credible

Effective partners are those who have a vested interest in the department's mission and goals, but a department may have different alliances for the various components of its mission. A department may, for example, form an alliance with area industry in pursuit of the department's research goal and form a second alliance with alumni who support the instructional component of the department's mission. Not every partner needs to support with equal enthusiasm all the department goals. It is important that partners be perceived as credible by the central administration and others who have decision-making authority over the department. Little is gained, for example, from an alliance with an unaccredited program at another institution when trying to secure external grant funding for a cooperative research program. Department chairs need to give careful thought to the credibility of potential partners. There is little benefit in cultivating an alliance with a group that comma!

nds no respect from those who are in a position to affect the future of the department.

The same rule applies in selecting campus partners. An alliance with another unit on campus is only helpful if the central administration recognizes the partner as credible on the issue that forms the basis for the alliance. Mathematics and English departments may form alliances around support needs in the delivering of high-quality general education courses required for all university students. If the administration perceives these units as credible on this issue, the partnership can be an effective alliance in securing resources for general education courses taught in math and English. Chairs should look for potential partners among campus units that have similar conditions. Music departments, for example, may seek other departments that wrestle with the need to offer individualized instruction on a campus that accepts credit hour production as the most significant measure of department success. Chairs can help build department cases by forming alliances with credibl!

e partners on and off campus.

Identify and promote the mutual benefits

An effective alliance is a mutually beneficial relationship. The process of forming important alliances does not require the chair to plead for support. Rather, it requires the department chair to persuade potential partners of the mutual benefits derived from an alliance. Benefits are desired outcomes that partners lose should the alliance fail. For example, regional employers who rely on graduates of the department's program stand to lose an important benefit should the department fail to prepare the same number of qualified graduates. The English department's decision to decrease the enrollment in each section of technical writing may affect departments that require their majors to take the course. An effective alliance between departments enables units with similar conditions to remain united on such issues as course enrollment limits to preserve instructional quality.

Partners who perceive a benefit from an alliance have a greater commitment to the alliance and the common agenda, but even partners with a strong commitment to the alliance need information. If the regional employers that hire the department's graduates do not know the department's need for new equipment to train graduates who are proficient in using the current technology, they cannot help the department. Unless the English department knows that other programs on campus want to maintain a cap on course enrollment to preserve instructional quality, it may sense greater pressure to increase the English department's credit hour production. Credible partners are the most effective advocates for the department when they recognize the benefits derived from strengthening the department and understand what the department needs.

In some instances, individual faculty may have a stronger rapport with a potential partner. The faculty who supervise student internships, for example, may be the first to develop a relationship with a potential partner. Chairs, however, must exercise leadership over the activity of forming department alliances, or individual faculty contacts may become productive alliances for faculty, not necessarily for the department. Faculty members can help with the process of keeping partners informed and motivated if they understand the department mission and objectives. It is important that the faculty consult with the chair when helping to cultivate department alliances.

Maintain continuous dialogue with partners

Effective alliances are not contractual agreements that individual partners must honor to avoid being in default. Rather, effective alliances are relationships that require continuous nurturing. Communication is the primary vehicle for maintaining an effective alliance. The most committed and motivated partners cannot fulfill their supportive role if they are uninformed about changing conditions that affect the department's progress. The department chair must communicate with partners about the department's achievements and resource needs.

Chairs should be careful to articulate program needs without giving the impression that the program is a lost cause. It is better to state resource needs as a condition of continued program strength and growth, not as evidence about how bad things are for the department. In some instances, department chairs may need to go one step further and help partners know how they can assist the department. Regional employers, for example, may be able to donate used equipment or allow for student training within industry offices. Chairs may need to help alumni learn that they can contribute more to the department than money and that the department welcomes alumni who serve as guest lecturers, employers of new graduates, or organizers on large fund drives. These pitches cannot be made in a single newsletter or piece of correspondence but must grow out of a continuous dialogue between the credible partners and the department.

Develop a strategy

When using an alliance to accomplish a specific purpose, it is important that department chairs not move ahead until they are certain that everyone is behind them. Alliances are only effective if partners agree on the same objective and engage in coordinated activity to accomplish a common goal. That takes time and careful preparation. The effective use of a particular alliance is the product of long-term planning and vision, not the result of spurious activity. Partners should work together to decide the collective plan of action so that individual partners understand their roles in the larger strategy. When department chairs merely dictate a specific role to each partner, they deny the partners an opportunity to strategize with the program leadership and thereby increase their commitment to the effort.

There are at least three times when alliances are particularly helpful to an academic department. The first instance is when there is a need for consensus on an issue and it is advantageous to work out a compromise rather than have a particular viewpoint imposed. Occasionally, two or more departments may engage in a turf battle over which department should teach a certain subject. To the extent that the departments are able to reach a consensus, they benefit more than if the central administration decides the issue. The first step in building such an alliance is to help potential partners perceive the benefit of reaching consensus without external interference. Most departments, for example, prefer to retain department control in defining the boundaries of the academic discipline. It is risky to let the dean or the provost whose training is in a different discipline resolve disputes over curriculum. It is usually preferable for the parties of the alliance to reach con!

sensus among themselves.

A second situation when alliances are particularly helpful is when there is an advantage in aligning all interested parties on the same side of an issue. In this instance, the issue itself typically determines the interested parties. Departments of mathematics, English, and speech communication become an effective alliance on issues of delivering core requirements within a general education program. Most general education programs require all students to take a prescribed number of credit hours of English composition, math, and communication. These three disciplines form an appropriate alliance on issues related to staffing of the general education courses. Similarly, employers who have a vested interest in hiring graduates who are proficient in using the most current technology have a strong reason to help a related department secure new equipment. Working together, the employers and the department can decide their respective roles in pursuing possible sources for new!

equipment. The employers may have some influence with the central administration or an external funding source. With testimony from area employers, the department may have an increased opportunity for grant funding to purchase equipment. By working through the relative merits of each alternative together, the partners remain committed to the objective. This process also allows partners to know the efforts made by the department, which further enhances the alliance. A department that is willing to exhaust all options for new equipment in order to prepare graduates who satisfy the needs of regional employers will only endear itself to those employers.

Third, alliances are particularly helpful when a department needs to guard against changing conditions that threaten its welfare. Strong alliances with alumni, accrediting associations, industry, or area legislators can be an effective safeguard against the elimination of a particular program. These partners are important allies because they typically have some relationship wit the central administration. Alumni, for example, are important to the university leadership as contributors of money, time, and good will. A vocal group of prominent alumni can influence the decisions of the central administration. Similarly, the state legislature can take action to alter the central administration's plans for a particular department. The legislature in a state with a large Spanish population, for example, may oppose a university's decision to eliminate the foreign language program. A department that can service the state's need to accommodate a multicultural population has val!

ue beyond the number of majors in the program.