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Managing a Career Versus Managing a Program or Department

Tomorrow's Academy

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This briefing explores one of the most common leadership roles in academe-that of a department chair. It draws distinctions between the skills and knowledge necessary for successful management of an individual career and those required for farsighted departmental leadership, which calls for a holistic, organizational-level view of a program or a department as part of the larger institution.


The posting below looks at some of the challenges in moving from a faculty member to a department chair. It is from the article, Departmental Effectiveness What Is It? Why Is It Important? How Can It Be Achieved? by by Brent D. Ruben . It contains the executive summary and an excerpt on Managing a Career Versus Managing a Program or Department, in the monthly series Effective Practices for Academic Leaders. The series is available in an electronic publication that can be networked on a campus system to enable everyone on a campus to access the briefings at their desks when needed, for use both as guidance for administrators and as a development materials for faculty and others. The electronic license allows individual copying without need for permission, thus the individual briefings lend themselves to use in workshops ands seminars. For online subscription information go to: . Volume 1, Issue 12, August 2006 . Copyright © 2006, Stylus Publishing, LLC. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Managing a Career Versus Managing a Program or Department

Brent D. Ruben

Executive Summary

This briefing explores one of the most common leadership roles in academe-that of a department chair. It draws distinctions between the skills and knowledge necessary for successful management of an individual career and those required for farsighted departmental leadership, which calls for a holistic,

organizational-level view of a program or a department as part of the larger institution. The briefing describes an in-depth approach to planning, assessment, and improvement in academic departments, using as a model the Malcolm Baldrige Program of the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

This model was adapted to the needs of higher-education institutions, with their particular emphases on scholarship, research, service, outreach, and teaching and instruction. The resulting Excellence in Higher Education (EHE) model, first developed at Rutgers University in 1994 and now in its seventh version (Reuben, 2007a), provides an integrated approach to assessment, planning, and improvement, drawing on the Baldrige model, as well as on standards and language of the institutional accrediting associations.

The following seven categories of the EHE are seen as interrelated parts of a unified system: (1) leadership, (2) strategic planning, (3) beneficiaries and constituencies, (4) programs and services, (5) faculty/staff and workplace, (6) assessment and information use, and (7) outcomes and achievements. The briefing elaborates on the application of the EHE framework by focusing on its categories as well as the EHE process and several ways that it can be used. The impact of the model is shown through results of two studies conducted to assess the practical value of EHE to participants. The briefing then discusses the framework outcomes in terms of specific improvement initiatives adopted by departments that have used EHE as well as lessons learned from more than 50 EHE assessments nationwide. Finally, the briefing highlights the contributions of EHE to fostering successful leadership practices and ultimately advancing the mission of a department, a program, and the larger institution.

Managing a Career Versus Managing a Program or Department

Each year, approximately 80,000 faculty members in the United States serve as department chairs; approximately one-fourth of these positions turn over annually (Gmelch & Miskin, 1993). Many of these 20,000 new chairs assume their roles having had little or no formalized preparation. The same can be said of program directors and sometimes deans. Gmelch (2000) notes that deans usually come to their positions without leadership training, without prior executive experience, and without a full understanding of the complexities or responsibilities that the role entails (Hecht, 2006; Ruben, 2004; Wolverton & Gmelch, 2002).

The culture shock associated with the transition from faculty member to program director, chair, or dean can be enormous. In explaining the often turbulent transition from faculty member to academic leader, Gmelch and colleagues (Gmelch, 2000; Gmelch & Parkay, 1999) identify various contributing factors. They note, for example, that whereas faculty work tends to be solitary and focused, departmental leadership activities are generally public and fragmented. Faculty members have substantial autonomy in their work and in many tasks have considerable latitude relative to deadlines. By contrast, most academic leadership tasks are highly structured and have rigid, externally imposed deadlines. Faculty members prepare manuscripts dealing with issues about which they have a genuine interest, and often some level of passion; administrators prepare memos, budgets, personnel requests, and accountability reports on issues about which it is difficult for most academics to generate much enthusiasm. Faculty members request and campaign for their resource needs, whereas administrators are resource custodians and arbiters, with responsibility for allocation and equity. Excluding teaching, much of the day-to-day work of faculty members can be done anywhere and at any time; a majority of the academic administrator's work requires a physical presence in one's office during regular working hours. Finally, although academic leaders are quite fully occupied with their administrative responsibilities, many also continue to fulfill teaching, research, and service/outreach responsibilities associated with their roles as faculty members.

The graduate education of the professoriate generally does little to equip us with the attitudes, knowledge, or skill sets that would attract us to academic administration, ease our transition into leadership roles, or prepare us for the important work associated with these positions.

In the quest to become great physicists, sociologists, classicists, or artists, most of us were appropriately preoccupied with developing ourselves as scholars, learning to conduct our own research and to disseminate and promote it and ourselves within our disciplines. Instrumental to these ends were the acquisition of competencies in analysis and criticism of extant knowledge, assertiveness in advancing and defending our own perspective, and persistence and steadfast dedication in the pursuit of our own line of scholarship, often in the face of critique and questioning from colleagues. Most of us had very little time to focus systematic attention on the practices of leadership or the complexities of higher-education organizations. The result: accomplished scholars largely unprepared for higher-education leadership roles.

With an absence of experience and formal preparation, it is not surprising that most new program directors and chairs instinctively bring a faculty mind-set and selected skills to their administrative roles. From that perspective, some assumptions about department leadership seem fairly straightforward:

* Recruit excellent scholar-teachers and an outstanding program or department will result.

* Understand and support the individual needs of your faculty colleagues and they-and the unit-will thrive.

* Be a good colleague, listen, and respond in a facilitative way to your colleagues' problems as they arise and you will be respected and valued as a leader.

* Department planning is usually wasteful.

* Business concepts and language belong in businesses.

After some time in their roles as academic administrators, most leaders come reluctantly to the realization that these principles generally do not yield the hoped for outcomes. Their inadequacy lies in the fact that they reflect a conceptualization of academic departments as collections of individuals, rather than as organizations. Shifting one's level of analysis from that of the individual to that of the group, and seeing the group as part of an institution that operates in a complex environment with diverse and often competing interests and expectations, is the most fundamental conceptual change required for successful academic leadership. Making this shift means rethinking a number of basic assumptions.

1. Excellent faculty members create excellent departments. If we can attract and retain outstanding faculty members, could we not expect departmental excellence and effectiveness to follow naturally? Experience suggests that simply assembling a group of excellent scholar-teachers provides little assurance that the department and programs that they create together will result in and sustain an equally distinguished level of excellence or effectiveness. In fact, it is not uncommon to find situations in which a group of individually distinguished faculty members creates programs that seem to be less than the sum of the parts. Individual scholarly distinction is not necessarily associated with distinctive competencies in the areas of collaboration or teamwork, characteristics that may well be as important as scholarship in creating and sustaining departmental excellence.

Moreover, it is generally the case that the more successful a unit is in recruiting and hiring outstanding faculty members, the greater the resulting challenges for the department leadership. Distinguished faculty members seldom share the same perspectives, needs, and styles, and these differences typically intensify, rather than diminish, the challenges that leaders face in resource allocation and in efforts to create an effective and collaborative climate.

2. Departmental needs are essentially the sum of the needs of individual faculty members. If we inventory and aggregate the needs and priorities of individual faculty members, would we not also be identifying the most pressing needs and priorities of the department? In practice, each faculty member is likely to have any number of needs and concerns that he or she can articulate relative to desired level of support.

Unfortunately, the collected priorities of the faculty do not necessarily combine to create an appropriate agenda for advancing the interests of a department as a whole. To offer a simple example, obvious oversights can occur if the core curriculum of an undergraduate program is defined solely on the teaching interests and preferences of a given year's faculty cohort. Leaving aside larger questions of intellectual coherence and alignment with student and institutional needs, a department that operates on this assumption will need to revise the core curriculum with each new faculty hire or departure.

3. Colleagues' problems are best viewed as unique circumstances and dealt with in a personalized manner. Won't the direct and candid advice that I have always given to my colleagues be just as appropriate now that I am department chair? Over the course of the average week, month, or semester, faculty problems arise and are brought to the chair for resolution. One new faculty member would like lightened responsibilities during her first semester in order to better acclimate to the department, university, and community; another colleague requests additional travel money; and still another would like a two-day teaching schedule to accommodate research or special child-care needs. Taken individually, each case has its merits, and it is tempting to assist each colleague in solving his or her particular problem in the manner that will be most pleasing to that person. However, experiences in academic administration teach that every way of solving a problem has consequences beyond the immediate circumstance. Each decision creates its own history and contributes to the evolving culture of the department. As individualized decisions become public-as they inevitability do over time-they represent a precedent with which the current, or future, leader must contend. Most academic leaders realize that day-to-day decision making cannot be guided solely by the needs and desires of one's colleagues. As with a departmental needs assessment, a personalized approach to problem solving is fraught with risks and adverse long-term consequences for the leader, his or her colleagues, and the department.

4. Individual faculty planning eliminates the necessity for departmental planning. If individual faculty members have sound plans for their own academic work, is not spending time on departmental planning wasteful and duplicative? As critical and important as faculty plans are for managing the directions of individual trajectories, collectively, they do not constitute an appropriate plan for a department. For example, if one were to inventory faculty teaching or sabbatical scheduling preferences and endeavor to use them as the primary guide for scheduling courses, the result from the perspective of students and the department would be disastrous. In such an instance, what is needed is a systematic approach to scheduling, one that clarifies relevant criteria and provides an equitable, consistent, transparent, and communicable approach to coordinating faculty requests.

5. Management is an appropriate concept for business, but it has no place in academics. Had we wanted to manage-or be managed-we would have chosen a different career. The language of business and management is off-putting for most academics. The term management, and others such as strategic planning, marketing, productivity, and organizational effectiveness-and the concepts associated with them-are anathema within the academic community. Colleges and universities often go to great lengths to avoid these terms in describing the positions associated with academic leadership. But the unvarnished truth is that these concepts, by whatever name, are essential functions within any effective organization-whether that organization provides products or services, whether it is in the private or public sector, and whether its work centers on business, government, health, or education. The more academic leaders can get past cultural sensitivities to particular terminology, the more able they will be to translate, learn from, and apply useful insights, research, and experience from other organizations and sectors.


Gmelch, W.H. (2000). Leadership succession: How new deans take charge and learn the job. The Journal of Leadership Studies, 7(30), 68-87.

Gmelch, W.H., & Miskin, V.D. (1993). Chairing an academic department. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Gmelch, W.H., & Parkay, F.P. (1999, April). Becoming a department chair: Negotiating the transition from one scholar to administrator. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association Conference, Montreal, Canada.

Hecht, I.W.D. (2006). Becoming a department chair: To be or not to be. Effective Practices for Academic Leaders, 1(3).

Ruben, B.D. (2004). Pursuing excellence in higher education: Eight fundamental challenges. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ruben, R.D. (2007a). Excellence in higher education guide 2007-2008e: An integrated approach to assessment, planning and improvement for colleges and universities. Washington, DC: National Association of College and University Business Officers.

Wolverton, M., & Gmelch, W.H. (2002). College deans: Leading from within. Westport, CT: American Council on Education, Oryz Press.