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1/15/2013 12:00 AM

Leading an Energized Academic Department: Seven Timely Reminders

by Kina S. Mallard and Ann Singleton

From The Department Chair – Winter 2013 (23.3)

It is the beginning of spring semester, halfway through the academic year. Faculty are returning from a long Christmas break ready for new students and new course preps. It is the time when chairs are faced with their list of annual goals and the realization that they have only four months to complete them before faculty scatter again for travel and research agendas. Because the spring semester doesn’t have quite the same spark as the start of a fall semester, we wanted to remind you of the ways your work as chair can energize your departmental faculty and, in the process, even energize you.

Reminder 1: Embrace Committee Work

Many may be surprised that committee work makes the reminder list as an energizing force. Some may see committee work as something to simply endure, but despite the cynicism that flows freely around the subject of committees, we feel strongly that committee work is one of the most important venues for your success. In fact, we argue that the intellectual ethos of an institution is often best defined by the vitality and relevance of its committees and can be a place to find joy and fulfillment. It is through committees that you make friends with other leaders and faculty on campus, have opportunities to share your passion and vision for your department, and gain credibility as a team player and advocate for the college. Committees also are an opportunity for socialization and provide a sense of belonging and community necessary for job fulfillment.

Reminder 2: Remember Departmental Legacy and History

As chair, you are by default your department’s resident historian. Even though our culture does not always prompt us to look back, strong leaders understand and respect the past. New chairs are often anxious to begin their own legacy. For those new to the role who are eager to flourish within the department’s mission, we offer the following advice: Ask questions. Learn the stories. Learn about colleagues and alumni. Learn about programs, thriving or abandoned. Departmental history, even with antiquated features, is a harbinger of the departmental future you will help shape.

For chairs who are promoted from within there is the temptation to quickly fix the problems they observed from faculty ranks. We would caution you to go slowly. There is a person behind every policy and often that person is still on faculty. A shared sense of the past holds special promise for collaboration with and between faculty.

Reminder 3: Value Assessment

The word assessment often brings a collective groan, but the chair can set a different tone as the champion of departmental assessment. Setting and assessing general education goals, program outcomes, student learning outcomes, and evaluating student satisfaction metrics are all important assessment activities. Evaluating faculty teaching and benchmarking curricula against other institutions are additional undertakings necessary only for accreditations, but they are best practices for twenty-first-century chairs. In addition to setting and evaluating program and student learning outcomes, many departments generate annual or semiannual assessment reports and/or conduct extensive five- or ten-year reviews. Assessment data is requested when you are lobbying for new faculty or staff or additional resources and it is a necessary component in recruiting prospective majors and establishing credibility with their parents.

The assessment culture is here and chairs must be equipped for data-driven decision making. The process of assessing your faculty and your department affords the greatest benefit. You receive specific information proving the excellent work you are doing, which in turn gives you as chair the reasons to affirm individual faculty and celebrate your departmental accomplishments as a group.

Reminder 4: Establish New Initiatives

With each new academic year comes the opportunity for thoughtful change. Using assessment data, we know where our departments are and can make informed decisions about where they can go next. The question for department chairs becomes, “What new initiatives will move my department forward?” This approach can keep our departments fresh and future directed. The chair role gives us the opportunity to think outside the box and to cast our vision for our departments. Specifically, new initiatives can energize a department that has become complacent in its approach to its work. From emphasizing a yearlong common teaching focus for the department to developing an outreach program that gives faculty and students opportunities to meet the needs of the local community, new initiatives keep us moving forward.

Reminder 5: Seek Leadership-Building Opportunities

Faculty experience great satisfaction in watching their former students progress through their careers. We have all felt a sense of pride when we hear of a student’s successes or receive an update from an alumnus regarding a new position or promotion. Likewise, the chair has the opportunity to develop leaders within the department. College campuses present many venues for leadership development. Committee work, both inside and outside the department, and leadership positions such as internship coordinator or club sponsor, graduate program director, and assessment coordinator are just a few. Delegating responsibility and encouraging your faculty to assume leadership positions is one of the most fulfilling aspects of being a department chair.

As chair, you model good leadership every day. Your attitude, your words, and your actions are being watched by your faculty. When you read leadership publications such as The Department Chair, attend leadership workshops, and volunteer on and off campus for leadership positions, you show your faculty the importance of taking advantage of ways to develop as a leader.

Reminder 6: Acknowledge Faculty Strengths

Each academic year gives department chairs additional opportunities to get to know veteran faculty better. With more occasions to observe faculty members in various roles, their passions and strengths emerge. We don’t want to become academic chairs who focus on the limitations of our faculty. We want to appreciate the unique individuals our faculty are and offer them opportunities to serve in ways that are fulfilling to them. As faculty members serve from a strength-based approach, departments can become energized.

In addition to veteran faculty members, it is truly exciting to have new faculty who bring a freshness to the department. Unaware of “how we have always done things,” these new faculty offer a significant opportunity for chairs to find new initiatives or address stagnant routines in natural and nonthreatening ways.

Reminder 7: Focus on Students

We left the number one spot on our list for students, because meeting the needs of students is what breathes life into academic departments. Regardless of position, all higher education personnel are there to support students. As department chairs, it seems that many of the interactions we have with students involve reinforcing rules and engaging in hard conversations. While these hard conversations take time, they can be revealing and serve as a reality check for chairs as well as provide useful information for departmental assessment. However, no chair wants every conversation with students to be negative. To ensure time for positive interactions, chairs can be intentional about attending student events and even schedule departmental events where the agenda is simply to enjoy good conversation and light refreshments, and where students are encouraged to tell us what’s on their minds.

Recently, I found myself having an unexpected (and unscheduled) conversation with a few students and was immediately energized and reminded of the reason that I came to higher education. Listening to students gives us the stories that remind us why we chose this profession. Students’ stories also provide us with rich evidence that our work is good, that it transforms lives and contributes to making our communities and our world better.


The significant contribution chairs make to their departments cannot be marginalized. At this tedious time of the academic year, it is a good time to reflect on the importance of our roles as academic chairs. Of course, finding space in the life of a chair for time to hear stories from our students as well as our faculty is difficult at best. However, we invite you to find a balance that allows time “to be” as well as time “to do” in pursuit of leading an energized academic department.

Kina S. Mallard is provost and vice president for academic affairs at Carson-Newman College. Ann Singleton is associate dean of the School of Education at Union University. Email: kmallard@cn.edu, asinglet@uu.edu