College of Arts and Sciences

Chair Survival Strategies

Prioritize, review, and adjust.

As chair you will juggle several types of priorities: strategic priorities for the department, daily or weekly priorities for the departmental office, and your own career development priorities. Schedule a special departmental meeting at least once a year to discuss strategic priorities such as curriculum reform, hiring plans, and degree programs. You need to have all permanent faculty engaged in setting the high-level priorities. Meet monthly, bi-weekly, or weekly with your staff to review office operations and make adjustments as needed. You may find that you need to meet more often early in your tenure as chair and less frequently as the staff becomes accustomed to your management style and performance expectations. Being intentional about setting priorities and making sure the entire department is aware of the priorities will help keep you focused and set the department on a positive trajectory.

Establish a routine.

As chair, you will need to have an open door more than a 'regular' faculty member. But that doesn't mean you can't carve out chunks of quiet time for research or class preparation. If you establish a routine so faculty, staff, and students who need your attention can know when you will be available, they are less likely to be resentful of your closed door time. If possible, remove yourself from the office for your quiet times. Go to your lab or library carrel or your home office. Separating yourself physically from the office environment reduces interruptions and helps you mentally shift gears from putting-out-fires mode to critical thinking mode.

Stop the paperwork ambushes.

Faculty will drop by your office or waylay you in the hall and push forms at you for signature. After all, these are your buddies and how can it be any trouble for you to write your name? Don't do it! Politely, but firmly, tell them to take the paperwork to the department office for processing. Every form should be screened by your staff before you sign it. Why? Because never in the history of the academy has there been a faculty member who could correctly complete university forms—especially those dreadful reimbursement forms. Everyone wins if your staff screens the forms and brings them to you in bundles once a day (or however often you wish). You have fewer interruptions, the correctly prepared paperwork is processed smoothly, and your staff won't spend countless hours cleaning up easily avoidable messes.

Tame your inner control freak.

You are an over-achiever or you wouldn't be reading the Chair Handbook. You have very definite ideas about how things should be done. It may be difficult for you to let go of even the smallest responsibilities. But learning to delegate appropriately will be good for you and for your department. Put forth the effort to engage faculty and staff in decision-making and you will see rewards. It will take some trial and error. There may be some short-term pain, especially if your department has a culture where the chair is expected to solve all problems. The long term gain is a more effective and productive department which can handle transitions in leadership without falling apart.

Don't be afraid to ask for advice.

Chairing can feel very lonely at times. You are not one of the 'regular' faculty anymore and you are certainly not a full-time administrator. Some days it seems the alligators are attacking from all sides. But you don't have to go it alone. There are people throughout the university who can help you think through the issues you encounter in your chair role. Make a point of getting together periodically with other department chairs—go to lunch or happy hour together once a month. Identify a few respected, senior faculty members, possibly even a past chair, who can help you understand the departmental culture and affect positive changes. And you can always call on the dean's office. The dean and associate deans have pretty much seen it all. They can listen, advise, and point you to people who have weathered similar storms.

Part I: Overview

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Last Updated: 1/14/13