Departmental Cultures and Chair Styles

Although it's not the sort of thing you see ethnographies about, each department at Cornell has its own culture, which-like culture in general-is reproduced over the generations, often without self-conscious effort. Each of these cultures tends to proceed on the principle that the way things are done is the way they should be done. It's often only in conversation with someone from another department that one realizes a certain practice is not actually a rule, or even a norm. As a new chair, there may be aspects of the departmental culture that you would like to change, which may well be a good thing. But that doesn't mean it will be easy. On the other hand, maintaining a healthy departmental culture doesn't happen automatically; it requires cultivation. Yes, this is a paradox: culture tends to reproduce itself (and so is resistant to change) and it also needs conscious nurturing in order to sustain positive qualities.   

Here are some of the factors that contribute to department culture:

  • the size of the department
  • the proportion of tenured to untenured faculty
  • how many long-timers there are
  • what expectations people have about time commitments (e.g., time spent in one's office, attendance at departmentally sponsored events, departmental socializing off campus)
  • incorporation of student input into departmental decisions
  • a tradition of hierarchy or egalitarianism
  • how much is delegated and how much done by the chair
  • reliance on common (or autonomous) decision-making

An added element of complexity occurs when there are multiple disciplines within one department, for example Sociology and Anthropology, or Classical and Modern Languages. These departments include faculty who may have significantly different sorts of training, and there is often more than one major. This makes for a complicated departmental identity in general, and can also come into play for specific things, such as how advisees are assigned, curricular concerns, position and hiring decisions. The more you're aware of potential difficulties because of different purposes, training, or priorities, the more likely you are to be able to head them off, or bring them into the open for discussion.

If you would like to change some traditional practices in the department, it's likely to be easier if you acknowledge the issue openly, invite discussion, and see where it takes you. Some things are readily changed, and some are remarkably persistent, and one can't necessarily predict which is which.

As department chair, your own habits and inclinations will have a significant impact on the life of the department. Consider whether you fit in smoothly with old patterns, or whether your style will necessitate some accommodation. Some of the factors that contribute to the style of a department chair:

  • Do you prefer to have control over all aspects of the department, or do you tend to be laissez-faire?
  • Do you prefer face-to-face interaction, or to do most things by e-mail?
  • Do you prefer a hierarchical structure or an egalitarian one?
  • Are you approachable for professional problems? for personal problems?
  • Are you comfortable with numbers (e.g., budgets, enrollment information)?

Here are some of the qualities of department culture one would hope for in all departments:

collegial functional
supportive open-minded
communicative cooperative