Role of Department Chairs

The big picture person Guide/mentor for new faculty Liaison between the department and the Dean
Gate keeper and first-in-line resource person Role model Strategies for surviving these multiple demands

A department chair is charged with looking at the big picture: looking at the department as a whole and at the department's relationship to the college. But the chair is also charged with stewarding the day-to-day operation of the department, and it is easy to drown in the minutiae of paper-pushing, to lose sight of the larger issues that should be of concern. There is much to balance as chair: the small tasks with the large vision, and also the job of chair with the continuing jobs of teacher and scholar. It has been a daunting task to list in this publication all the things a department chair does-the list is long. That is all the more reason to keep the big issues alive. Approving course substitutions, turning in the year's schedule, signing up new majors, and all the other small tasks of the chair need to be done, but the real satisfaction of the job comes from things like shepherding a young colleague through the probationary years, conducting a successful search, or re-thinking the department's curriculum.

One's role in the department changes when one takes on the chair; even though our departments are small, the power of chairs is limited, and faculty tend to rotate through the position. Here are some of the roles generally expected of a department chair:

The big picture person

It's important for the chair to keep in mind the big picture--of the well-being of the department as a whole, of the department's place in the college, and of the needs of students. Of course it's good for all faculty to have such a perspective, but it's very important for the chair consistently to weigh the needs and desires of individual faculty with the larger good, and to model this perspective for the rest of the department. Some of the issues for which the big picture may need to be invoked:

  • most fundamental of all: establishing a collegial environment, one in which much of the above will take care of itself because all members feel valued, that they have a stake in the endeavor, that they are part of a team, that they have ownership in the program
  • taking time for the department to consider what its goals are, and if those goals are being met (an ongoing concern, with some formal stocktaking perhaps every five or ten years)
  • helping people get along with each other (sometimes personality issues within a department are a major challenge)
  • sharing the load of service tasks within the department
  • finding ways to balance the wide variety of factors that go into what courses are taught when and by whom (see the section on "Course Scheduling" for a more detailed treatment of this issue), including
    • course offerings for majors with general education courses for non-majors
    • faculty's ability to teach from their strengths with the needs of the program
    • faculty ability to teach in the blocks they prefer while also sharing the burden of teaching in unpopular blocks
    • the teaching of both introductory courses and upper-level courses across the department

Another way of saying this: the chair has an important role in helping faculty in the department be realistic about how much of what they do can be chosen entirely individually and how much should be done in consultation with others, and with attention to the needs of others. How much latitude is available can also depend on the nature of one's department, particularly with regard to curriculum. Some departments have standard introductory courses, but almost everything above that is flexible. A new person coming into such a department will have a wider choice of courses to develop than someone coming into a department where the curriculum is highly sequential, and one person's course depends heavily on another's. But even in this latter sort of department, it will help the morale of a new person (and others too) if the obligations of the required courses can be balanced with the occasional plum, the chance for a faculty member to teach something especially close to their heart.

Guide/mentor for new faculty

Another section of this guide goes into detail on the variety of specific things a chair should do to help a new faculty person. Over and above these details, and the obvious role of being the first resource for the vast array of questions any new person has, the most important thing you can do for the new person is to make them feel welcome as an integral member of the department and to convey to them that you want very much for them to succeed. We also suggest you keep this welcoming attitude in mind when setting up the course schedule for a person's first year, something that will be done before they arrive on campus. Help insure their success by giving them, as much as possible, courses they'll feel comfortable with. Perhaps there's a popular introductory course that can be offered twice in the year, to cut back on new preparations. If there's something they need to teach that will be a huge stretch for them, see if it can be held off until the second year.

Liaison between the department and the Dean

This is a key function of the chair. You are the person the Dean will turn to with regard to any issues facing your department, and you are the person who will go to the Dean with concerns initiated by the department. You are the representative of the department, a spokesperson, an advocate for the department. You are also the person who will be relating back to the department the perspective and concerns of the Dean. There may be institutions where the department chair plays the role of a "manager," implementing policy made from above, but this is not the case at Cornell. What happens when there is a conflict between what the department collectively agrees are its needs and what is presented by the Dean as the college's needs?  The chair serves as the intermediary, conveying the department's perspective to the Dean, and the Dean's perspective to the department. If an issue is particularly contentious, the Dean may meet with the whole department. Here are examples of some of the issues that routinely call for the chair to consult with the Dean (for more details, see sections on these issues):

  • definition of positions in the department (when change is being considered)
  • searches (various aspects, from approval of the search through to candidate choice)
  • significant curriculum change
  • some course logistics (e.g., over- or under-enrollment, caps)
  • departmental contribution to interdisciplinary programs, including the college writing program

Gate keeper and first-in-line resource person--the face of the department

There's a lot of unscheduled traffic that comes to the chair--from students, staff, and faculty--so one needs to be more accessible as a chair than one might have been previously. This means that chairs have less access to one of the perks of faculty life--a relatively flexible schedule and the ability to do some of one's work away from the office. It's important to be in the office, with the door open, more than you may be used to, with certain times of the term especially important (e.g., during January, when students are declaring majors, and late February, when students are registering for classes). Prompt answering of e-mail will also be appreciated by all the people turning to you with questions. Much of this communication stems from the chair's role as point person for communication to and from the Registrar's Office, other departments, and the Office of Academic Affairs.

Role model

Colleagues will look to you as a model, and they will see what you're doing-in all kinds of ways. They'll see you at the office, and also at any departmental social functions.

Strategies for surviving these multiple demands

Delegate. Departmental cultures vary on how much is done by the chair and how much is delegated to others. We recommend that departments make a conscious effort to divide up tasks. Even though this will mean more work for some faculty in departments where the chair currently does it all, the pay-off will come later, when that person in turn can rely on the help of others. See the section of this guide on "Delegating" for suggestions about which tasks are most appropriate for delegating.

Seek Counsel. When faced with a difficult issue, don't hesitate to seek counsel. You have three natural resources:

  • another person in your department who has previously been chair
  • other chairs
  • the Dean (who may be able to draw on past experience as a chair as well as current experience as Dean)

Advice is also available in print and on the web. Even though mostly oriented toward large university settings, it can still be helpful. Some places to begin:

Don Chu, The Department Chair Primer: Leading and Managing Academic Departments (Anker Publishing, 2006)

I. W. D. Hecht et al., The Department Chair as Academic Leader (American Council on Education/Oryx Press, 1999)

the website of the American Council on Education: (under "Programs & Services" select "Department Leadership Programs")

The Department Advisor (a quarterly publication from Higher Education Executive Publications)

other selected articles are available from the ACM office.

Get help with the big picture -- a departmental review

Consider the benefits to the department--and to you as chair--of doing a departmental self-study, which can be very helpful for getting a larger perspective on the department. Such a review helps the department identify its strengths as well as challenges it may be facing (in the curriculum, staffing, facilities, alumni/ae success, etc.), and can help set an agenda for change. In addition, remember that departments considering significant curricular revision or innovation may apply for faculty development funding through the Office of Academic Affairs.