When No One Answers the Call

Full vitae passing the torch

Image: iStock

By Jane S. Halonen and Dana S. Dunn 

Chairs don’t — and shouldn’t — last forever. Most departments function on the assumption that it is healthy for the leadership job to change hands regularly. But what happens when it comes time to pass the torch … and no one wants it?

Choosing a replacement chair can be a tricky business in the best of circumstances. Most departments have formal bylaws or an informal understanding that chairs should have a predictable term of office. A common arrangement involves the chair serving three years with an option for a renewable term.

Viewed from the outside, a failure to develop willing leaders in a department might be seen as a manifestation of faculty selfishness. It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that professors avoid the chair’s job because they don’t want to surrender their autonomy or become involved in endless meetings. However, ascribing a leadership problem to a shared personality shortcoming commits what psychologists refer to as the fundamental attribution error — that is, the tendency to explain deficient behavior as the result of a personality defect rather than examining the relevant external forces that influence a problematic outcome.

Let’s look beyond the obvious, then, at why faculty members might resist a leadership role and what might be done to resolve the problem. It turns out a wide variety of factors come into play.

The incentive problem. Chairing a department involves hard work and long hours — but not necessarily much in the way of rewards. A professor who becomes head of the department may receive all, or some, or none of the following compensation arrangements: course reductions, salary bumps, bigger or better offices, or administrative pay supplements. In large departments, such perks may produce an attractive package to help entice a faculty member to take on the challenge. Resistance to the job may mean that the current package of incentives is simply not enough to balance the loss of time and freedom that the appointment will entail.

The training gap. Academics don’t receive management training in graduate school. Very few chairs of academic departments enter into the role with clear expectations about the scope of challenges that lie ahead. That lack of experience may scare people off from the job. At minimum, institutions should offer support for a new chair — either through mentorship by a successful chair or participation in a chairs’ group. In additional national workshops or other leadership development opportunities can fill in the training gap.

The vision quest. Most deans are hopeful that a new chair will approach the position with some explicit ideas about how to move the department forward. Depending on the scope of the job, many chairs find that the minutiae involved in merely managing the day-to-day operation leaves little time or energy for accomplishing goals on a grander scale. Fear of drowning in bureaucracy deters would-be leaders. Administrators might consider financing some retreat opportunities to help a new chair see the big picture and craft improvement goals that represent the faculty’s wishes.

The infrastructure impairment. The job of most chairs has evolved into a complex array of scheduling, financial, and institutional obligations. Effective chairs are backed by a productive support staff. If no one wants the job, it could be because everyone knows that incompetent or venal staff assistants in the department can make a chair’s life miserable.

The institutional climate. The senior administration can foster an atmosphere that is conducive to effective department management. It can also create additional strain through a variety of problematic responses: Do people get removed from their jobs with little explanation? Do requests get ignored? Is there clear respect shown by administrators to chairs?

The metrics explosion. In an accountability-enhanced era, chairs must be comfortable with the obligation of providing evidence of high quality work. However, many faculty members may have limited understanding of performance metrics. Having access to metric experts — including IT, assessment, or evaluation specialists — can ease the potential distress about how hard the job is likely to be.

The scholarship drift. The unpredictability of chairing a department can make maintaining a scholarly agenda highly problematic. What steps can be taken to help a potential chair, so he or she does not lose touch with scholarship that matters? Successful chairs make a point to block out predictable periods during the week in which their research agenda takes priority — even if that means working from home rather than being available in the office that day.

The feedback vacuum. Faculty members can usually expect at least an annual formal review of their job performance. Chairs may not get such regular attention, which may make navigating institutional expectations that much harder.

The dark-side morass. We have all colluded in making the chair transition harder than it needs to be with our ubiquitous jokes about colleagues joining "the dark side." Keeping this distinction alive — even if the reference is made in a joking fashion — reinforces an inappropriate dichotomy between the hard-working faculty members and the nefarious administrator who puts obstacles in their way. The faculty are the good guys; the administrators are the villains. In reality, there are heroic, noble administrators just as there are some nasty faculty members. The dichotomy serves no one, especially if it increases the burden of accepting the job.

So what can be done if an opening in the chair’s job reduces an entire department to a collective game of "Not It"? What good is a reluctant chair, anyway?

Certainly a chair who accepts the job purely out of duty or with a high degree of reluctance is sometimes a signal that the new "leader" will focus simply on managing the shop rather than embarking on any new enterprises that might help the department achieve excellence. On the other hand, some reluctant chairs manage very well because they don’t have a personal agenda attached to the job. Reluctant leaders can be more effective (and better liked) than gung-ho ones.

If no one volunteers, administrators may be able to get someone in the department to step up by threatening to place it in "receivership" and appoint a chair from another discipline. Sometimes, however, the department’s faculty members are at such odds with each other that none of them can be successful as chair. In such cases, the dean may turn to someone from outside the department but at the same institution to manage the enterprise until a search can transpire. Departments that repeatedly fail to produce their own leaders run the risk of being reorganized into another administrative unit.

Receivership chairs are people who have successfully led their own departments but who have stepped back into a faculty role. Although no one expects disciplinary expertise from receiver chairs, these individuals are experienced in the obligations of the job (e.g., course scheduling, faculty evaluation). They can keep the department informed about administrative needs, and function in a maintenance role until a leader emerges, either from within the department or from an external search.

But that’s a Band-Aid fix. The best long-term solution is for departments to start grooming future leaders from within.

Department chairs who pay attention to continuity and legacy will start on a replacement plan well before its time to step down. Chairs can delegate high-level tasks to other faculty members to test their capacity to balance multiple responsibilities. In addition, chairs can highlight leadership potential in annual evaluations leading up to the transition. Sometimes the designation of "associate chair" can be a precursor to a formal appointment. Finally, if a department is serious about grooming leaders from within, one of the criterion for new hires should be "potential to assume leadership responsibilities."

A groomed leader will be both interested and well-prepared to step into the vacated role. And then it will be part of that new chair’s job to start training a successor.

Jane S. Halonen is a professor of psychology and former dean of arts and sciences at the University of West Florida. Dana S. Dunn is a professor and former chair of psychology at Moravian College.

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