The Chair’s Role in Facilitating a Collegial Department
Mary Lou Higgerson (1996) has written about strategies to be employed by department chairs to develop collegial relationships in a department. In addition, I have found the following twenty leadership traits that chairs can use to help facilitate a more collegial department:
? Emphasize consensus. Chairs should work tirelessly to gain buy-in from members of their department. This enhances a sense of empowerment as well as the fact that encouraging more ideas and suggestions?delivered in a respectful and civil manner?is a basic tent of institutions of higher education.
? Share power. Chairs should not be power-hungry and driven by their egos. They should reach out to the faculty members and obtain their thoughts and ideas. Faculty members should recognize that the chair makes decisions predicated on the needs of the department, not personal gain.
? Consult with all faculty members. Chairs should not be perceived as listening only to one or two faculty members. When people are listened to, and their ideas are allowed to be articulated, they are empowered.
? Develop and implement shared responsibilities. Chairs should be aware that all faculty members must share the workload. Resist giving most of the work to a small minority of the faculty?even if they are not tenured! There should be equity in committee assignments, number of advisees, and so on.
? De-emphasize status differences. Chairs should help to ensure that senior-ranking professors and first-year faculty members are accorded the same respect. Institutions of higher education are infamous for heightening status differences. Quality departments must refrain from this position.
? Individuals should interact as equals. Chairs must set the tone and be certain that all people in the department are treated as equals. The chair must model the behavior she expects from faculty members, students, and professional staff.
? Engage in generational and gender equity. Chairs should ensure that more seasoned faculty and women and minorities are respected and listened to. The composition of faculty is changing and chairs need to recognize this.
? Celebrate. Chairs should celebrate, publicly and privately, the achievements of each faculty member: awarding of tenure, promotion in rank, writing a grant, writing an article for publication, obtaining a grant or contract, awarded the ?best? researcher or teacher or advisor honor, and so on.
? Maintain frequent and consistent interaction with colleagues. Hold weekly, regularly scheduled staff meetings. The chairs who interact with their staff mainly through e-mails are doing themselves and the department a disservice.
? Establish a climate of tolerating differences. Higher education is rather infamously noted for harboring people who display idiosyncratic behavior. Department climate should encourage a dissimilarity and variation in ideas and thoughts by faculty members.
? Focus on the behavior not the person. In the discussions that become heated, as well as normal exchanges between and among faculty members and the chair, it is the behavior that should be carefully scrutinized rather than the person.
? Be constructive and informative. The chair is in a position to be more informed than faculty members regarding important changes underway at the college or university. The chair should present as much of this information as logic would dictate so that faculty members are spared the insidious rumors that often accompany impending changes. The chair should communicate what he knows to the faculty in a positive, practical, and useful way.
? Link individuals to the larger context. If a person makes an ill-advised uncivil comment one time, it should not be blown out of proportion as representing a declaration that this is her usual behavior. We all have bad days. However, if this becomes a noticeable occurrence it must be dealt with, and swiftly.
? Do not be defensive: ?I?m not being defensive, damn it!? It is human nature that when one starts a sentence with the phrase ?Don?t be defensive, but ?? the immediate response is to declare that you are not! Try not to start off a conversation with this expression.
? Publicly and formally recognize each deserving person. A faculty member should be recognized when he or she performs in an outstanding way. The chair should take the lead in making sure that the person?s achievement does not go unrecognized or unnoticed. The chair can organize a breakfast or lunch to honor this person?s success. He can make an announcement at a department or schoolwide meeting. The important thing is to recognize this person and her achievement in a public forum.
? Clarify performance expectations. The chair should meet individually with each faculty member at the start of each semester and discuss performance expectations. The expectations will be somewhat different and unique for each faculty member, based on where each faculty member is in his or her career. Of course, a tenured full professor will have a different set of goals and expectations than a nontenured assistant professor. This will enable chairs to get to know their faculty members, obtain information on their dreams and aspirations, and mentor the faculty members in specific ways.
? Be consistent. Chairs should behave in a consistent manner so that faculty members, students, and professional staff are secure in their interaction with the chair. This behavior can serve as a reliability check to ensure that the chair is not behaving sporadically from day to day. Each person in the department should be noticeably comfortable in daily relations with the chair.
? Keep accurate, specific, and up-to-date records. The chair should keep records of communications he has, especially those that are contentious. He should record the time and day of the conversation and the outcome. The records should be kept in a secure place and labeled properly for easy reference.
? Do not show favoritism. Even the perception that the chair is favoring one faculty person over another sets in motion needless conflict. Faculty members have elephantine memories! Chairs should be ever-vigilant in not making the ?favoritism game? into a self-fulfilling prophecy. I have always shared the decisions that I have made with all of the members in the department. For example, Jim was supported in attending a national conference, while Ellen?s request was denied. The reason that I shared was that Jim was presenting a keynote address at the conference. Also, Ellen was requesting to go to the conference and only attend the sessions. Jim?s keynote presentation brought acclaim to the department and the university. Morning classes usually being at 8:00 AM. Faculty members do not want to teach the eight o?clock class. The decision I made was to rotate the faculty so that we all (myself included) taught the 8:00 AM class every fifth semester.
? Resist the temptation to get even and punish a faculty member (even if he is a mean-spirited son-of-a-sea cook). Chairs must personally defend against placing a faculty member in a dark, windowless, asbestos-filled office in the basement of the maintenance building. Although this may provide the chair with a warm and fuzzy feeling, she should refrain from actually doing this or similar acts (it is okay, however, to think it). Punishing this person makes the chair seem petty and vindictive in the eyes of other faculty members, students, and staff. Also, it only serves to set this person up as a victim. Faculty members do have an innate tendency to relate to victims, which could serve to ostracize the chair and significantly diminish her effectiveness as a leader.
Higgerson, M. L. Communication Skills for Department Chairs. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing, 1996.