John P. Frazee, Director of Faculty Relations, University of Colorado-Boulder

February 6, 2014

A chair with years of experience offers candid reflections on the role--along with advice for those who are new to the position. It's worth a read, even if you're a veteran chair.

Find Your Rhythm

The first year, the biggest challenge is getting a sense of the rhythm of the administrative year. It can help hugely if you convince your predecessor to keep a running log of the general categories of things that need to be done in an academic calendar year – a chair’s calendar, as it were. You can then have this on hand so that you can plan ahead for tasks that arise every year, cyclically.

Personnel Issues!

Personnel issues (faculty and staff) can consume much more time than you could possibly imagine. They are also the issues that most get under your skin and keep you awake at night. Be careful to plan ahead for these. Even if they will, in the nature of things, arise at random points, they WILL arise. You can take preemptive actions by 1) trying to be fair to everyone / listening to all sides, 2) having a sense of the kinds of issues that matter to your individual team members (and the kinds of tricks they play… no kidding), 3) having the courage of your convictions and sticking to your position if you believe it to be right, 4) building coalitions of support, making sure that others believe in you and your position–if they don’t, you’d better rethink.

Know Where You Want to Go

Have a goal (or several goals). Don’t just be watching the clock or doing things mechanically, but have some ambition or ambitions for your term as chair: we will establish this kind of endowment; we will increase our use of technology in the classroom; we will improve major numbers by this much; we will try to mend fences between these two colleagues; etc.

Juggle Competing Interests

Get to know all of your stakeholders: this means your faculty, your staff, your undergraduates, your student parents, your donors, your graduates, your deans, your provost, etc. All of these people want what is best for your department – but usually as it relates to their self-interest. This is not a bad thing, but your success will be measured in how well you keep ALL of these stakeholders as content as possible. It’s a juggling act, so keep your eye on as many of the balls as you possibly can.

Some Pearls of Wisdom

  1. You get out what you put in: if you are a lazy chair, your work will be unfulfilling; if you are proactive, you will be happy with the results.
  2. Never respond in anger: this applies both to face-to-face conversations and, above all, to email. Anything you say can and will be held against you, so make sure your responses are calm and rational.
  3. Always maintain the moral high-ground: even if the behavior of someone makes you long to make turnabout fair play, don’t give into that temptation.
  4. Keep lines of communication open: visit your faculty and staff early and often in their own offices; take them to lunch or coffee (and pay). Give people the sense you are listening to them and care about their interests. Even if you don’t always agree with them, you need to try your hardest to see things from their point of view.
  5. Do the right thing: You probably know in your gut what the right thing is, so follow that instinct. Above all, don’t let bad things happen on your watch – if you know there is a problem or something is just not right, don’t let it fester: confront it.
  6.  Keep it out of the deans’ offices: try with all your might not to let the upper level administration solve problems that you could solve. They’re busy people and they don’t know your turf. They’ll love you much more – and be much more helpful to you when you need it – if they look forward to getting emails and phone calls from you that report good news, not bad.