A Year in Crisis: Lessons in Communication Learned as a Department Chair

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We have just passed the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic. While this experience may have provided opportunities for us to learn and grow, it has also taught us there are critical elements of our life and work where no substitute is sufficient. One of these elements is communication. The extreme safety measures of social distancing, lockdowns, quarantines, remote teaching, and working from home have made communicating with one another increasingly difficult and acutely essential.

Let’s not forget, though, there has always been a need for academic leaders to improve communication—many of us have even read books and attended workshops dedicated to this topic. However, the current pandemic has magnified potential weak spots in our communication, providing the opportunity to develop new habits that will benefit those we lead.

Allow me to share with you some lessons I have learned recently—some more painful than others—and how they can be applied right now, as well as in a post-pandemic world.

Knowing Your Responsibilities Makes You a Better Communicator

Being a department chair is the toughest job on campus, and the job does not get any easier during a pandemic. Students, faculty, and staff look to us for magical answers to urgent questions, and there is often a burning desire to provide immediate answers. However, it is crucially important for us to stay focused on our specific set of responsibilities instead of getting sidetracked by problems beyond our scope of influence. As mid-level managers, chairs are typically only responsible for the people and processes contained within their department. Knowing the full extent of these responsibilities and the intricacies involved in each of them allows us to be more confident in what (and how) we communicate. Occasions do arise, however, where lines of responsibility are blurred, so if you are unsure of where the lines are drawn, always ask your dean for further clarification. Focusing on the areas within your direct influence will help alleviate additional stress and pressure from others.

Even though the answer to a particular question may be outside our control, we do have a responsibility to the person who is inquiring. At that point, it is helpful to acknowledge their concern, provide an answer if one is already available, point them to a resource for finding updates, or let them know you will try to find an answer and follow up in the near future. Following up is the key, so be sure to have a system in place for tracking the status of such inquiries.

One of my responsibilities as department chair is to be the official Music Building coordinator. As the building coordinator, my responsibilities include managing the hours of operation, building access, scheduling, safety compliance, equipment management, and emergency protocols. Once campus shut down, we faced some problems that many other departments did not face—namely, access to on-campus resources such as instruments and practice rooms. While some students live at home (or returned home since campus closed), others remained in the dorms. Emails flooded my inbox with concerns about how to get into the building to get instrument and/or practice in the building. Typically, I can control who has access to the building and when, but that all changes in a pandemic. While I have the fundamental responsibility of making sure students have access to instruments and practice rooms, I do not have the authority to supersede University mandates. When students and faculty expressed their frustration to me, I had to remind myself that the decision to close campus was made by the upper administration. This helped me realize that the students and faculty were frustrated with the situation and not with me personally. This enabled me to focus on working within the limitations provided by the University to be as helpful as possible. I made official requests for exceptions; sometimes they were granted and sometimes they were not. It would have been easy to “ask for forgiveness instead of permission,” but being in the middle of a pandemic—with health and safety very much on the line—this was not the time to employ that strategy.

As an administrative leader, one of your responsibilities is to keep everyone focused on their responsibilities. It is very easy for people to get distracted, and the complications of a pandemic pull us in many directions all at once. In these moments, we need to stand out with a clear voice that rises above the white noise and blaring alarms.

Agile Thinking Enhances Flexible Planning

After getting through the spring semester with emergency remote teaching, everyone was asking, “What’s going to happen in the fall?” This is a perfect example of a responsibility that is outside a chair’s control; however, we still have a responsibility to our students, faculty, and staff to provide direction and guidance. Some institutions were very proactive and made decisions quickly, while others waited until the last second. Since I did not know where my institution would fall on that spectrum, I decided to encourage faculty to be mentally prepared for any teaching modality (face-to-face, remote/virtual, or hybrid) and to focus on how they could maintain their course objectives and student learning outcomes in any modality. I never told them to actually prepare a virtual class by pre-recording lectures and creating online exams (which would create work that may not be necessary), and I never told them that they would most definitely have the option of teaching face-to-face—I simply did not know what would happen. Instead, I prepared them to be flexible and to at least have a plan for what to do depending on what the upper administration decided, so that when the time came, they would be able to immediately activate their plans rather than waste valuable time by considering their options for the first time.

This approach eased the stress and anxiety that many faculty were experiencing, and it gave them time to fully consider their options depending on what the University decided. Now that we are hopefully on the back end of the pandemic, I have employed the exact same process to help them consider how they will transition back to the classroom for face-to-face instruction. We already did it once, so I know we can do it again!

Seek Input for a Broader Perspective

When we entered this pandemic, everything seemingly sped up and slowed down simultaneously. We had to kick our virtual instruction into high gear while the world around us ground to a halt. We couldn’t leave our homes for much of anything, yet we were working longer hours. The challenges we were facing were immensely complex and the solutions offered could not be applied universally. At the end of the day we, as department chairs, had to make final decisions on exactly how to proceed with very little information. Our situation was dire, our options were limited, and our time was running out.

In these types of circumstances, it is tempting to make decisions on our own so we can move on to putting out the next fire. However, we all know that making important decisions in a vacuum is destined for failure. There is no possible way one person can understand the ramifications of a decision that impacts different groups of people in a variety of ways. There are always unintended consequences and we need input—internally, and often externally—before making the final call.

As things began to unfold in the early days of the pandemic, I took a deep breath and considered my options for how to navigate the shifting landscape. I ultimately decided to form a COVID Task Force (like so many other organizations) comprised of faculty and staff from within the department. I made sure there was a good representation from across the department to minimize blind spots. We set up a discussion board where we could all post questions and consider a variety of approaches to the challenges we were facing. For about two or three months, I pilot-tested every decision with this group before communicating it department-wide. This task force was a godsend because they saved me from making several short-sighted decisions.

Seeking input from other chairs external to your department can also be very beneficial in solving problems. In Texas, we are fortunate to have an organization called the Texas Association of Music Schools (TAMS) that is comprised of department chairs/heads, directors, and deans from member institutions across Texas. Since the pandemic began, we have had roundtable discussions once every four to six weeks. These conversations have given us the opportunity to help one another through a variety of challenges. Additionally, we also have a listserv that is extremely active throughout the year. The listserv allows us pose questions and receive advice on how others have approached similar challenges with their administrations, students, and faculty. If you do not have an organization similar to this in your area, I highly recommend initiating one.

Keep Everyone in the Loop

I have noticed that when I keep others in the loop, they are likely to return the favor. This free flow of information is incredibly valuable, especially since so many situations are fluid and develop rapidly. Steady, predictable, and stable communication is much more effective than a constant bombardment of random emails.

With so many different responsibilities of a department chair—and with the vast differences between faculty, students, and staff—it can be a challenge to keep track of who needs to know what and how often reminders have been sent. The temptation is to fire off an email every time you think of something important that needs to be done. This is rarely effective because no one has the time or patience to read 50 emails a day that have been shot from the hip, usually resulting in frantic and incomplete responses. Instead, it is much better to consolidate and streamline the process when possible. I prefer to address this by sending one weekly memo to each group of constituents: one for faculty and staff, and the other for students. Each memo, sent Monday morning, contains a list of announcements and a set of action items for the week. This reduces the number of emails that people receive and provides a central location for all important information (the weekly memo is also a shared document with “view only” access). If other important items come up during the week, I typically roll them to the following week’s memo unless the issue needs to be addressed within that week (or if advanced notice is necessary).

In addition to keeping everyone updated and in the loop on issues that involve the majority, there are times when many situations are unfolding that involve a smaller minority. In these instances, it is best to limit the communication to only those involved. A good example of this is in dealing with upper administrators who have a direct connection to a faculty member in your department. Sometimes upper administrators feel comfortable going straight to the faculty member—which is not necessarily a bad thing—thus completely side-stepping you. While this may not be intentional on their part, it can create tension and send mixed messages to the faculty member if you have not been included in the discussions. There is no need for long emails or “formal reports,” but a brief phone call or short text message can help keep you up to speed. This culture of “looping everyone in” can be very helpful so that you can support your faculty and not get caught off guard later down the line.

In a similar way, it is also helpful to keep your dean looped in on key issues or developing situations that may rise to their level at some point in the future. If you have a monthly meeting with your dean, that is the perfect time to quickly mention these kinds of things. Be clear in stating that you are just providing an update to keep them informed—no action is necessary and no decisions are being made. It may take some time to calibrate how “in the know” your dean really wants to be—some deans are very hands off and only want to know about the most pressing matters, while others find more value in taking the pulse of departments with relative frequency.

Set the Tone

If people sense that you are stressed, they often pick up on this and become stressed themselves—this can be an ugly downward spiral. Remember, as department chairs, we frequently act as a buffer between many different groups of people. If orders get barked down from the upper administration, it is easy to follow suit and pass along the information with an insensitive (and sometimes even bitter) tone. Likewise, if the faculty complain to you about a new policy announced by the upper administration and then you whine to the dean about it, your faculty’s concerns are likely to be dismissed because it can come across as just another complaint. Instead, be patient, consider all sides of the issue, and then present the information in a manner that supports both the faculty concerns and administration’s purposes.

This, of course, is much easier said than done. Tensions run high and issues often seem more urgent than they are. Unfortunately, these situations sometimes play out over email, which can quickly escalate a conflict that could have been avoided if the conversation had taken place in person on campus.

Here is a familiar scenario that has probably happened to all of us at least once over the past year. A faculty member emails you about a pressing issue and you read it amongst 83 other emails. After reading the email, you are a bit dismissive of the issue and just want to check it off the list, so you shoot back a quick, unsympathetic reply. You then get back to your emails and get all the way through them to find number 84 slide in from the same faculty member. They continue their diatribe and become more persistent. Now you are even more tired than before and you really want this problem to go away, so you write an even shorter email that contains even less sympathy. They reply again almost immediately with even more venom, and you go through the roof!

I would be lying if I said I had never contributed to such an email exchange. Higher ed is often criticized for having a “silo mentality” and a pandemic can create even more isolation if we allow it. It is our responsibility to set the tone for how the department communicates. Working remotely (or working with others who are working remotely) has shown that there are times where verbal communication is far superior to the written word. Because of this, I have tried to set the tone by breaking the email spiral if the communication is becoming ineffective. If I have three email exchanges with the same person within a 24-hour period about the same issue, the most responsible thing to do is to pick up the phone and call that person to discuss the issue. Stepping up in this manner helps cut through the limitations of email, and it also gives you an opportunity to listen and understand their perspective better, rather than hastily responding.

Leading with Empathy

A completely different way of setting the tone is how you interact with large groups of people, while still fostering and maintaining personal connections. Within a few weeks of the COVID-19 outbreak, the pandemic hit close to home when a friend of mine died from the virus. I continued to send my weekly memos and tried to be reassuring to students, faculty, and staff, but it was difficult. After about a month, we were all feeling quite disconnected, so I set up an open Zoom meeting with all the students in the department. We all logged in from home, showed each other our rooms, pets, etc. While the turnout was not large, I encouraged the students to share whatever was on their mind. After all the students had a chance to participate in the conversation, one of the students asked me how I was doing. I started off with my standard answer, but then I shared that my friend recently died, and I couldn’t hold back my emotions. For about 30 seconds I just wept on the Zoom call in front of my students. Up until that point, I hadn’t grieved my friend’s passing because there was no funeral, and I wasn’t emotionally prepared for sharing something so personal in a virtual format.

My point in sharing this story is that we must never underestimate the importance of emotional and mental health. There are feelings and emotions going on inside of us that we often don’t understand. Taking time to listen to others share—and sharing ourselves—is meaningful and cathartic. It is part of being human and it bonds us together. It is our responsibility to lead the way in creating a safe space and listening to others, and sometimes we have an opportunity to also be vulnerable and share our feelings.

Taking time to listen to others share—and sharing ourselves—is meaningful and cathartic. It is part of being human and it bonds us together. It is our responsibility to lead the way in creating a safe space and listening to others, and sometimes we have an opportunity to also be vulnerable and share our feelings.

Intentional Connections

In a non-pandemic world, we often see one another at meetings, in the hallways, and at social functions. During a pandemic, we have to be much more intentional with when and how we communicate with one another. Last spring, when we were all so isolated, I made time to call all twenty-eight faculty and staff members on two separate occasions just to check in and see how they were doing. I expected these conversations to last only about five minutes, but they averaged twenty to thirty minutes because we were all so starved for human connection. Inevitably, each person would say, “While I have you, I have a question about…” In the end, the simple act of reaching out individually gave me the opportunity to make a meaningful human connection, listen to their needs, answer questions, and improve morale. Even though this was time consuming and exhausting, it was well worth the effort to strengthen our relationship and show them I care about them and their students.

While the method of making personal phone calls worked for faculty and staff, it would have been impossible to do the same thing with all 150 students in the department. Instead, I texted every single student on two separate occasions (partially because getting a phone call from the department chair out of the blue might be too alarming) and the responses were very similar to what I experienced with the faculty and staff. Over half of the students responded to my texts and appreciated the communication. Several of them even shared with me the specific challenges they were facing, which enabled me to have a better understanding of their circumstances so I could make more informed decisions.


As vaccines roll out and we slowly approach a “return to normal,” let us not forget the many valuable lessons in communication we have learned through our experiences this past year. Careful, thoughtful, and intentional communication with your students, faculty, and staff is one of your most effective tools in managing and leading your department. When you are faced with difficult challenges—and especially in times of crisis—your ability to communicate in a clear and consistent manner will help you make wise decisions, instilling confidence and trust in your leadership of the department.

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