Reflections From 14 Years as a Department Chair

Typing on a laptop

By Gordon E. Harvey, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor & Department Chair,
Jacksonville State University

Thinking about becoming a department chair? Here’s what I wish someone had told me when I started.

As a junior faculty member, I envisioned a life of teaching and writing, but never one of supervision and leadership. To be sure, I still teach and write, but not at the volume of my pre-chair days. And the solitary lifestyle of the scholar is one I haven’t lived since 2007. I’ve been a department head for a total of almost 14 years for two universities, one as an internal appointment and the other an external hire. I have served far longer than I expected: the momentum and the need to finish what I started has kept me in this position.

As I look back, there are several things that—had I sought a mentor or known about them at the outset—would have better prepared me to lead a department. I had no idea what I was doing when I first became a chair. Scared and anxious, I was afraid to make mistakes, I checked email incessantly, and I second-guessed every decision. I put myself under so much stress that it took a toll on my health. While I believe that many of us possess the requisite leadership skills for the chair’s role, we don’t always know HOW to lead. For institutions that take pride in preparing students for future success, we do a poor job of developing academic leaders. Few of us are given training in departmental budgeting, scheduling software, or the mounds of forms and paperwork we become responsible for. We appoint qualified people to terribly important positions but offer them little by way of training and assistance. Universities would do well to create leadership workshops to prepare faculty who want to be chairs, chairs who want to be deans, and deans who want to be provosts. From finance to fundraising and from policing to politics, the more we know about how our universities work, the better we can serve them, even if we never hold a leadership position.

I am now on the back end of my time as a department chair. Looking back, there are things that I wish I had known before I started the job; information that would help me transition into the position and be a better leader. My hope is that my experiences—what I wish I would have known earlier on—can help new and future department chairs anticipate challenges and better set themselves up for success in what is arguably one of the most difficult roles on campus.

Plan your exit

Before you move into the chair’s office, consider your exit. No matter how long you serve as chair or how successful you are, you will exit the position tired and a bit worn down. It is unreasonable to expect to return immediately to teaching and research. If possible, negotiate some re-entry time after your term. In the most generous of circumstances, this return to faculty process might be a semester of academic leave. During this time you may refresh yourself, your courses, and reacquaint yourself with your research. If you are unable to take a full term of leave, request a drastically reduced teaching load. At any rate, start with the end in mind: think about how you will exit before you enter the office.

Set goals

Your time as a faculty member will shape your early approach to the chair’s position. Likely, there are things that you’d like to “fix”: policies and procedures that need clarification, curricula that could use revision, or even a drastic restructuring. What do you want to accomplish? What do the faculty want to accomplish under your leadership? Take time to come to agreement on a departmental vision for the future and how you will help get it there. I often tell my faculty, “Tell me what you want to do, and I’ll get us there.”

Aside from your faculty, the person with whom you will work closely with is the Dean. Sit down with her and make sure the two of you are in concert about what your department needs and what it can offer as a member of the college. A good Dean won’t micromanage you, but instead they will and should suggest items that you should consider for your department. And be clear with the Dean about what you want to accomplish as chair. Chances are she will be of great support and assistance as you act. You likely will not achieve all your goals before your time is up but having a direction to travel is better than standing by and waiting for issues to come to you. Leadership requires action.

What “welcome gifts” have been left for you by your predecessor

When I assumed my current position, I found that I had inherited a department that had suffered neglect. Invoices had gone unpaid for more than a year, our university foundation account had diminished by almost 90% with no corresponding revenue effort to maintain it, departmental annual reports were more fiction than fact, my predecessor went home at noon everyday (even though the job required an 8-hour day), and the open wounds of personnel issues and personality clashes had been allowed to fester, damaging departmental morale. I did not discover any of this until I started the job and it took several years to turn things around, such that it hampered our efforts to look to the future.

It’s important as a new chair to take thorough stock of the state of your department when you assume the role. Do your research, get the lay of the land, scour the budget, and find someone who will give you an accurate portrait of where your department stands within the college and university. You may find yourself in a “turnaround” situation much like I did, and if that is the case you will need to be armed with this information to determine the right next steps.

Succeeding as an internal hire

If you are appointed internally, you will know the people you supervise, which can be counterproductive at times. Senior professors who may have served on the search committee when you were hired as faculty might look at you in a different way than they would an external hire. In this case, try not to think about how they see you. Act your new role. You must confidently exude the authority that you have been given. You can earn the trust and respect of those senior scholars by using them as founts of institutional memory and advice. As an internal hire you are perfectly suited to show your colleagues that you understand their complaints, concerns, and hopes. Empathy is a powerful tool for a leader.

There will be times, however, when you will be forced to deal with a colleague who believes that they could do the job better than you and offers unsolicited advice. In my first year as an internal hire, a colleague who had served as chair before me—and left the position under less than positive circumstances—would charge into my office and tell me what to do when he became upset about a new university policy or action that he disagreed with. As much as I wanted to tell him where to put his aggressive instructions, I chose to let him vent and then made the decision that I believed best for the department. Such aggression is often driven by insecurity or fear. If you can recognize and appreciate that, then you can soothe their anxieties by telling them not to worry and let you work on the problem. Of course, if this becomes a daily occurrence you may need to have a discussion about boundaries.

The outsider’s challenge

If you’re an external hire, assuming the chair’s office from the outside puts you at a disadvantage in that you really don’t know the people you will supervise. And you don’t know who to trust for accurate information on your colleagues. You must undertake a crash course in getting to know your faculty. Until then, you may find yourself asking “Why is Professor X acting so rudely toward me? I hardly know him.” Instead of acting defensively or feeling offended, try to find the root cause behind any aggression or coolness in your relationships. What is driving their attitudes and actions? We all have a story, one that shapes our approach to our jobs and our relationships with colleagues. We may have suffered personal or professional setbacks. Perhaps our careers haven’t worked out the way we envisioned. If you can pinpoint the root causes, then you can address them, which will make Professor X happier and your job much easier. This is my biggest regret as a chair: I failed to take the time early in my tenure to really get to know my faculty. I let other issues distract me from building relationships that would have benefitted my work, their work, and the work of the department in the end. I’ve since corrected that, but it was a hard lesson to learn. I would thus counsel any incoming department chair to step into the role aware of the importance of building meaningful relationships with your faculty and getting to know their stories.

Beware of “firefighter syndrome”

If one thing is a sure bet about being a department chair, it is that things will get hectic and feel overwhelming. Imagine the first day of class: the copier jams, technology in one of your classrooms fails to work, students can’t find their classrooms, two professors are double-booked in the same classroom, and everyone looks to you for help. Trust me; no matter how loudly you scream “SERENITY NOW!” a sense of calm will not wash over you like a gentle rain. But two things can prevent you from feeling defeated. First, devise a strategy to handle the myriad issues that arise in academic departments. From copier malfunctions to classroom tech issues, you will be the first person to whom a panicked faculty member runs. What is the procedure for addressing these issues? If there is none, develop it. Second, learn to delegate. This is the hardest thing for a lot of us to do. Trust your colleagues: many of them want to help, and you should let them. Appoint a technology officer for the department. Have a faculty member assist with helping students find their classroom. Have your administrative assistant run interference on the small things and identify the campus experts for those issues that are outside the realm of your expertise.

At times, especially at the beginning and ending of each term, you will find yourself unable to plan your days. You can try, but there is no doubt that you will be called away. These are the most hectic times of an academic term. Anything can and will happen; learn to roll with it. Clear your calendar and stand ready to assist your students and colleagues. You must become an academic firefighter. Firefighters never know what their day will bring. It may be a quiet day or one where the bell rings constantly. No doubt some of these “emergencies” will be the academic equivalent of a cat stuck in a tree, but you must answer the bell all the same. Clear your calendar, stand at the ready, and roll with the chaos. And realize that once the term is underway, the rough seas of the early and late parts of the term will subside and you can get back to your teaching, research, and administrative duties.

Understand the rhythms of the academic term

Academic terms have a rhythm that differs for faculty versus department chairs. For faculty, academic terms look like a marathon. Marathoners start at an even pace and try to hold steady until the end. For chairs, the academic term feels more like a roller coaster. As the term approaches, you feel the coaster climbing the tracks. The anticipation and anxiety build in your gut. The first weeks of the term will feel like you are plunging down the track and into a 360-degree roll. The calmer middle weeks in the term allow you to schedule meetings and get work done. But as the end of term approaches, you feel your coaster climb again until it plunges down the last peak as final exams, final grade assignments, and commencement come at you fast. Don’t resist. There’s nothing you can do to stop it. Raise your hands to the sky, let out a whoop, and enjoy the ride.

Words matter

You are no longer a rank-and-file faculty member who can spend time in the coffee room to shoot the breeze and share rumors and opinions about university matters. Believe it or not, university faculty are known to hold strong opinions. You cannot. As department chair you must be more circumspect and measured. A wise leader knows what to say, when to say it, and how to say it. Your words can calm an anxious faculty, and they can also create angst. A mentor once advised me: “What you say can and will be used against you.” You may still see yourself as a regular member of the faculty, but what matters most is how they see you. As their supervisor, your words carry more weight. They will look to you for reassurance and for counsel. Try your best to stay even keeled and in control of your emotions, even when you yourself are feeling nervous or overwhelmed. At the same time, however, don’t be afraid to show vulnerability, especially in this time of pandemic and political turmoil. It is entirely possible to exude strength and show vulnerability at the same time.

Self-care and boundaries

The same mentor once advised me to “feed yourself before you feed others.” I learned this the hard way. It took four years of chair duty and a serious health scare to make me realize that self-care, whether physical or mental, is the most important thing one can do to maintain health and job performance. I counsel graduate students and junior faculty not to let their careers be the only thing that defines them. Taking such a limited view of life can lead to health issues, a lack of perspective, and nothing waiting for you when you retire. In my first years as head, I exercised little, I ate like a teenager, I obsessively checked email as if there were bonus points for how fast I could reply, and I internalized each problem as proof of my failure as chair. My health deteriorated and my blood pressure skyrocketed: I had to make drastic lifestyle changes. I realized that I had to have a life outside of my career. I needed something to take me away from the pressures of publishing, teaching, and leading a department. A dear friend of mine, a grad school mate who is now a provost, fly fishes for relaxation. A former professor of mine who also served as chair collects Persian rugs. Me? I like to run ultramarathons through the woods and over mountains. Find something that takes your mind away from it all. Your colleagues—and your mind and body— will thank you.

Pay attention to equity and diversity

I take pride in the fact that over the past decade I have been able to reshape our faculty into one that represents the diversity of our student body. If our faculty looks nothing like our students, then we are sending a bad message to them about opportunity and inclusion. Students of color MUST see faculty of color on campus. They also have to see them in leadership positions. Diversity is the first step; equity is next. Developing leadership opportunities is crucial on a campus that strives for inclusion and equity and models it for our students. All too often, however, we fall back on the easy choice for leadership or assistance. Like calling on the student who always interacts in class because you know they will engage with your discussion prompts, we administrators often default to the person who has gotten the job done in the past— a comfort-pick so we won’t have to worry about the task or leadership role that we assigned them. But this prevents us from developing leadership among our underrepresented faculty. The department chair has to be a mentor as well as an efficient administrator.

It isn’t enough to just hire diverse faculty. We must develop leadership opportunities for faculty of color and women faculty. Higher education suffers from a baked-in institutional resistance to change. One symptom of that is the dearth of underrepresented populations and women in leadership positions. This change starts at the department level. As chair you can appoint them to departmental committees, but also recommend them for leadership roles beyond the department level. Sometimes this can be as simple as offering encouragement by telling faculty you believe they would be great leaders because of a specific quality they possess. Gauge their interest and support them, even if they are skeptical about leadership. At the very least, as a chair and a mentor, you will have planted a seed of confidence that will grow over time.

Play Chess

Most faculty hold a less complex view of academia. It is a simple equation: work hard, teach well, publish consistently and all will be well. For faculty, this is the way things work: it’s a game of checkers, a game that lacks a lot of nuance or complexity.

For chairs, however, the work is more like a game of Chess. In chess, you have to see the whole board. You must project several moves ahead to anticipate your opponent’s moves and how you might respond. Take for instance a position I have been in many times as a chair. I work in the humanities; History to be exact. As such—in light of the increasingly public dialogue about the value of the humanities and their role in preparing students for employment success post-graduation— I have had to advocate for my field, department, and their value to the university to upper administrators many times over the years. To do this effectively, I have had to learn how to present my arguments in ways that resonate. Higher level administrators have neither the time nor the inclination to read a 10-page white paper on the value of the humanities in the 21st Century, but they will listen and are more likely to be swayed if you learn how to speak their language. Do the math for them: a sound philosophical argument talks, but money speaks louder. Make your arguments clear and succinct and show how your department can be a financial benefit to the university and its students. In other words, play chess to anticipate counter arguments and present your argument accordingly. This makes it much easier for them to agree with you.

Think and learn beyond your position

After a few years as chair you may find that you aspire to a higher level of leadership. Even before you begin to feel those career advancement urgings, try to learn as much as possible about the jobs above you, if only so that you can better understand how to get things done. Seek as many opportunities as possible to gain experience in a cross-campus environment. After 13 years as chair—and swearing that I would never ever want to be a “suit”—I now aspire to become a dean or an associate vice president. I believe that I have something special to offer the university that entrusts me with that kind of position. But I regret not seeking leadership opportunities and training until the past few years as I began my search for these positions. Whether you move up or move out, this knowledge will assist you in leading your department and in counseling your successor should you stick around after your term. The more you know about how the university around you works, the better you can lead your department. Over the past couple of years, I have attended workshops on university leadership, attended virtual conferences on university finances, fundraising, external communications, and leadership. I’ve even hired an executive coach to help me learn how to see leadership from the perspective of Deans and Provosts. Attaining this type of knowledge doesn’t require formal conferences or workshops. It can be as simple as a regular coffee or lunch with an administrator above you who is willing to mentor you. Learning to think like a higher-level administrator allows a chair to understand and explain decisions that come down from higher administration or the provost’s office and, more important, to craft a response to them.

Get excited

In the grind of departmental leadership, it is incredibly easy to become overwhelmed and jaded. Rarely will anyone stop by a chair’s office just to compliment them on their leadership or tell them how good of a job they are doing. There are times where your office will feel like more like a Wal-Mart returns desk the day after Christmas than the workplace of an academic administrator. No doubt there will be moments where all you want to do is curl up in the fetal position. But even in these lowest moments, don’t forget that department chairs have the power to affect more day-to-day tangible positive change for students and faculty than any other position on campus. Our jobs are among the hardest at the institution: we have to chart a steady course between the demands and expectations of those above and below us, often without much formal training or support. But we also have the greatest opportunities to help faculty and students because of our day-to-day proximity to each. Smile. Get excited. You were chosen because your faculty or Dean (hopefully both!) believe that you will succeed. Believe in yourself and lean into it.

One final thing

If you dismiss all that I have told you to this point, please try to heed this one final thing: lead in the way that you wish to be led. Be empathic, compassionate, affable, warm, supportive, and engaging. Don’t be a pushover, but don’t be drill sergeant either. There’s a balance to leadership that comes when we dismiss our self-importance and see ourselves as no better or more important than our most junior of faculty members. When I eventually leave this office for what I hope will be a higher-level administrative opportunity, I want my legacy to be that I fostered a positive, inviting, respectful, and equitable work environment that allowed my faculty to do their best work. If you can do that, everything else falls into place.

Portrait of Gordon Harvey

Dr. Gordon E. Harvey has served as chair of the Department of History & Foreign Languages at Jacksonville State University since 2008. A 22-year veteran of higher education, he practices relational leadership and teaching. Recently awarded the rank of Distinguished Professor of History, he is writing a book about bike messengers and the gig economy in San Francisco.