Advice & News

June 22, 2022

From Colleague to Chair, Department to Dean: Faculty Members in Leadership Positions


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Colleges and universities are closing, merging, facing declining enrollment, and canceling programs and services. They also are losing faculty and staff, especially early and mid-career professionals who are leaving due to compensation and work-load issues.

These challenges can prompt institutions to reorganize for greater efficiencies and improved effectiveness. Such reorganizations can create the need for new leaders of programs, departments, academic units, and other operations. Will these new positions be filled from within or through external searches? Which is more cost-effective? Which method will be most likely to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion as well as lead to a selection that meets leadership needs in a timely manner?

The decision to hire from within or search far and wide will be based on the urgency of the need, the availability of homegrown talent, and budget considerations. An external search can be expensive in both time and money. However, the institutional mission and goals for diversity must be considered in the decision, and they may dictate an external search. This form of search also allows for an internally selected person to be vetted against a broader pool of candidates.

Some of the positions to be filled, such as those in the provost's office, are at times labeled "The Dark Side." This is unfortunate because having experienced academics in academic administration can advance the educational mission of the institution. Other positions advancing the instructional mission are not only in the role of department chair or dean but also in student and academic support services. These, too, advance improvements in retention and graduation rates as well as in extracurricular participation and bonding.

Some faculty appointed to administrative functions don the persona of "amateur," indicating that they are not trained in management and do not intend to stay an administrator beyond the term of the appointment. Nevertheless, having academics in key administrative roles can foster the viability of shared governance that includes the board of trustees, the administration, and the faculty, usually by means of a faculty senate. But this cannot happen by chance. Presidents, with the support of the board of trustees, should assist faculty in developing leadership skills and in learning about effective governance.

To accomplish this, presidents, provosts, and deans should be alert to identify faculty members with leadership potential. They then should nurture these individuals through on-campus training, mentoring, and "shadowing" experiences. Such opportunities can be organized on campus even as they are modeled on the American Council on Education (ACE) Faculty Fellows program. Of course, institutions can also sponsor faculty to apply for the ACE program itself.

Selected faculty can participate in regular sessions on campus dealing with such topics as accreditation, academic program reviews, enrollment management, strategic planning, and budgeting. They also should receive publications about higher education issues and be encouraged to attend regional if not national conferences. Much can be learned by talking with colleagues at other institutions, including the insight that others may have it worse.

Moving from colleague to chair, or department head to dean, can be a challenge to even long-standing relationships. Instead of being equals, the one promoted now has more authority and greater access to resources. The academic administrator role involves relations with faculty, who want to view him or her as a colleague, symbol, and protector; the central administration, which provides resources and expects accountability; and his or her staff, which provides both information and management structure. It is a complex role that straddles small, usually collegial, program units and the larger central bureaucracy of the institution.

After identifying faculty for possible leadership positions, it is important to prepare them in the characteristics of leadership, especially listening, transparency, and consensus-building. Being a department head or dean requires skills and traits that are as much about personality and character as they are about understanding budgets. This is especially true for the issues of faculty appointments and status and the curriculum. The academic administrator leads by moral suasion, not by top-down authority.

These forms of professional development not only help the institution and participants, they also contribute to the continued development of the academic profession.

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