To Chair or Not to Chair?

March 19, 2019   |   By Jerlando F.L. Jackson

From The Chronicle of Higher Education | March 19, 2019

Every spring, a set of little-known deliberations — formal and informal — play out in many an academic department about who should serve as the next chair. The scope of the discussions varies based on the institutional process. Some departments conduct a national search to select a full-time chair, while others take an internal "it’s your turn" approach. The latter is how I ended up as chair.

The summer before starting my 19th year on the faculty, I was immersed fully in growing my research laboratory — managing a variety of projects, replacing and training new staff, starting a national study, outlining a book. Not to mention, I was teaching classes, advising graduate students, supervising dissertations, serving on committees. In short: I was already busy.

When I heard the words, "Would you consider being chair next year?," all sorts of thoughts ran through my head:

A nearly audible "Whyyyyyyyy meeeeeeeeeee?"
"No way. I am living my ‘academic best life’!"
"I thought someone was already pegged for this?"
"Do I have to quit my research?"
And, "There is no way in the world that I can do it and run my lab."

I had recurring visions of being chained to a desk.

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Once my initial panic subsided, I realized that my colleagues’ request was not unreasonable. After all, I’d been in the department for 18 years; it was natural my name would come up eventually in the who-should-serve-next debate.

Regardless of the chair-selection process, the choice has important implications for the department. Just as students consider whether to remain in courses or drop them, faculty members must consider the many reasons they should — or shouldn’t — be department chair. The process is both introspective and long-range, requiring you to consider how your skill set and your career trajectory align with the chair’s role.

Why might a faculty member aspire to be chair? Perhaps it represents a natural progression of service after you chaired the largest, most important committee in the department. Alternatively, maybe your research ideas have ebbed and you’re looking to make a different, yet important, contribution to the department. Possibly, a bump in pay and a reduced teaching load seem attractive in return for assuming the chair’s job. And let’s not forget the "unthinkable." You actually might aspire to a senior academic leadership role, such as dean, provost, or president, and view the chair’s position as your first step up the administrative-career ladder.

In my own case, while I didn’t seek the job, I realized that my colleagues saw value in my taking a turn. So I started to consider what it would mean for me, my lab, and for the department if I became chair.

I turned my attention to the most important question: Can I do this job well? Seeking an answer, I initiated a two-week discovery phase. First I talked with my family and my laboratory staff, all of whom would be affected in myriad unknown ways if I said yes. Next I spoke with former chairs, the department’s office manager, staff members in the dean’s office, and colleagues who headed departments at other institutions to gain insights into the role, function, and responsibilities of the position.

My discovery phase revealed seven key considerations that guided my own decision-making process. I offer the seven criteria here to help other faculty members faced with their own "to chair or not to chair" conundrum:

Nature of the appointment. What percentage of time will you be expected to devote to the department-chair role? For example, is it a 50-percent appointment? Does the position come with summer duties, and how does the summer appointment differ from the academic year? Does the post include any course-release time from teaching? Is the chair’s job a full-time position, disguised as a part-time one? How many years will your term last? Is it a one-time stint?

Workflow. This involves the annual budgeting process and other paperwork duties. How much of the workflow is handled automatically by the department’s support staff? How much is specific to — and/or initiated by — the department chair?

Job benefits. What benefits come with the position? A temporary boost in your base salary? An expense account? Do you have access to staff support to help you manage the increased demands on your schedule, and student-research assistants to enable you to maintain your research activity? Are there other forms of support provided for the chair, such as leadership coaching or professional-development opportunities?

Responsibilities and commitments. What are the daily and weekly schedules of the department chair? Are there "desk time" expectations for the job — meaning set hours in which you must be in the department office? What established and regularly scheduled meetings — committees and administrative councils — will require your attendance? What parts of the department chair’s schedule are inflexible? 

Major projects. What are the known big-ticket items — hiring, retirements, program certifications, accreditation, budget reductions, curriculum overhaul — on the agenda during your stint as chair for the next three-to-five years?

Office environment. Who really runs the department? Will the regular staff members be open to your work style and approach? Or will you have to acquiesce to their approach?

Documents to review. What materials are essential to read during your discovery phase? Items you might want to study: policies and procedures, state-education regulations, campus handbooks, reports, and (definitely) budget reports and forecasts.

After I took some time to consider all of that information, I came to two main conclusions about my own foray into administrative duties.

First, the ingredients for me doing the job well were in place. Namely, my experience leading an externally funded unit on the campus, my knowledge of the budgeting process, my familiarity with the university and its key players, and my 18 years of lived experience as a faculty member here bode well for me in the position. Also, I would have plenty of help in both the department and my laboratory. The department has a highly skilled and knowledgeable support staff. Likewise, the staff members in my lab are experienced enough to manage commitments even if I am less available.

Second, to be honest, I came up with more reasons to say no than to say yes. All of those reasons were completely self-serving. Until being posed the question, research was the focus of my career, and a stint as department chair was not going to help me advance my scholarly agenda. It was not going to help me write a book, finish my various studies, apply for new research grants, or organize international research gatherings.

In spite of the preponderance of evidence pushing me toward no, I said yes. And I did so for one reason alone: to be a good departmental citizen.

Collegiality is only a reality when all members of a department share in carrying out its responsibilities and obligations. For 18 years, someone other than me served as the chief caretaker of the department — ensuring that my fellow faculty members and I had the freedom to follow our intellectual interests. It is unfair when only "some" colleagues sacrifice time away from their own interests for the greater good.

The idea of not taking my turn in this crucial role, purely because of its inconvenience to my career, made me uncomfortable.

Consequently, I put my "academic best life" on pause to be a good departmental citizen. Now that I have been in the role for just shy of a year, it reinforces the reason I said yes. In order to approach the position with the appropriate temperament, any motivation other than being a good citizen would have yielded disappointment as the role involves a daily balancing of the interests of your department against institutional priorities.

Jerlando F.L. Jackson is a professor of higher education and chair of the educational leadership and policy analysis department at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He is also director and chief research scientist at the university’s Equity and Inclusion Laboratory.