Time in the Barrel: The Challenge of Persuading Professors to Be Department Chairs

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1744.jpgIn universities, medical schools, and colleges of engineering, department chairs occupy the front lines for student engagement with academic matters, manage the academic "home" of professors, and sometimes are the recipients of philanthropy. So why do so many professors decline or actively avoid serving as department chairs, even if the time in the job is as brief as three years?

It has become such a concern, that over the last several years, clients who have traditionally retained our firm for Decanal and Vice President searches, they are now increasingly engaging us to successfully recruit Department Chairs.  

Upon reflection, there may be a number of contributing factors to the challenges of recruiting strong department chairs... After all, there are precious few rewards for chairing a department, whereas being a full professor, an excellent teacher and mentor, a recognized scholar-researcher, and serving on the editorial boards of prestigious academic journals brought you enormous personal and professional satisfaction, enduring relationships with people who share your passion for studying a particular subject, and awards and recognition from your peers.

Becoming an academic physician and gaining seniority entails as much as 20-plus years of hard work during which a doctor has likely honed her skills as, say, a surgeon. She has literally saved lives. That experience and the rewards are hard to exchange for more time spent in what seems an endless round of meetings devoted to matters that were not anticipated as ones to which you devote time and energy during the years you strove to reach senior status and earn tenure.

Department chairs share that they had not sought out the position. "I was just handed this job . . . Most people are," said Domenick J. Pinto in a 2013 interview for the Chronicle of Education.

Fortunately, there is the sense of obligation that seems common to many professors who earn tenure and/or promotion in smaller departments where there really aren't many candidates, so taking on the chairmanship becomes "your time in the barrel."

The Job Is Important

Ironically given the aversion of most faculty, the job of department chair is actually a very significant one. Department chairs are increasingly the middle managers of universities charged with tending to budgets that draw upon a variety of sources - e.g., state funds in the case of a public institution, endowment proceeds, direct and indirect funds from sponsored research - each with its own set of rules for how they may be expended.

On personnel matters such as retention of untenured professors, promotion and tenure, and hiring of staff, the chair's voice is the first and - in the case of staff - usually the only administrative decision involved. 

Typically, a chair's decision on new faculty hires reflects the consensus of other tenured members of the department, but the chair's decision is usually the one a dean accepts.

New degree programs and curricular changes emerge from department committees, but the chair has to sign off on these.

Just maintaining the status quo of a department can be a daunting task, but if change is needed, the chair will likely have to be the catalyst for change or endorse the efforts of others. 

These days, most departments of universities are primarily made up of tenured faculty members who hold the ranks of full and associate professors, a few untenured assistant professors who are eligible to be tenured, visiting assistant professors with limited terms, and a corps of adjunct, part-time instructors who teach many of the undergraduate "survey" courses or else direct on-line ones. 

Most of the people within the department are products of and often have vested interest in the values and standards of the department and can be quite skeptical and critical of change. Unlike earlier times, new resources with which to support change are not readily available. Even scheduling courses can be fraught with danger from irate colleagues, particularly when you consider that the courses offered, times taught, rooms used, and by whom taught seldom changes much more than 10 percent from one fall term to the next fall and spring to spring over several years.

One sign of the significance of department chairs can be seen in those instances when a university or, more frequently, professional schools such as medicine and engineering, choose to seek a chair from outside the institution. Such a choice may reflect the resistance or absence of tenured faculty members to fill the chairmanship or a determination to recruit a senior professor who can bridge divisions within a department or provide a departure point from the directions the department had pursued previously.

On top of all the above, chairs are increasingly charged with actively seeking philanthropy to support their departments for everything from funds to enable faculty to travel, endowments with which to recruit or retaining outstanding professors, and new and needed buildings. Not everyone enjoys fund-raising, but chairs are finding that activity to be a priority in their work.

Finally, the significance of the chair can extend beyond the department since a sizeable number of chairs make up the pools of candidates for dean and, in some instances, for provost within the university where chairs served or at other institutions seeking "outside" school/ college or university leadership. The experience gained by a department chair is often viewed as indicative of how s/he will serve in a deanship where communication and persuasion are premium skills and most provosts will have served as a chair.

Incentives to Serve as Chair

Given the dubious appeal of the post of chair for most faculty members, attracting professors to take on the job will likely have to involve rewards bestowed at the end of a specified term of service. Chair stipends and release from regular teaching assignments during the term as chair are customary fare and seldom do justice to the demands of the post but are nevertheless essential. 

Deans usually recognize that scholarship and other types of professional productivity will likely not be the same as was the case prior to assuming a chairmanship and take that recognition into account when awarding salary increases.

All of these compensations are important, but they do not address the "opportunity costs" of serving as a department chair. Books and journal articles will not reach print. Collaboration with other professors both in the chair's university and beyond will be likely be diminished at least for the duration of the term as chair.

Mentoring of graduate and undergraduate students will be less frequent and probably less in depth. Grants will not be won; indeed, they may never reach proposal stage because of chair responsibilities.

No, most of the support provided department chairs during their term of service is necessary, but it is likely insufficient to motivate faculty to seek out the job as chair. Instead, rewarding service may ease the sense of lost opportunity. Effecting the changeover of a current chair to a new one over the last summer of the term of office - especially if coupled with 100 percent released time for the fall term - makes it possible to transition from the demands of being a chair to returning to professor and to "decompress" from the heavy schedule of meetings that take up so much time.

What's more, the time granted to an outgoing chair is likely to be repaid doubly by the sort of person who spends time "in the barrel" of being a chair. That is, the person chosen to serve as chair most likely is well-established, understands better following that service of just how precious time is and therefore values a hiatus all the more, and will make good use of the break provided.

Making the Case for Assistance in Recruiting Department Chairs

In many instances, the selection of a chair is, as suggested above, more or less a process of persuading a current member of the department to serve a term (or more) as chair. Tales of drawing straws with the loser agreeing reluctantly to serve are not uncommon. In these cases, outside assistance may not be required.

But as the role of department chair has grown along with the recognition that in many instances the reputation of a school or college or even the university as a whole is a function of the strength of departments, so has the awareness that help is often required to recruit a chair. 

Cases of a department chair remaining unfilled save for someone as an acting or interim chair are more and more commonplace, especially in professional fields where the demands upon faculty to excel as educators, practitioners, scholars, and mentors are such that no one within a department is willing to take on the job.

And then there are the cases where a dean and a provost determine that no one in a given department is ready to assume a chairmanship or the department needs new insight and leadership and the need to bring someone in as chair from outside the institution is called for. In those cases, a search firm can be of particular assistance.

Somewhat paradoxically, the hiring of a chair from the outside signals that the filling of a job that is otherwise unappealing to all or some of the current faculty members has assumed greater significance in the eyes of all parties, including persons outside the department and the university, but especially to members of the department. What might otherwise be a relatively mundane matter of persuading one of the tenured professors within the department to take her/his time in the barrel of chair can become a process of strategic importance with implications for virtually everyone within the department.

At least part of the reason for the heightened importance of the search for a chair stems from the investment of one of the more precious items in today's universities: the allocation of a tenured and most likely full professor who might well be a colleague for decades to come. The selected candidate's field of specialization within the subject matter of the department can strengthen the area(s) by which the department is known or open up new areas of research, scholarship, treatment, and curricula.

But beyond those academic matters are questions about how candidates for the chairmanship view the job and are likely to carry it out. The scope of faculty governance, for example, is usually a settled issue when it comes to who can participate in the framing and making of decisions. But a new chair may or may not adhere to the conventional manner in which faculty governance plays out in practice and resulting changes can have effects for everything from how salary increases are determined to the allocation of travel funds, from the number of doctoral students supervised by a professor and how that impacts teaching "loads" to what constitutes noteworthy "service" as compared to teaching and research or clinical engagement by faculty.

A search - whether assisted by a search firm or not - can determine only so much about candidates and how any one of them will carry out chair duties. The advantages a firm brings to a search is the time, expertise, and the focus they devote to seeking out a rich pool of candidates, their ability to identify and communicate with potential candidates because their business requires them to be aware of the state of the field at a given point in time, and the speed with which they can take up and help finalize a search.  More informationmay be found at: https://www.harrisandassociates.com/web/index.php

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