Department chair vs. union leadership: first impressions

I’ve been responding this summer to queries about the rough, over-a-half-year exchange of union chapter presidency with department chair role with the numbers-vs.-intensity thing: I exchanged worrying about 1600+ careers in the abstract with unpredictable “where did that come from” issues, on the one hand, with a job helping 25 colleagues’ careers, 100+ grad students, and a certain predictability but intensity of issues, on the other. Thus far, that’s been correct, but it’s only been three weeks. Curve balls are waiting, I know.

The good bits thus far: institutional infrastructure is deeper in terms of many of the logistics of running a department. This is helped by my having been at USF for 15 years and knowing the institutional anatomy, plus working on some things as associate chair earlier in the year, but there’s a significant difference between working in a largely-volunteer environment and an environment where the people to whom you delegate tasks will get paid for what you’re delegating. Though it has hundreds of members, the United Faculty of Florida has an executive director, a small number of full-time field directors assigned to Florida’s regions, and a very small clerical/support staff in Tallahassee; my department alone has as many support staff and admin employees if you include grant logistics people. UFF has victories far out of proportion with the paid staff, which is a testament to the union’s employees, its affiliate relationships, and the volunteers who do an enormous amount of work at each chapter. Having said that, it’s wonderful to know that someone is going to be paid for taking on a specific job in the next hour or day.

The equivalent bits: details matter and seeing the big picture matters, too. Relationships with people matter in terms of thanking the people who do the big lifts, and being willing to apologize when there are mistakes. Triage of issues is critical to sanity. The Harvard Program on Negotiation books are useful for both environment. Coffee is essential to both.

The concerns: remind me of this in November. I’ve been too busy for the past few weeks to have time for deep wrenching concerns.

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