The year of living chairingly

Since the Chronicle returned to its history of printing staid pieces recently and published Bruce Davis’s letter to a new chair,1 I thought I’d supplement with a few reflections on my first year as a department chair.

My becoming chair was an inside appointment, after I’d been a member of the department for 15 years. So a significant part of the transition was made easier by local knowledge.

  • I would not have been willing to be chair without liking my colleagues. I still like them. I have also come to know a number of great graduate students from other programs in my department.
  • Competent and professional staff are worth their weight in gold. This is true both for staff inside the department and in other units. The more I learn about the details of various business operations inside USF, the more I understand the value of clerical and professional staff and the need to invest time in the staff side of things. In the past year or so, I had to go from zero to sixty in terms of responsibility for staff. Every second I have spent on that side of the job has been worth it.
  • Taking the advice of several people, I prioritized my goals for the year. More crucially for my sanity, I guessed what I could do quickly and what probably required incremental change or waiting for some things to develop, what I could do on my own authority and what was a group task (for various definitions of the relevant group). Thus far, I’ve been about 90% right on what decision on my part would be welcomed as “Yeah, that’s fine” or “About time.”
  • The goals that require broader commitment also requires delegation and willingness to lead from behind. Several times it’s worked for me to say that a particular problem needed solving, and that my minimum solution involved X, as long as I understood the solution wouldn’t necessarily have been my first choice.
  • Taking responsibility for when things do go wrong is part of the job. I’m here in part to deflect stress from people who don’t deserve blame. Even if it’s the type of “I’m sorry” that accompanies a random act of nature or bureaucracy, you can express concern and focus on problem-solving.
  • See the “good staff are worth their weight in gold” comment above.
  • The heterodox methods of my training as an historian made me comfortable learning about all sorts of weird business processes as well as the financial system I have to work with. I’m sorry to say this, but not even PeopleSoft and its workarounds can be odder than the range of human institutions I’ve learned about. Of course it’s designed to save time and still requires all sorts of tweaks babysat by individuals with locally-specific knowledge; what else would you expect?
  • Tacit knowledge zone: I have discovered that Mac+OpenOffice is the way to transfer information from our course search system into a spreadsheet. Any other method I have tried results in a mess. This is the type of arcane and local but practical information I rely on, much like my memorization of the direct line to the college’s staff member who is in charge of course scheduling. Oh, and the not-quite-secret way to find out which classrooms are scheduled when.
  • I generally write shorter emails these days. But usually once a month or more, I spend about half an hour crafting a longer letter or email.
  • Along that line, I have become more ruthless than expected about triaging issues and using whatever technology I could find (or learn from others, better yet) to keep track of things.2 Responsiveness to the concerns of individuals does not mean you have to promise to solve a problem immediately, but it does mean consistently acknowledging concerns and taking prompt steps to respond when you can. Any time my dean, an associate dean, or someone in the provost’s office tells me not to act on something, I’m happy to put it on the back burner. It’s not as if I don’t have other things to do…
  • Having been a union officer for more than half a decade (and chapter president for four) has given me some useful perspectives: almost any problem in the department is minor-league or could be prevented by careful process, an existing or easily-adapted process is your friend (see the prior item), you can teach patience with processes with reassurance and support, consulting one more person is often much more important than making a decision now damnit!, and things requiring judgment at multiple levels will take at least twice as long as they should.
  • Did I mention that good staff are worth their weight in gold, and that universities should be paying them accordingly?
  • Business processes in a large university fall roughly in two categories: the ordinary/periodical and the stuff that requires special attention. Payroll is an example of periodical/ordinary routines that have to receive priority when it’s due, because failing to pay several dozen people in a department on time is a really bad thing to happen. Getting an individual payment to a single person that requires a little tweaked bureaucratic process is special. The stuff that requires special attention is always less important on the level of the university but much more important to the people who deserve the special attention. And it’s the type of stuff that will drop between the cracks unless someone bird-dogs it.
  • I promised my spouse I would take all my annual leave, and I’m doing fairly well with that. I told staff and colleagues that Wednesday morning would be my writing time during the academic year and I would generally be out of touch then, and that’s worked out (though I need a new writing morning since I’m teaching MWF for the six-week summer course I am teaching). There have been several one of those weeks but I’ve been reasonably successful at predicting them and just going with the flow.
  • My colleagues have been great about respecting boundaries I’ve established both about my time and my need to keep some matters confidential, much better than is usually implied by the vague “your relationship with colleagues will change” warnings commonly tossed at new chairs. Well, yes, at some level, but the advantage of having worked here for 15 years is that I know them, they really aren’t treating me that differently from how I’ve seen them treat colleagues over the years, and I think I’ve been reasonably predictable.
  • Tina Gulsalus’s The College Administrator’s Survival Guide is still top-notch on specific bits of advice and overall perspective and bolstering my sense that patience and process are critical tools. Except for her not tearing into universities for not paying their staff enough, but I am willing to overlook that serious flaw.
  • Outside interests help tremendously. I may have managed this primarily through funneling job-related tension, but I have a black belt I didn’t in August. Oh, I already had the black-belt in administrivia (or its equivalent). The new one is in To Shin Do.
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  1. The return to staid, boring higher-ed journalism is much better than the recent confirmation of unprofessional editorial behavior that makes a number of readers disgusted. Dear editors, you hired a scorpion. Don’t pretend you didn’t know what you were bringing on board or your culpability for trying to be smarmy-cum-serious in multiple directions at once during the controversy. Why is it so appropriate that the key editor who corresponded with Naomi Schaefer Riley is named Kafka? []
  2. Evernote,,, Dropbox, and GoodReader are my secret admin assistants. My version of a nightmare is that RIM goes out of business, dragging with it. []

2 responses to “The year of living chairingly”

  1. Glen S. McGhee

    Sherman wrote: “I would not have been willing to be chair without liking my colleagues. I still like them.”

    Assuming that they liked you before, the big question is, do they still like you?

    Division of labor has its darkside; just ask Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, and Karl Marx. Move up the pyramid, and your role changes, and it changes you. Embedded networks change. Nice people become tyrants.

  2. A. M. Fraser

    To be or not to be department head is a current topic of discussion in our home at the moment. Thank you for this very constructive insight.

    We also wholeheartedly concur on The College Administrator’s Survival Guide, which we both found quite helpful. I think there may be a typo in the author’s name here, as I believe the last name is Gunsalus.