Department chairs as middle managers

Today, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article on department chairs. The gist of the piece is that department chairs work hard, their jobs have changed, and they’re often not supported in a new role. To which my response is, mmmn, yes. Yes, department chairs put some part of their academic life on hold; yes, it requires a somewhat different lens on academic work than you get when a full-time faculty member. At the same time, though, the article feels somewhat indulgent — not that I don’t mind having someone tell me I work hard, but…

  1. You could say many of the same general things about full-time faculty in general, and administrators higher up the chain. The job’s changed, and the job’s pretty intense when done well.
  2. All faculty need to develop a “beyond my hallway” set of lenses — see #1, just above.
  3. The potentially worst aspects of being a chair are related to general dynamics in a department or college, when individual students, staff, or faculty are proverbial bad apples. At some level that’s disturbing to anyone involved, including a department chair, but of the people most vulnerable to poisonous atmospheres, I’d list a lot of folks before the chair.

Now for the practical bit: the article never mentions the most valuable book related to becoming a department chair (or other academic administrator): C.K. Gunsalus‘s The College Administrator’s Survival Guide. If you’re a new department chair or being asked about your interest, first read that thoroughly.

Caveat: Part of my reaction may be based on my being a union official before becoming a department chair. See my comments a few years ago on that comparison.