Chair Workshops Focus on Strengthening Department and Campus Leadership

CIC’s 2018 Workshops for Department and Division Chairs focused on strategies and practical approaches to developing leadership skills and institution-wide vision—for chairs and faculty peers with whom they work. A total of 360 department and division chairs from colleges in 34 states participated in the spring workshops that took place in Williamsburg, Virginia; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Spokane, Washington. Academic Search, Inc. provided generous support for the workshops.

Experienced chief academic officers, department chairs, and attorneys specializing in higher education led a variety of sessions that explored how to strengthen department and campus leadership. For the second year, the program included separate sections—one for newer chairs and one for experienced chairs and deans—on serving as the department or division chair, understanding the department or division budget, using data effectively, and becoming a campus leader.

A Pittsburgh workshop participant remarked, “The accessibility to experts, the candid nature of our group discussions, and the energy that came from understanding that we all deal with similar issues across almost 50 institutions were most helpful. The speakers were outstanding and were able to make concrete contributions to improving our effectiveness as chairs. I am so glad that our provost sent five new chairs to this meeting. We all have the same perspective and energy now, and hopefully we can enact important changes as a result of this meeting.”

The workshops were framed by sessions that considered the typical job description of a chair—both the written and unwritten descriptions—as well as the institutional leadership opportunities available for chairs. John Kolander, provost of Wisconsin Lutheran College, opened the Minneapolis and Spokane workshops by reminding chairs to “never forget the importance of mission and vision.” Kate O’Connell, provost and dean of the faculty of Illinois College, connected what participants do as chairs to what they do as faculty: “Chairing is similar to teaching in terms of caring about the intellectual and professional development of others.”

two photos of participants sharing ideas while seated at roundtables
(left) In a session on using data effectively, participants in the 2018 Workshop for Department and Division Chairs in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, discussed best ways to tell a story with data. (right) Participants in the Workshop for Department and Division Chairs in Spokane, Washington, practiced strategies for handling difficult conversations.

In the Spokane workshop session on budgets, Rita Knuesel, provost emerita of the College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University (MN), emphasized the importance of careful stewardship of financial resources, spending what is needed for excellent programming but always remembering that the ultimate source of most of the funds are tuition payments and gifts from students and their families. When cuts are necessary, she said, always choose the path that “causes the least harm to student learning.” In the Pittsburgh workshop session on using data effectively, Ken Carson, professor of business and coordinator of program assessment at Grove City College (PA), recommended that chairs develop a good working relationship with the institutional researcher on campus, as that person collects data for the campus and will know what data exists and how it might be used.

Led in Spokane by Leanne Neilson, provost and vice president for academic affairs at California Lutheran University, a session on handling difficult conversations with colleagues helped participants practice strategies for productive conversations through role play. Neilson advised participants to take time to think about difficult issues and “not to feel pressured to come up with a solution to an issue on the spot.” She also pointed out that “you get the behavior you tolerate,” so difficult issues should not be ignored.

Each of the workshops included sessions on legal issues and featured an attorney who discussed best practices in the faculty hiring and evaluation processes. All of the attorneys recommended that chairs develop consistent materials for every search committee, take great care with the job description (including by listing critical job functions), use a standardized process for screening applicants, collect a signed application, use a standard script for interviewing candidates, and always check references. In the evaluation process, all of the presenters said that it is important for chairs to follow institutional processes for evaluation, focus on critical job functions (ideally aligned with the job description), and provide timely feedback. The most effective evaluations will motivate, inspire, and encourage. They also should be candid, thorough, timely, accurate, and objective, the presenters emphasized.

Each workshop concluded with a session on becoming a leader on campus and one on building and maintaining a collegial department. Ron Cole, provost and dean of the faculty at Allegheny College (PA), advised Pittsburgh participants that, “Leadership is messy. Leadership is about people.” John Kolander, provost of Wisconsin Lutheran College, in both the Minneapolis and Spokane workshops emphasized that “Leading from the middle is not a curse, it’s an opportunity. You have the ability to have tremendous impact on your institutional culture.” Kevin Reilly, dean of the School of Social Sciences and Professional Studies at Ferrum College (TN), reminded participants in Pittsburgh and Spokane that all faculty members want to be heard and to have their work valued. All presenters underscored that clear communication and the ability to facilitate the work of other faculty and staff members are keys to being a successful chair.

“It was a great experience—indeed, the whole conference was rich. I’ll be thinking about the themes and ideas I encountered this week for a long time—for the rest of my life, in some cases,” said Brian R. Doak, chair of the College of Christian Studies at George Fox University (OR).

Resources from the 2018 workshops are available online.

Save the Dates - 2019 Workshops for Department and Division Chairs: April 11-13, 2019 - Virginia Beach, VA; May 7-9, 2019 - Milwaukee, WI; May 21-23, 2019 - Columbus, OH; June 3-5, 2019 - Anaheim, CA