Chairs Challenged to Lead in Times of Change at 2019 Workshops

The theme of this year’s Workshops for Department and Division Chairs—“Leading Departments and Divisions in a Time of Change”—recognized that by learning tried-and-true management strategies and developing adaptive leadership skills, chairs can successfully navigate organizational challenges their institutions face. More than 350 department and division chairs, deans, and provosts from 34 states and 145 institutions participated in the four CIC spring workshops, which took place in Virginia Beach, Virginia; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Columbus, Ohio; and Anaheim, California. The workshops were sponsored by Academic Search.

Workshop sessions focused on developing chairs’ knowledge of college management strategies and explored related budget, data, and legal best practices for independent colleges. Although many chairs are dealing with declining budgets, Monique Guillory, vice president for academic affairs at the College of Saint Elizabeth (NJ), also emphasized the importance of being ready for positive budget surprises as
a way of understanding key priorities. She asked workshop participants to consider opportunities. “If you had extra funds, what would you be doing tomorrow?” she asked. The “Using Data Effectively” sessions highlighted the need for chairs to gather and interpret evidence on behalf of their departments and divisions.

To learn how to adapt to organizational challenges, chairs must first understand the institution’s expectations of them. Each workshop opened with a session that explored the chair’s job description, emphasizing that many chairs have unwritten— and sometimes unacknowledged—expectations from various campus constituencies. Deans and provosts often expect chairs to recruit students to their department, maintain connections with alumni, and raise resources for their programs. At the same time, faculty members often expect that their chair will take care of a range of needs, from dealing with problem students to advocating for additional staff. This balancing act between faculty and administrators, along with unanticipated concerns that inevitably arise, creates the need for an adaptive framework for problem solving. Jenna Templeton, Chatham University (PA) vice president for academic affairs, encouraged workshop participants to use systems thinking when confronting tricky, ill-defined problems, noting that decisions can never be thought of as “one-offs.”

Each workshop concluded with a session on how to build relationships within the department or division that are positive and professional. This aspect of the department or division chairs’ job can be the most difficult and can require the greatest adaptive communication and decision-making skills. As Marilyn Sutton-Haywood, arts and sciences dean at Pfeiffer University (NC), noted, “Relationships built on trust and fed by personal integrity” are at the core of any healthy department or division. She advised chairs confronted with a new challenge to ask themselves, “Am I empowering my faculty to work together to find a resolution?” The answer to that question will reveal how well the chair has read the departmental context and whether a solution is readily attainable.

In addition to teaching chairs strategies for approaching difficult challenges, the workshops aimed to ensure that new academic leaders developed relationships with colleagues across different institutional types and departmental structures. Breakfast and lunch sessions were structured to encourage deeper discussions on key topics led by workshop participants. These opportunities were designed to help chairs recognize important elements of the context for their specific departmental issues and expand their network of resources for handling those issues. As one Anaheim workshop participant noted, “Thank you for this workshop. Now I know I’m not alone in facing these challenges.”

Resources from the 2019 workshops are available online.


Focusing on strengthening department and campus leadership in times of change, the 2020 Workshops for Department and Division Chairs are scheduled for the following dates and locations:

  • April 2–4, 2020: Des Moines, IA
  • May 7–9, 2020: Mobile, AL
  • May 19–21, 2020: Portland, ME
  • June 3–5, 2020: Long Beach, CA

More information will be available in December 2019.