2016 Department Chair Workshops Explore Leadership Challenges, Fiscal Stewardship, and Using Data for Change

Department and division chairs explored how to support colleagues, hold difficult conversations, and advocate for their departments from an institutional perspective during four workshops this spring. Led by experienced chief academic officers, department chairs, and attorneys specializing in higher education, CIC’s 2016 Workshops for Department and Division Chairs focused on “The Joys and Challenges of Leading from the Middle.” The workshops drew 371 department and division chairs from colleges in 37 U.S. states plus Egypt and Nigeria. Supported by the American Academic Leadership Institute and Academic Search, the workshops took place April 7–9 in Louisville, Kentucky; May 10–12 in Portland, Maine; May 24–26 in Minneapolis, Minnesota; and June 13–15 in Portland, Oregon.

Four chairs from the American University of Nigeria
Four chairs from the American University of Nigeria participated in the Minneapolis workshop.

An opening session on the typical job description of a chair and a closing session on the institutional leadership opportunities available for chairs framed the workshops. Kate O’Connell, vice president for academic affairs and student life and dean at Mary Baldwin College (VA), began the workshop in Louisville by highlighting the elements common to most chair job descriptions and areas where major differences among institutions might occur. She discussed collaboration, collegiality, and leadership, as well as different models for being chair. John Kolander, provost of Wisconsin Lutheran College, reminded participants in the Minneapolis workshop of the joys that come from serving as chair and asked them to consider what their colleagues expected from them.
In the Portland, Maine, workshop session on budgets, Rita Knuesel, provost emerita of the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University (MN), emphasized the importance of careful stewardship of financial resources, many of which come from payments and gifts from students and their families. Andrew Prall, vice president for academic affairs at the University of Saint Francis (IN), started the session in Louisville on using data effectively by asking participants, “are you data friendly, data neutral, or data averse?” He explained how participants can use data for positive change and to tell the “best story.” Prall also emphasized the importance of asking the right questions: What do we want to know, why do we want to know, who is the audience, and how will the data be used?
Led in Minneapolis by Jeff Barker, provost of Converse College (SC), a session on handling difficult conversations with colleagues helped participants practice strategies for productive conversations through role play. Barker recommended early action (“avoiding or ignoring problems rarely makes them go away”), thorough preparation for the conversation, documenting what took place, and thinking about the issues behind problematic behavior (“always look for the second train”).

Participants engaging in roundtable discussions
Participants engaged in a role-playing exercise in the session, “Dealing with Difficult Faculty Conversations,” in Louisville.

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 a packet for every search committee;
  • Ensure that job descriptions include critical job functions;
  • Use a standardized process for screening applicants;
  • Collect applications;
  • Use a standard script for interviewing candidates; and
  • Check the references of all candidates.
Regarding the evaluation process, speakers emphasized the importance of following institutional processes for evaluation, focusing on critical job functions, and providing timely feedback. Great evaluations should motivate, inspire, and encourage, the speakers said, as well as be candid, thorough, timely, accurate, direct, and objective.
An experienced chair led a new session at each workshop on building and maintaining a collegial department. Tarshia Stanley, associate professor and chair of the English department at Spelman College (GA), reminded participants in Portland, Maine, that “the only person whose approach, reaction, and disposition you can control is you.” All presenters emphasized the importance of clear communication and the ability to facilitate the work of other faculty and staff members as key to success as chair.
Workshop materials are available at www.cic.edu/2016WorkshopResources. CIC will announce the 2017 Workshops for Department and Division Chairs this fall.​