Eight Things Campus Leaders Can Do to Support Academic Departments

As a department head, I initiate or respond to seemingly endless phone calls, emails, and letters to and from almost every corner of the campus, the community, state agencies, etc. Our department’s office coordinator is swamped by similar interactions. Our faculty members, while working mostly with students, also interact with many others each day. We must all be well-versed in the “who does what” and “how things get done” on our campus and beyond.

If the academic departments and the faculty housed within them are so important to the execution of a university’s mission and developing relationships with students and other constituents, what should be done to best “support and help” them?

There are several things that campus leaders can do to help and support academic departments. Whether we serve as a president, provost, dean, director of an academic or non-academic support unit, or an academic department head, our formal and informal policies and procedures need to reflect the following:

  1. Respect the centrality of academic departments to the mission of the university. The dog must wag the tail, not vice versa.
  2. Respect the diversity and individuality of each department. One size does not fit all.
  3. Commit to the principle of shared governance. Top-down governance works only when those at the top are perfect.
  4. Maintain open and timely communication across administrative divisions. The complexity of the 21st century university demands it.
  5. Find out what is going on in these departments. In most cases, there are great things happening, but if not, you need to know that too.
  6. Empower, enable, and encourage academic departments to accomplish their respective missions. This may mean that you finally approve that additional staff or faculty line, but it may mean you need to let them know that you appreciate them, that you trust them, and that you genuinely care.
  7. Centralize help and support functions where appropriate. Create mechanisms that would relieve academic departments of some of these pressures. “One-stop” centers, held desks, and timely communication can eliminate some of the burden placed on the academic departments.
  8. Lead your leaders. Department heads need you. Most deans and provosts have previously been department heads but sometimes fail to recognize how demanding and complex this position has become.

Successful business leaders understand that to take care of their customers they must first take care their employees, especially those who interact most directly with these customers. We in higher education would do well to do the same. Let’s help academic department help their students, alumni, and anyone else who might call.

Doyle D. Carter is an associate professor and head of the department of kinesiology at Angelo State University.

Excerpted from I Think I’ll Call My Department, Academic Leader, vol. 25, no. 11.