October 26th, 2009

Five Ways to Ease the Transition for a New Chair


Given the rate of department chair turnover and the skills and knowledge required to do the job well, it makes sense to consider ways to smooth the transition from faculty to department chair.

Although each department operates under its own set of conditions, there are lessons to be learned from departments that have taken a purposeful approach to leadership succession.

Nancy Buffone, director of communications and special initiatives at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, did an in-depth study of one exemplary chair transition at New England University and proposed an orientation program for new chairs based in part on what she learned.

Like many institutions, New England University does not offer formal department chair training, although some members of the administration meet informally with new chairs to talk about the responsibilities and processes of the positions. However, the outgoing chairs in these cases felt obligated to help prepare the incoming chairs and had enough time to do so.

Toward the end of his third three-year term, outgoing chair “Matthew” sought nominations for his replacement. There was only one person, “Maria,” who had the support of her colleagues and was willing to take on this role.

Unlike during his transition to chair, Matthew made it a point to provide adequate time for Maria to learn from his experience and lay the groundwork for success. The following are elements of this transition that Buffone considers worth emulating:

  • Allow adequate time for the transition. There was a sense in the department, even during Matthew’s second term as chair, that it was time for a change. But lacking a clear successor, Matthew stayed on. Marie was selected with a full semester to prepare, with Matthew’s help. “I think a semester is a good amount of time. Much more than that would probably be too long,” Buffone says.
  • Negotiate with the dean. Being chair is a major sacrifice and service to the department can distract a faculty member from his or her research and teaching. Like most incoming chairs, Maria was concerned about how being a chair would affect her research, so she negotiated with the dean for a research leave in order to get some research done before becoming chair.
  • Meet regularly with the outgoing chair. Although Maria had some different ideas about leadership—she planned to delegate more than Matthew had—meetings with Matthew provided essential mentoring and helped maintain continuity throughout the transition.
  • Meet important people who can help. As a longtime chair, Matthew was able to provide Maria with insight into how the institution operated. He introduced her to key administrators, which gave her the opportunity to speak with them about how she might change things. “It gave [Maria] the opportunity to think about a lot of the issues before she was responsible for making things happen. It really gave her a lot of opportunity to think and strategize and plan for that first day on the job,” Buffone says.
  • Meet with the faculty. “Before she even stepped into the chair’s role, she talked to people in the department and got a sense of what they were looking for and used it as an opportunity to share her thoughts and to lay the groundwork,” Buffone says.

Excerpted from A Purposeful Approach to Chair Transition, Academic Leader, Nov. 2008.