Tips for Chairs: Navigating Department External Relationships

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Unlike faculty who for the most part work with students and scholars within their subject matter area, chairs are responsible for representing the department in an environment chock-full of unfamiliar administrators, directors, staff, faculty leaders, students, parents, and off-campus constituents. What chairs say and do impacts the welfare of their departments.  But, what do chairs need to know and do so they can successfully navigate their departments through the many challenges and opportunities in their external environment?

Bureaucracy and academic management

Department relationships need to be understood within the context of bureaucracy that has been the management model for colleges and universities for more than 100 years. The housing of faculty in “departments” was a response to the growth in the size of colleges from the intimacy of schools in the 1800s to the larger institutions of the 1900s. College faculties were increasingly managed by the philosophy and procedures described in Frederick Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management (1911). Faculty were organized into academic “departments” based on their similarities to other faculty and their subject matter. And because in bureaucracies there must be a point person designated as the official supervisor of each unit, one faculty member was designated as the department chair.

The principles of bureaucracy are as follows:

  • Specialists are isolated into cells (called departments, programs, and by rank).
  • Directions for production travel to the faculty through the chain of command from the president, to the academic vice president, to the dean, and then to the chair
  • Central administration has fiscal authority, responsibility for external relations, and final personnel decisions.
  • Employees called “faculty” hold authority over the curriculum and have a seat at the table because of the principle of shared governance.

Due to bureaucratic processes by which most every college is managed, each office in the institution communicates with other offices through the official head of the unit. Therefore, it is incumbent for chairs to be familiar with the many officers and offices with which the department works, depends on, and provides support to. Chairs who know the lay of the administrative terrain and who are comfortable navigating their way through each office give their departments a better chance of succeeding than do chairs who isolate themselves and are uncomfortable or unfamiliar with the offices and officers on and off campus.

Navigating department relationships: Drawing a “cognitive map” of the field of operations

Cognitive maps help us navigate our business and personal lives and help us understand if we are making progress toward longer-term goals. It is beneficial to have a good sense of the important people in their environment, the mission and agenda of each officer, the areas of mutual interest, and potential points of conflict.

Cognitive maps depend on more than the official organizational chart. The influence and power of officers will also depend on other factors, such as:

  • the degree to which they are valued by superior administrators and influential supporters (most notably the faculty and president),
  • their financial and political resources (money and influential friends), and
  • the centrality of their division to the work of higher education (e.g., academic affairs is usually more central to the accomplishment of institutional mission than student affairs).

Who should be on the chair’s cognitive map:

  • Your dean and dean’s staff
  • The president
  • The academic vice president and staff
  • The vice president for development
  • The vice president for business and office staff
  • The vice president for community relations / public relations / media relationship
  • The faculty affairs director and staff assistants
  • All chairs in your college/school, associate/assistant chairs, and office staff
  • The director of facilities, maintenance, and buildings and grounds
  • The officer in charge of room scheduling
  • The chairs with whom your unit collaborates
  • The registrar
  • Director of continuing education
  • Foundation director
  • Alumni affairs director
  • Director of grants and contracts

The chair’s most significant other: The dean

The most important person in the chair’s field of operations is the dean.  Due to the bureaucratic management systems through which colleges operate, mostly all that chairs need to succeed flows through the office of the dean. Chairs need to understand their dean, the dean’s position in the bureaucracy, and the institutional environment deans work in.

The dean’s political reality

Chairs need to understand that deans are merely middle-level managers. They are not omnipotent. Unless chairs are officially “management,” deans are actually the lowest level of administration. Their action options are limited by their responsibilities to their own vice presidents, all other vice presidents (including business, development, student affairs, and public relations), and the president.

Deans jockey for position with other deans for the favor of the academic vice president. One way to gain favor is by taking care of their department’s issues and problems in-house, and by maintaining their schools or colleges as smooth-running organizations. Just like new chairs, new deans must learn their jobs too. If the dean has come from outside the institution, there are many new faces each with their own agenda. There are plenty of local policies to learn and historical precedents that need to be followed.  Whenever a dean gets the job, they inherit an office with administrative staff (of varying capabilities), and depending upon the size of the dean’s college, there may be associate and assistant deans each with their own set of duties and agendas. Functional responsibilities are often broken into budget/finance and personnel. The dean’s effectiveness depends in large part of the capabilities and limitations of office staff and sub-managers.

What is the dean’s agenda?

Chairs should not expect their dean to know how important their department is, to see what it needs to advance, and to volunteer the additional resources needed to move the department forward.  It is incumbent that chairs build the case and provide evidence validating how important their department is, why it deserves resources more so than other departments, and how advancing a department will advance the dean’s agenda for the college.

The single most important point chairs must bear in mind when seeking the support of the dean is: Getting what departments need from the dean is a transactional quid pro quo.

When a chair requests the dean’s support, it is a negotiation. The more that chairs can convince their dean that supporting a department’s interests will further the dean’s interests, the more likely it is that the dean will support that chair and department.  Give deans what they need to gain the support of the central administration. These deliverables may include enrollments, scholarship, fiscal efficiency, external funding, positive press, donations, access to important constituencies, or simply peace in the department.

Join Don Chu, PhD, on Tuesday, November 3 at 1:00 PM Central for his live, online seminar, Tips for Department Chairs on Navigating Academic Departmental Relationships.

(This article is excerpted from The Department Chair Field Manual and Academic Management 2.0: Transformation from the Ground-Up—both forthcoming 2021).

Don Chu, PhD, is a native of New York. He earned his BA from Oberlin College and his MA and PhD from Stanford University. His academic specialization is in the sociology of formal organizations as applied to higher educational institutions and sports. After nine years as department chair and eight years as college dean in Florida and California, his writing and consulting have focused on enhancing management, productivity, and efficiency of departments and colleges. He is the author of several books including The Department Chair Field Manual (forthcoming 2021), The Department Chair Primer (2nd edition) Jossey-Bass 2012, and co-author with Sally Veregge, the California State University Department Chair Survey, 2000.