To Chair or not to Chair?

Over the last year, I’ve had a half-dozen people ask me advice about taking the position of Department Chair at a university. Most people I advised were from a Mathematics department, but not exclusively. I was Department Chair at Ryerson Mathematics from 2010 to 2013.

Given the interest, I’m writing this post to summarize advice for academics considering the position. Think of this as a kind of PSA for would-be Chairs. My advice is only that: advice. I discuss the role from my own experience.

The Basics

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A Department Chair is an academic leader and helps manage departmental affairs. Chairs act as a liaison between the Dean and the Department and works on issues such as teaching assignments, academic hires, and curricular development. Chairs are the voice of the Department both inwardly to university stakeholders and externally to the public. Chairs help resolve issues from students, faculty, and staff.  Other duties depend on the unit and university.

Chairs only have perceived power. They recommend things to the Dean, who’ll make the final decision on substantive matters (such as teaching assignments). Chairs, at least at my university, are faculty members, and so no other faculty member can report to a Chair.  So Chairs can’t fire or even discipline faculty. That’s a good thing, as Chairs should stay on collegial terms with their colleagues.

I don’t like calling Chairs “administrators.” Chairs are your colleagues. Chairs are academics. Treat them that way.

Pros and Cons

Uncomfortable_Chairs_4a

My view is that every faculty member with an interest in or potential talent for the role should be Chair at least once in their academic career. It’s a terrific service to your department and university. You can make an impact on the direction of your department and leave your mark.

Chairs sometimes complain that the job is too taxing and it can distract you from academic work like conducting research, writing papers and books, supervising students, and even teaching. This can become a real issue; depending on your style, organizational skills, and local conditions you could spend all your time managing the department. Self-care is important, and if it’s not fun anymore, take a break. Take vacations, too, when you can.

If you are a researcher and want to remain so during your time as Chair, then be protective of your time devoted to research. For example, you can arrange to work from home on a regular schedule negotiated with your Dean. Keep your collaborative research ties strong, have student supervisions, and go to conferences.

Chairs normally get a teaching release, get a stipend, and may get other perks. All of this should be negotiated with your Dean before you start the role.

Should you become Chair?

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Everyone’s situation is different so there will be no universal answer. If your department is collegial and you have an interest in shaping the direction of your department, then go for it.  You also want to have good staff who are supportive and helpful.

If you are about to take on a big, multi-year research project, or you are planning to write a long book, or want to take a sabbatical in the very near future, then you may want to skip the role for now. The job will be available again in a few years, as Chair terms can be between three and five years.

If you don’t like stepping up and speaking out, if the thought of HR issues fill you with dread, or you don’t enjoy interacting with people, then this is not the job for you.

People would say both “congratulations” and “my condolences” to me when I first took the position. Although I understand that they were trying to be funny with the condolences part, that comment was not constructive. I reject the idea that researchers should not be Chair. Here is a shocker: your research career can strengthen during your tenure as Chair if the conditions are right. You can be a role model for others while navigating your service and research duties.

Enter the role armed with as much intel as you can find. Chat with your Dean, with past Chairs, and talk to your colleagues before diving in. You will learn a lot from talks over coffee or in the hallways. Talking is better than sending e-mails.

Every Department needs a Chair, but not every faculty member in a Department should become Chair. You can have a terrific academic career without doing the role. And you can also have a terrific academic career during and after your time as Chair. I especially encourage those from underrepresented groups to be Chair, as mathematics, and more generally STEM, needs better representation.

If you become Chair of your department, then kudos to you: it takes guts to stand up and lead. You’ll have successes as Chair, and you will fail; hopefully, you will have more of the former than the latter. You will learn a lot from your time as Chair, and it will broaden your experience as an academic.

Anthony Bonato

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