Now That I’m Here, What Should I Do? Encouragement and Advice for New Department Chairs: Part 1

August 31, 2008

This Fall a group of music faculty has embarked upon a new career direction: academic leadership. The change may be temporary, such as a three-year assignment (or sentence, as some might think of it) as department chair, or the switch may have the promise of permanence in a full-time position as a chair, director, or some form of dean. Many of these brave souls do not have prior training in leadership and administration; they will learn, like so many of us have, on the job. And there is much to learn. With the hope of assisting in this transition to administrative work, this article, the first of two written by members of the Committee on Administration, offers words of reflection and advice to faculty entering administration.

You Have a New Role. While you may feel like the same person, you will be perceived differently. You are in a leadership position; people will look to you for direction. Your voice will carry a different weight, as will the tone you set. You have the opportunity to influence outcomes, build community, and shepherd positive change. As the leading advocate, best champion, and head spokesperson, you now play a new and important role in sustaining the purpose, vision, and visibility of your program.

You will spend time differently. Your new role will affect the way you spend time at work. You are now at the service of faculty; they are not there to serve you. In addition to leading a program and keeping it running (monitoring budgets, chairing faculty meetings, developing class schedules, etc), you will spend time helping faculty with their work as well as helping them work together. Students will turn to you differently from the time you were “only” a faculty member. You may spend what feels like a disproportionate amount of time on personnel matters (faculty hiring, conflict resolution, mentoring, and evaluation). You also will need to get accustomed to going home with unfinished projects on your desk.

Productivity will be measured in more elusive ways. After an extremely busy day, someone may ask you what you accomplished, and you will be lost for words. Don’t worry: you were busy, you were productive. The deliberative nature of academic business and the process-oriented character of your new work are time-consuming and not as easily measurable as a finished book chapter, a completed manuscript, a good lecture, or a memorized sonata. You may have made important decisions that required a lot of reflection and a lot of meetings. Crises also need to be addressed when they happen, which means your best-made plans may need to be set aside temporarily. All of these unpredictable factors take time, and often more time than you might have imagined.

You have new knowledge to gain. In this new position you now need to know personnel policies and procedures that apply to faculty and professional staff. Become familiar with guidelines on responding to sexual harassment complaints. Learn the procedures and communications systems for campus emergencies, lockdowns, or closings for inclement weather. If your building is undergoing remodeling or renovation, you will be working with architects and contractors. Learning how to read blueprints will help you. You will need a firm grasp on benefits packages to answer inquiries from job interviewees, and you will need to answer a myriad of questions from prospective students and their parents. Carve out time during the week to learn all this essential information.

You are now a fiscal manager. Success in your new position is not linked exclusively to fiscal resources, but responsible and accountable shepherding of funds is crucial. In your new role you must formulate, manage, and stay within budgets. You must learn how “profit” and expenses are calculated in the academic “business.” Do you understand the “dollars-n-cents” ways your institution calculates financial productivity? Why are student credit hours important, and how are you going to handle, even justify ensembles that may not generate credit hours? How does your institution calculate faculty FTE, and are you knowledgeable enough to explain the idiosyncrasies of music staffing to administrators above you (e.g., calculating teaching loads with their mixtures of studio lessons, master classes, instrument techniques classes, small or large ensemble instruction, stage productions, music theory labs, and lecture courses)? In addition to managing these resources, are you able to construct compelling arguments for budgetary increases, salary adjustments, new equipment, ensemble touring, etc that address not just the needs of your program but fit into the educational vision of your institution? Do you have a clear understanding of the financial ramifications of your requests?

In a world of limited resources, you must accept trade-offs. Spend time now establishing budgeting principles that will undergird your decisions. If you are undertaking remodeling or renovation projects, make sure both research and preparation are thorough. Change in midstream costs time and money.

Consult, consult, consult. You are a leader in a self-governing system in which individuals have substantial autonomy. To be able to influence outcomes, you must be open to input and influence. Meet faculty on their own turf, in one-on-one meetings, and in small groups. Go down the hall and knock on doors. If you have a new proposal that affects your program, learn what you’re getting into before you jump. Test the waters to get responses to ideas before bringing them up to the full faculty. Remember also that you do not govern alone. As in many spheres, inclusiveness is a key ingredient to successful leadership in academe. Spend time learning what is important to your faculty. Promise little and deliver much.

More than anything else, being effective with people will help you succeed and keep your program productive. Building and sustaining relationships, gaining both respect and trust of your judgment, are essential for moving your program forward. Listen carefully and attentively. Recognize the good work of faculty by acknowledging their accomplishments. Honor full professors, who can be strong allies…or enemies. (When it comes to institutional knowledge and institutional history, your senior colleagues are invaluable.) Learn how to share and convey a vision that others will understand and for which they will feel ownership. Be more inclusive than exclusive.

Hone problem solving skills. Whether with personnel, logistical issues, student complaints, or funding, you will have to address problems as they arise. Your challenge will be to sort through the issues in front of you and choose a course of action. People will want to make their problems your problems; you must determine which ones are appropriate for your attention. Never forget that every story has at least two sides, regardless of how compelling the argument is from the person sitting in your office. If you are starting afresh at a new institution, there may be some faculty who will want to “clue you in” about other faculty members. How will you respond with respect and with clarity that you need to form your own opinion?

With some problems, no action may be the best action. Sometimes colleagues just need to talk or vent; you don’t always need to do something. In fact, sometimes taking action makes things worse. The most effective response might be simply to listen. You will need to be sensitive to individual faculty members’ temperamental idiosyncrasies and, if appropriate, let things resolve themselves.

Problem solving skills require continuous attention. Find resources now to assist you, not later.

Become comfortable with personnel matters. Above all other areas, it is with personnel issues that you will get “lonely at the top.” At some point you will have to deal with a difficult personnel situation. You may have some colleagues who are self-serving. How will you deal with them and not alienate them? Someone you respected and thought of as honorable may disappoint you. How will you handle this? How will you deal with a difficult faculty review, and how will you help your department through it? If you have to let go of an adjunct professor, how do you do so respectfully and with grace? Difficult conversations are…difficult. That doesn’t mean you should or can avoid them.

Manage change with patience and respect. As the leader of your academic unit, you are responsible for more than keeping the trains running on time. Balancing the pursuit of a large-scale vision with daily minutiae is challenging, but without such attention to the bigger picture your program runs the risk of falling behind institutional initiatives as well as developments within the field. Even with this challenge, you will learn that departmental and/or institutional inertia can be formidable and that change takes substantial time and effort. You will spend a lot of time consulting, meeting, and conversing to move change forward. Then, even with the best-laid plans, you need to be ready for an ever-shifting landscape. Just when you think you have all on board for a big shift in direction, the wind changes, or someone leaves. Change can be slow and painful, requiring your endless patience and optimism.

When in doubt, remember “Rule Number 6.” Taken from The Art of Possibility, by Ben Zander, it is, in a phrase, “don’t take yourself too seriously.” You are beginning a job that can be exhilarating, stimulating, and fun. Enjoy it! “Keep smiling,” quips a colleague, “it makes everyone wonder what you’ve been up to!”

So much for advice. How does one address these challenges? Part 2 of this article, to appear in the next issue of the Newsletter, will focus on tools and resources for the new music administrator.

Contributors to this article:
Charles Boyer (Adams State College, Emeritus)
Karen DeMol (Dordt College)
John Graulty (Delaware State University)
Judith Kritzmire (University of Minnesota Duluth)
Anne Patterson (Fairmont State University)
Todd Sullivan (Northern Arizona University)
Keith Ward (University of Puget Sound)
Nancy Ypma (McKendree University)

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