One often hears in academe that we collectively do not offer sufficient, even adequate training for faculty who wish to enter administration, whether for a turn in a rotating chair’s position or in a career change. In this critique of ourselves, we frequently refer to the “skills” a person needs. What, exactly, are those skills? Using the analogy of skills as tools, Linda Cockey identifies and describes what department chairs should have in their toolboxes.

— Keith Ward, Chair, Committee on Academic Leadership and Administration

Whether you are an experienced, new, or future chair, the tools you need for this role are continually developing and on-going. One can never have enough of them! This article outlines and describes some of the important skills department chairs need by presenting, figuratively, a "toolbox" that will help chairs build, repair, and maintain their programs. Often at first glance, a jump into an administrative position may seem like quite a leap, but in many respects the basic skills we develop as teachers, performers, and scholars (not to mention parenting skills or the ability to manage difficult personal situations) are similar to those needed to be effective chairpersons. Like teaching, one main goal as chair is to see others succeed and reach their full potential. In this regard, one’s own teaching philosophy best serves as the foundation for developing an administrative style. Similar to the work of the scholar, a chair must research issues completely and thoroughly before reaching any conclusion and making any decision. While our training has not prepared us thoroughly for chairing a department, we do arrive with at least some of the metaphorical wrenches and pliers in our toolboxes needed for administrative work.

When I think about advice to give others about developing the tools for taking on the responsibility of leading a department, I think most of all about the need for developing a good sense of perspective of the entire academic setting, from the top down and the bottom up, similar to looking alternately through binoculars from both ends. One also needs to have the ability to share with others, listen, be persuasive and persistent and, always, persevere. Since the department chair is ultimately responsible for picking up all the pieces, it is best, like a good carpenter, to measure twice and cut once.

Developing a clear, inclusive vision for your departmenta blueprint of what you will build and maintainis one of the first orders of business for any chair. This requires thorough study, thinking "outside the box," and continual reevaluation of the program’s goals. The best way to approach this task is to involve the faculty in developing an ongoing plan so that faculty have a sense of being a part of the needs and wants of the program. With concrete aspirations and goals, faculty as well as students and staff normally become a part of the established priorities they help shape. Maintaining excitement about the goals of the unit and keeping everyone invigorated is probably one of the greatest challenges a good leader faces, especially in an environment that needs constant adjustment to changing curricular and academic situations. It requires from the department chair constant communication, weighing all sides and always acting with clarity, integrity, and sound judgment.

How does one fill the toolbox, acquiring the basic skills to become a chairperson? Four important sources in the ongoing apprenticeship are experience, learning by trial and error, learning from mentors, and seeking learning opportunities. Like anything in life, gaining perspective and knowledge from experience, learning from others, and enduring trial and error are part of the career of a department chair. Learning an effective way of dealing with an issue can often be applied in a different situation. Over our academic careers, we work with people who become great mentors and are wonderful solution finders. Gravitate toward them and seek their advice early in your administrative work. (Later in your career, you will find that helping others develop leadership skills will be most gratifying.) Seek opportunities through workshops, conferences, and the extensive literature on management and leadership. In other words, the best way of developing the basic skills is to recognize first that they need to be learned, that the skills of a good department chair are not solely intuitive.

Looking into the toolbox, here are some specific "tools" one will find that will be used by a department chair:

  • Be an advocate and public relations spokesperson for your program
  • Set clear agendas
  • Develop and maintain a budget
  • Develop curricula
  • Schedule courses
  • Distribute service work for the department
  • Mentor staff, faculty and students
  • Network
  • Negotiate
  • Interpret departmental and institutional policies
  • Perceive the specific needs for new hires in the department
  • Write faculty evaluations
  • Transmit information
  • Set the stage for the department
  • Perceive the dynamics of the department
  • Shift gears when necessary
  • Be able to deal with the most important issues and let unimportant issues go
  • Be able to do what is best for a program
  • Write Academic Program Reviews and/or an accreditation Self-study

A chair will be the first advocate for the unit. Organizing and setting up departmental faculty meetings, as well as curricular and scholarship meetings and distributing other service responsibilities to help the overall flow of the department, are normal chair activities. Sometimes it becomes necessary to change these responsibilities in order to redirect faculty or departmental issues. Annual reassessment is always helpful. As with developing a vision for your program, including faculty, students, and staff in some way in the process of your final budgetary and staffing decisions can promote a holistic and comprehensive approach to managing resources.

We also become transmitters of information that is not always what we or our faculty want to hear. In such situations our roles change: instead of agreeing or disagreeing with policies handed to us, we must skillfully transmit and translate them. The challenge then becomes finding a way to set the stage as positive as possible, perhaps turning a difficult situation into a beneficial opportunity.

One of the most technical and difficult tasks of a chair is writing faculty evaluations, which on many campuses happens annually. This can be a chance for a chair to help faculty improve their teaching skills, gain further knowledge and expertise in their specialties, and either stay motivated or regain vigor. It is also an opening to have in-depth, one-onone communication with faculty to provide focus, direction and reinforcement on how they can better serve themselves, one another, and the department. Faculty evaluations can help redirect the path of a faculty member and can give them a new direction in the department.1

Every institution has its own unique criteria for faculty evaluation. However, it is typical that evaluations are based upon three basic criteria: teaching, professional development and service. Intertwined are a faculty member's unique interests, the needs of the department, and changing departmental expectations. Some things to consider in this process, provided they agree with the evaluation criteria at your institution, may include self-evaluations, student evaluations, peer ratings of untenured faculty, mastery of discipline/subject matter, curricular development and course design, departmental guidelines on mentoring, appropriate research (published or unpublished), and application of knowledge.

You will no doubt be working with other chairs in affiliate departments as well as negotiating with deans and other administrators on behalf of the department. Specific to faculty evaluation, your department may have departmental guidelines in addition to the university's general policies and criteria for promotion and tenure. These additional guidelines are an opportunity to educate promotion committees and administrators on what artistic faculty do that may be different from faculty in other disciplines.

In addition to perseverance, an important tool for a department chair is perspective, especially when it comes to looking at one's program anew. If you are a chair long enough to have the opportunity to do an accreditation self-study and/or an academic program review, you will be able to completely evaluate an academic unit and its programs. This unit selfevaluation may result in additions to existing programs, a renewed breath and understanding to a unit, perhaps producing even a change of direction for your department, and a change that could happen only through consciously seeking a new perspective of the music unit's work. These evaluations also give a department and the institution's administration both checks and balances. More often than not, such evaluations create winwin situations for everyone.

There are a number of specific skills one can develop as a department chair. They include dedication, diplomacy, discipline, patience, selflessness, and strategic as well as lateral thinking. One also learns how to separate people from the problem, be an effective database keeper, assign workloads that benefit everyone, capitalize on opportunity, envision what can be, and become an advocate for one's program, faculty, students, and staff. To be sure, a career in administration is not the sole place one learns these skills and sharpens these tools, but they do come together in an administrative position. Always proceed with creativity, efficiency, honesty and respect.

My final encouragement comes full circle: try to enjoy the leadership experience as an opportunity to promote partnerships and a way to help students, faculty and staff realize their full potential. As Thomas Jefferson said to William Lee in 1817, "The laws... which must effect [a people's happiness] must flow from their own habits, their own feelings, and the resources of their own minds. No stranger to these could possibly propose regulations adapted to them. Every people have their own particular habits, ways of thinking, manners, etc., which have grown up with them from their infancy, are become a part of their nature, and to which the regulations which are to make them happy must be accommodated." Applying Jefferson's ideasand idealsto the theme of this article, we see that the effective department chair is a craftsman who knows what tools in the toolbox work effectively and successfully with one of our most important tasks: working effectively with people. Human nature envisions itself differently in different people and influences our understanding of how they think. How you can pull them into a vital unit will build a strong foundation for your department and will give you great pleasure during your service as chair.


1 A helpful source for faculty evaluations and promotion is: Scholarship Reconsidered by Ernst Boyer. Published by Jossey-Bass (1990), ISBN 0-7879-4069-0,

2799 Last modified on May 6, 2013
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