From Faculty Member to Department Chair: Making the Transition to Administration

April 28, 2014


Each fall dozens of faculty in music departments around the country make the move from faculty member to administrator, most likely department “chair” or “head” depending on terminology in the particular institution. Few, if any, music faculty plan for a career as an administrator. Rather, their goal is to be a successful and tenured faculty member in performance, theory, music education, or whatever their major area of study was. Additionally, not only do most faculty not plan such a career, when faced with moving into an administrative position they realize that they have had no formal training to do so. Thus, they learn on the job, and that is a very dangerous place to learn! This article outlines the many duties of the department chair and then reviews the research pertaining to the characteristics of successful music executives so that faculty can make a fully informed decision as to whether they should accept such a role. In addition, the article provides preliminary guidance for a smooth transition for those who make the decision to move into an administrative position.

Each fall a number of professors in music departments around the country make the move from faculty member to department chair. While there are no current data available to suggest an accurate number, the attendance at the annual National Association of Schools of Music (NASM) session for new administrators suggests that there may be several dozen. While that may seem like an excessive number, it is plausible for leading a music department can be an all-consuming job. This work involves high stress and high stakes resulting in turnover and vacancies to be filled each year. The purpose of this article is to provide guidance for a smooth transition for those who make the decision to move into an administrative post.

Why so many vacancies? In a 1984 study, Cowden conducted a survey of NASM member institutions to “determine the reasons for turnover among music executives in NASM degree-granting institutions.”1 He discovered that during the period 1977-1981, 273 institutions experienced at least one change in music executive leadership (this represented 62% of NASM member institutions at the time). Cowden sent surveys to chief academic officers (CAOs) in those institutions that experienced turnover and requested that they indicate the reasons for the change in leadership within their respective music units. He received responses from 222 of the 273 CAOs, a response rate of 82%.

The CAOs gave the following reasons for change (also listed is the frequency within the 222 responses for that particular response):

• Deceased (2%)
• Terminated (4%)
• “Nudged” Out (12%)
• Finished Term (14%)
• Retired (17%)
• Moved (17%)
• Chose to Return to Teaching (22%)
• Other (12%)

Cowden reported that the most common reasons for “other” included the person: (a) went to a position outside education; (b) was promoted; (c) was retrenched; (d) whose position was in music but was combined with another department; (e) was “acting” and became “regular”; and (f) failed the review process.

In addition to these data, Cowden collected information on the size and type of institutions (e.g., state-supported or private) and number of majors. Interestingly, the greatest turnover occurred in the smallest institutions. For public institutions with 1-100 music majors within the 222 responses, the turnover rate was 79%, while in private institutions with 1-50 music majors the rate was 75%. He speculated that this might be due to especially heavy workloads in small units where chairs ordinarily have teaching responsibilities in addition to their administrative duties.

No current data on turnover rates are readily available, and it is not the purpose of this article to pinpoint causes of such turnover. Rather, the research by Cowden, even though old, suggests the possibility that the number of department chair or head vacancies annually may be substantial. Regardless of number, it is important that those who do accept such administrative posts receive as much assistance as possible in making that decision.

Because there are few opportunities to learn how to be a music administrator (the author is familiar with one summer institute, one book, one online course in the subject, a few articles and initiatives by The College Music Society, and annual sessions at the yearly meeting of NASM), it is unlikely that professors actually plan for careers as administrators. Frankly, in over twenty years as a music administrator, it has been the author’s observation that few music faculty actually enter the profession with the intent of being an administrator. Instead, their goal is to be a successful and tenured professor in their particular sub-discipline in music. Such lack of formal training in music administration often necessitates considerable on-the-job training.

Thus, as much information, preparation, and knowledge about the field of music administration as possible in advance of choosing such a career move is of great benefit. If they are fortunate, potential administrators might have several weeks or months to make such a decision, and they can seek out the advice of experienced administrators. As a starting point, it is beneficial for professors to know what being a department chair entails and what the characteristics of successful administrators might be. They can then conduct a self-assessment of their own qualities. This information may be invaluable as they ponder the decision to accept or reject such an offer. A professor, for example, who has difficulty working with people and who would rather spend time practicing in the studio might be well advised to decline the offer to become a department chair.

To assist in this preparation process, The College Music Society (CMS) began an initiative for faculty who seek more information on administration. A list of articles at the CMS website and a publication by CMS entitled Musical Chairs are helpful resources. Sullivan, for example, gives an overview of qualifications sought by department chair search committees and suggests research a person may complete to prepare a viable application for an administrative post.2

Once the decision to accept the position is made, the transition from faculty member to department chair begins. Given the many duties and roles of the chair, a successful transition is essential to ensure immediate effectiveness and productivity. The remainder of this article outlines the many duties of the department chair and then review the results of research pertaining to the characteristics of successful music executives so that professors can make a fully informed decision before accepting an administrative appointment. Finally, the article will provide preliminary guidance for a smooth transition for those who make the decision to move into an administrative position.

Duties of the Department Chair

Nearly every book dealing with department chairs begins with an outline of duties. This information is not difficult to find. Frederick Miller, Dean Emeritus, of the School of Music at DePaul University, developed a good overview of these tasks specifically in music.3 Miller groups the myriad duties into four large categories:

1. Academic Responsibilities
2. Faculty and Staff
3. Student-Related Responsibilities
4. Managing Resources

Within the Academic Responsibilities category, Miller lists, among others, the following tasks:

• Design of the curriculum and development of academic policies
• Student advisement
• Scheduling classes and making teaching assignments
• Producing all public performance activities
• Safeguarding standards

Within the Faculty and Staff category, Miller lists:

• Attracting and retaining a superior faculty
• Monitoring the progress of new faculty on their path to tenure
• Maintaining a high quality of teaching through student evaluations and observations by faculty colleagues
• Promotion and tenure and other faculty reward systems

Under Student-Related responsibilities, Miller suggests:

• Student recruitment and admission
• Career counseling and placement

Finally, under the category of Managing Resources, Miller itemizes:

• Managing time
• Managing physical resources, including facilities and equipment
• Managing human resources
• Managing financial resources, including budget development and monitoring

While this list is by no means complete and while it does not take into consideration the possibility of delegating or sharing responsibilities, it does cover the array of tasks that fall to the music department chair. Even if chairs do not have to do everything on this list, they are ultimately responsible for all of the complex operations of the music department. It is true that the “buck stops” with the department chair.

Chu4 in a similar list not specifically for music executives, enumerates the many ways that chairs spend their time. In a survey of department chairs, Chu compiled a list of 21 different tasks that fall under the responsibility of the department chair. Listed from the greatest amount of time spent (55%) to the least (4%), Chu lists the 21 tasks in this order:

• Reading/responding to memos from other offices
• Writing reports
• Reading administratively relevant material
• Staffing classes
• Scheduling classes and rooms
• Recruiting staff and faculty
• Budget management and planning
• Managing staff and faculty
• Advising students/student complaints
• Program planning/curriculum development
• Representing department at college- or university-level meetings
• Leading or attending department meetings
• Doing program assessment
• Teaching
• Review, tenure, and promotion
• Creating course/program assessment plans
• Faculty and staff evaluations
• Faculty and staff personnel problems
• Scholarly activity
• Establishing partnerships with off-campus entities
• Public relations
• Faculty and staff development
• Fundraising
• Management of space
• Requesting/negotiating repairs to rooms/buildings
• Managing large equipment repair/replacement
• Planning and negotiating remodeling
• Writing grants

Even though this list deals with duties of the department chair in general, it does describe accurately the many responsibilities of the music executive.

Characteristics of the Successful Music Department Chair

Few sources outlining the characteristics of the successful music department chair exist. Cowden5 in a study cited earlier also conducted an extensive survey of such characteristics for music administrators. In addition to determining causes for turnover among music executives in NASM member institutions, Cowden sought to determine the qualities of successful music executives (this is a term used by NASM) from surveys of chief academic officers and music executives in institutions that did not experience a turnover in music department chair during the years studied (1977-81). Respondents were asked to check the relative importance of statements about music executives on a five-point scale, with one indicating “unimportant” and five indicating “indispensable” as an answer to the query: “To what extent are these items important in the success of music executives?” Additionally, respondents were asked to answer an open-ended question: “The most important and most positive characteristic about this music executive that has made him/her successful is ….” Responses to this portion of the survey were received from 162 music executives (74% response rate) and 149 chief academic officers (68% response rate).

Cowden reports that the one factor rated highest by music executives among the twenty-five success factors suggested was “honesty,” followed by “willing and capable of working with superiors for the benefit of his [sic] unit.” [Note: While it might be a topic for further study, the use of the masculine “his” in that statement reflects the overwhelming number of males holding administrative positions in 1983. This may have changed only marginally over the years.] Among chief academic officers the factor rated highest also was “honesty,” followed by “willingness to work with superiors.” Cowden completed a number of additional analyses of the data. The statement that produced the highest correlation between the music executive and the chief academic officer at the same institution was “sets a good example for his [sic] faculty.”

The responses to the open-ended question were most interesting. Music executives most frequently mentioned: “fairness,” “honesty,” “good working relationships with constituent groups,” “mutual respect for students and colleagues,” “hard work,” “patience,” “high standards,” “high energy level,” and “management ability to maximize the potential of people and resources.” Among chief academic officers the most frequent responses were: “leadership,” “sets high professional standards,” “ cooperative spirit,” “artistic ability,” “ fairness,” “ energy level,” “hard work,” and “commitment.”

Cowden further examined the responses of music executives and chief academic officers in institutions where the music executive had been in place for five years to determine the most common characteristics. This revealed the following list of six qualities: “good working relationships with people,” “cooperative spirit,” “ fairness,” “ honesty,” “sets and maintains high professional standards,” and “leadership.” As a follow-up to the survey, Cowden visited 14 of the institutions of varying sizes and type and interviewed music executives, deans, provosts, and presidents. He reported many anecdotal statements in regard to music executive success and motivation.

In a separate study, Cowden6 queried forty-two music professors in fourteen institutions in which the department chair had held the position for at least five years. Cowden sought to determine from these interviews what faculty believed made an administrator successful. Professors overwhelmingly believed that skills in interpersonal relationships were the single most important quality of a successful department chair. Additionally, they mentioned trust, sympathetic, empathetic, and secure sense of self as qualities that made for good administrators. Professors were less concerned about the chair’s status in a subgroup (e.g., education, theory, etc.). Rather, they believed that regardless of professional sub-area, the successful department chair listens, is accessible, can make decisions, shows a great understanding of issues, is honest in dealings with others, and handles money well. Similarly, they valued the ability to articulate needs of the department and the capacity for hard work.

When asked to think in “ideal” rather than “real” terms, professors listed a number of qualities as essential for the successful administrator. The top response to this query was to have vision, that is, to have the ability to see into the future and to predict it. Other qualities included musicianship and the ability to recognize that in others, fairness, leadership, and problem-solving ability. Few, if any, additional sources identify such traits among music executives. It is fairly safe to say, however, that nearly every book dealing with leading or managing the academic department includes a section on the characteristics of successful departmental administrators. Notable volumes by Leaming7, Lees8, and Buller9 each include detailed qualities held by successful administrators.

Leaming,10 for example, lists seven habits of successful chairpersons. He states that successful administrators:

1. Have goals
2. Get to know their colleagues and fellow administrators
3. Are agents of change
4. Understand and appreciate teaching, research, and public service
5. Are honest, forthright, decent people
6. Are fair and evenhanded
7. Are consensus builders and good communicators

Lees11 conducted an informal survey of colleagues to determine the qualifications for serving as department chair and concluded that there were three essential traits:

• Credibility
• Equity
• Honesty

Lees12 also consulted department chairs as to their perceptions of what was expected of them from the administration. Among their responses were:

• Improvement of the department through developing programs
• Increasing faculty accomplishment
• Uniting the faculty in working toward common goals

When deans were asked what they expected from their department chairs, they responded that they expected them to simply manage the department and to be an agent for change—surely a vexing dichotomy. When asked the characteristics of successful chairs, deans gave a long list, including:

• Intelligence
• Experience
• Good management skills
• Honesty
• Fairness
• Trustworthiness
• Maintain good relations with administrators
• Positive attitude
• Sense of humor
• Tactful
• Instill confidence
• Treat others with respect even when disagreeing
• Effective communicator
• Work well with others

Surely such a large number of traits might suggest a daunting self-examination by professors prior to entering administration. However, effective communication, working well with people, fairness, equity, and honesty consistently rank high as qualities exhibited by successful administrators.

In regard to this self examination, Buller13 suggests a process by which aspiring administrators might determine if they have the traits necessary to become successful administrators. He recommends that those who are contemplating a move to an administrative post ask themselves the following questions:

• What is the greatest strength that you bring to your administrative position?
• What is your greatest weakness?
• Which aspects of your position give you the greatest personal satisfaction when you do them well?
• Which aspects of your position are you willing to tolerate because they go with the territory, even though they provide you with relatively little personal satisfaction?
• If you could hand off three of your regularly occurring tasks and never do them again, what would they be?
• If you were compelled to take one aspect of your current work and do it all day long, week in and week out, which one would you choose?

Additionally, Buller suggests that the aspiring administrator take an informal test. He proposes a list of twenty activities that a department chair may be required to do; aspiring administrators then number them from 1-20 on the basis of which of them they would rather do. Through a quasi factor analysis process, he groups responses of like qualities together, suggesting that this exercise would tell the aspiring administrators that they prefer to:

• Deal more with the big picture OR (caps by author) with particular details of day-to-day academic administration
• Spend time developing a plan for a new activity OR implementing plans that are already made
• Work with others through direct, face-to-face communication OR more indirect forms of communication
• Interact with large groups OR small groups
• Focus attention on those to whom they report OR those who report to them
• Start endeavors from the very beginning OR deal with matters that are already well under way
• Take the initiative for action OR react to the needs of others
• Analyze information, moving from concept to detail OR synthesize information, moving from detail to concept.

Before going farther with this issue of self-examination, it is perhaps important to identify qualities of faculty members that may suggest forbearance from entering the administrative ring. While some are obvious as seen from the lists above, others are more subtle. It behooves professors to conduct a thorough self-analysis to determine if they have the requisite qualifications. While not having an important trait does not necessarily preclude one’s entering administration, knowing one’s strengths and weaknesses identifies those qualities requiring attention. Surely it would be a mistake to accept an administrative post without sufficient and substantial self-analysis.

What are some of the red flags that might suggest that a person avoid accepting an administrative post? Here is a list from the author’s vantage point.

1. The inability to get along with people, particularly those who do not see things the same way you do.
2. The inability to manage money and one’s own personal budget. With department budgets often in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars, there is no room for ineffective record keeping or fiscal mismanagement.
3. The inability to pay attention to detail.
4. The lack of understanding of the tri-partite role of the faculty (teaching, research, service) could lead to ignoring or devaluing one or more of those components when evaluating faculty.
5. The inability to work cooperatively with multiple constituencies.
6. An inflexible manner of operating with others.

Despite all the qualities listed above, it is important to recognize that no one combination of traits guarantees success or failure as a music administrator. It is likely the case that many individuals can be successful at this role assuming that they do the requisite self-examination and thus understand their strengths and weaknesses in terms of the responsibilities required in such a position. It is possible to compensate for traits that one lacks by taking the initiative necessary to shore up those deficiencies.

Making the Transition to An Administrative Post

Assuming the offer has been made to serve as department chair, personal qualifications and characteristics have been examined, and the offer accepted, it is now time to discuss the transition from being a faculty member to being a department chair. That transition is a serious and complicated one.

Chu14 provides an interesting chart representing the transformation from professor to chair. In it he provides adjectives describing the roles of professor vs chair as polar opposites:

• Solitary > Social
• Manuscripts > Memos
• Stability > Mobility
• Austerity > Prosperity
• Client > Custodian
• Professing > Persuading
• Autonomy > Accountability
• Focused > Fragmented

This is a very helpful and, likely, an accurate list of the changes one faces when moving from a faculty position to an administrative post.

Although not part of Chu’s list, perhaps the most challenging change is moving from “one among equals” to “I will now be evaluating your work, making merit recommendations, and influencing your academic future.” In a matter of hours the professor, now administrator, goes from being one of “us” to being one of “them.” This can be a heart-breaking transition, especially among those professors who are close personal friends. While friendships do not necessarily have to be put aside, they must not interfere with the business at hand. Fairness and equality in dealing with all professors requires that friendships not cloud the picture. This is surely the most difficult part of making the transition from professor to department chair. Maintaining close ties with friends on the faculty might be viewed as favoritism by other professors who may feel that they are not getting what they consider to be their due.

While faculty relationships are clouded in this situation, the changes experienced by faculty members who make the transition to department chair are several and dramatic. While active performers, scholars, and teachers need not completely exclude those activities from their schedules after they become department chairs, time for those pursuits will likely only be found after the many chores and duties of the department chair have been accomplished. A heavy teaching load or an extensive performance calendar are likely impossible to maintain while serving as a department chair.

The conundrum, of course, is that in many institutions, the appointment as a department chair is for a fixed term. At some point the appointment may be renewed, but ultimately the department chair will return to the faculty. One cannot simply ignore professional activities while serving as a department chair, as returning to the faculty will cause the professor to realize that progress in a scholarly or performance agenda has been impeded. It is the extraordinary department chair who can keep all of this in balance and still maintain a life outside the institution.

In that regard, the life of the department chair is never ending. There are receptions to attend, meetings to manage, curricula to review, faculty to evaluate, memos to be written. On and on it goes. The department chair’s schedule is greatly expanded over what it was as a faculty member. While there is normally an additional stipend on top of the faculty salary for serving as chair, it rarely compensates for the hundreds of extra hours one spends in that role.

It is important to reconcile all of these issues before accepting the role of department chair. If one is not willing to make the changes and sacrifices necessary to do the job, then an offer of an administrative post should be turned down. While it is not the intent of the author to talk professors out of such roles, they must go into such assignments with a clear understanding of the consequences involved.

It might seem to the reader that few professors would want to accept such a role! When asked why they did so, many department chairs stated a desire to reach more students, more faculty, and to do more for the profession than they felt they could do as a faculty member. This is surely a noble reason for accepting this challenging role of department chair!


1Cowden, “Music Executive Success,” 75-97.

2Sullivan, “Moving Forward into Music Administration”.

3Miller, Werner, and Hipp, Musical Chairs.

4Chu, The Department Chair Primer, 18-20.

5Cowden, “Music Executive Success.”

6Cowden, “What Makes a Good Music Administrator?” 46-47.

7Leaming, Academic Leadership.

8Lees, Chairing Academic Departments.

9Buller, The Essential Department Chair.

10Leaming, Academic Leadership, 11-14.

11Lees, Chairing Academic Departments, 21-28.

12Ibid., 19-21.

13Buller, The Essential Department Chair, 29-33.

14Chu, The Department Chair Primer, 13.



Buller, Jeffrey L. The Essential Department Chair: A Comprehensive Desk Reference. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012.

Chu, Donald, The Department Chair Primer: Leading and Managing Academic Departments. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Company, 2006.

Cowden, Robert Laughlin. “Music Executive Success.” Proceedings of the Annual Meeting, National Association of Schools of Music (1984): 75-97.

_______. “What Makes a Good Music Administrator?” Music Educators Journal 70 (February 1984), 46-47.

Leaming, Deryl R. Academic Leadership: A Practical Guide to Chairing the Department, 2nd ed. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Company, 2007.

Lees, N. Doug. Chairing Academic Departments: Traditional and Emerging Expectations, 2nd ed. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Company, 2006.

Miller, Fredrick, Robert J. Werner, and James William Hipp. Musical Chairs: A Management Handbook for Music Executives in Higher Education. Missoula, MT: Collegse Music Society, 2006.

Sullivan, Todd. “Moving Forward into Administration” College Music Symposium 49, May 2009.

6661 Last modified on March 6, 2019