Department Chair Call for Leadership: Part 1

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Walter H. Gmelch and Val Miskin

Adapted from Department Chair Leadership Skills (2nd edition) by Walter H. Gmelch and Val D. Miskin

The Call for Leadership

The time of “amateur administration”—where professors play musical chairs, stepping occasionally into the role of department chair—is over. Too much is at stake in this time of change and challenge to let leadership be left to chance or taking turns. The department chair position is the most critical role in the university, and the most unique management position in America. Consider the facts: 80% of university decisions are made at the department level (Carroll and Wolverton 2004); of the 50,000 chairs in America, one in five turn over every year; and while it takes 10,000 hours of practice to reach competence (projected as eight years for chairs and already established as seven years for faculty to get tenure) (Thomas and Schuh 2004), only 3% of chairs receive training in leadership (Gmelch et al. 2002).

The search for solutions to academia’s leadership dilemma leads us to realize that the academic leader is the least studied and most misunderstood management position in America. The preparation of academic leaders takes time, training, commitment, and expertise. One of the most glaring shortcomings in the leadership area is the scarcity of sound research on the training and development of leaders (Conger and Benjamin 1999; Gmelch 2000b). Academic leaders tend to begin their careers in research and teaching; as researchers and teachers, they scarcely anticipate their current leadership positions, and become chairs with only minimal management training (Hecht 2004). We reward our new PhDs for becoming internationally renowned experts in narrow fields, not generalists who could serve in a leadership capacity.

This chapter addresses the why, what, and how of the leadership call. In essence, it attempts to answer three basic questions:

  1. Why become a department chair?
  2. What do department chairs do?
  3. How can you become an effective chair?

Why Be a Department Chair?

Given the obstacles, complications, and ambiguities of the chair position, why do faculty members choose to serve in this capacity? What are the real motives faculty members have for accepting the position, and do their motivations affect their willingness to be leaders?

As you examine your own motives, it may help to consider responses from others concerning their decisions to become department chairs. Over the past two decades, numerous studies conducted by the Center for Academic Leadership, using both interviews and surveys, offer insight into this decision and how it affects the leadership role. When chairs across the United States were asked what motivated them to become department chairs, they basically responded in two ways.

Extrinsic motivation
Some chairs chose to serve for extrinsic reasons: either their deans or colleagues convinced them to take the job, or they felt forced to take it because no one else was willing or able. Typically, the testimonials of extrinsically motivated respondents indicated that they were approached by the dean. One chair said: “Temporary insanity (only kidding); the dean approached me—said he thought I had a lot of skills that were needed and that I could do a good job” (Seedorf 1990). Other chairs were persuaded by their peers because “no one else had a suitable combination of seniority, respect, and personality.” Some chairs took the position because they felt that they could do a better job than other faculty: “No one who would be a good chair was interested,” or “None of those who were interested were, in my opinion, capable of being a good chair—I was scared to death of the alternative ” (Seedorf 1990).

Intrinsic motivation
By contrast, many chairs sought the position for intrinsic reasons: they saw it as an opportunity to help either their departments or themselves. Those who expressed the altruistic need to help the department stated that they “desired to help other faculty members,” “wanted to build a strong academic department,” or “needed to help develop a new program in the department.” Others who were more motivated by personal reasons sought the chair position because they “needed a challenge,” “required the financial gain (if there really is any ),” “desired to try something new … in addition to teaching and research,” “wanted administrative experience in order to take the next step in the career ladder” or simply “wanted to be in more control of [their] environment.”

Does the initial motivation affect the chair’s ability or willingness to serve? In the national survey (Gmelch et al. 1990), hundreds of chairs answered the following two questions: “What was your motivation to serve?” and “Are you willing to serve more than one term?” The results indicate that chairs most frequently served for personal development reasons (321 chairs, or 60%). However, 251 (46.8%) of the chairs said they also were drafted by their dean or colleagues. These were the two most frequent reasons for serving as department chair—the former represents an intrinsic motivation and the latter an extrinsic motivation.

In response to the second question, 46% of the chairs said they would serve another term, 30% said they would not, and 24% were undecided. What is interesting is that those who agreed to serve primarily for extrinsic reasons were the least likely to serve another term (only 25%). In contrast, three quarters of the intrinsically motivated chairs were willing to serve again. By a three-to-one margin, those most willing to continue in the chair position had taken the position for personal-intrinsic reasons.

What about the chairs’ satisfaction with their institutions and departments? When almost a thousand chairs were asked to rate their departments, the vast majority expressed a high degree of satisfaction: 98% rated the quality of their faculty as “average to excellent;” 90% rated the personal relations among faculty in their departments as “average to excellent;” and 97% rated the relations with students as “average to excellent.” Few, less than 3%, rated these categories as “poor.” Regarding their institutions, three quarters of the department chairs rated the intellectual climate and quality of administration as “average to excellent” (86% and 71%, respectively). The only area with which department chairs expressed less than high satisfaction was salary (42% “below average”). Basically, department chairs are highly satisfied with their institutions and departments, but feel plagued by excessive stress and unresolved conflicts.
Regardless of your initial reasons for agreeing to serve as chair, your current motivation and commitment to continuing in administration will influence your ability to develop leadership capacity. Reflect for a moment on the primary reasons you became a department chair.

Obstacles to the Call for Academic Leadership

Why do some professors choose to lead and others not? What conditions do we create in higher education that act as barriers to attracting academics to leadership positions (Gmelch and Miskin 2004)?

Snuff out the spark before the leadership flame is ignited. Our institutions of higher education have themselves to blame. If a spark of enthusiasm for leadership is ignited in any of our young faculty, our institutional system may well snuff it out (Gardner 1987). We consider the need for experts and professionals greater than the need for leaders. Many academics might prefer an institution in which there were no leaders whatsoever, only experts; far from wishing to be leaders, these academics may not even wish to associate with one. We fail to cultivate leadership talent in our junior faculty. We pay little attention to structuring academic leadership duties/opportunities, offering role models, and providing ongoing reinforcement and guidance in leadership skills and competencies.

Exalt the prestige and prowess of the professional expert. Some academics may possess the requisite skills and leadership ability, but choose not to respond to the call (Boyatzis 1990). The prestige of one’s professional discipline drains off potential leaders into “marvelously profitable non-leadership roles” (Gmelch and Miskin 2004). From graduate school onward, institutions of higher education drive academics down the road to specialization, but academic leaders must be generalists. Administrators must be generalists to cope with a diversity of problems and a multitude of constituencies; they must approach the academy with a broader, more systematic vision.

Ignore the rigors of public and personal life. Many faculty join the academy in search of a professional life characterized by autonomy and independence. They observe the stormy years of chairs, the scathing criticisms of other academic leaders (deans and presidents), and wonder, “Why would I want to subject myself to such scrutiny and public criticism?” We cannot ensure much personal privacy for chairs, as they serve the public every moment of the day, with all of their appointments, messages, and memos open to scrutiny, critique, comment, and review. Even at home, academics find that leadership is not a “family friendly” profession. Thus, most academics are not willing to give up their professional and personal lives for the life of servanthood/leadership.

Precarious state of executive selection. Experts contend that the state of selection of the top three levels of the organization is precarious at best (Sessa and Taylor 2000). In higher education that typically includes presidents, provosts, and deans, although one might even question the state of selecting department chairs. Why? First, universities and colleges have very little expertise in the selection of leaders, and at times leave that process to happenstance or executive search firms. Second, executives themselves do not feel particularly competent in the skills needed in selection, and gravitate instead to pressing, day-to-day needs. Finally, most institutions of higher education have inadequate hiring, training, promotional, and succession-planning systems.

Becoming an Effective Chair

While it would be convenient to move immediately into your leadership role, the transformation from professor to chair takes time and dedication. Not all chairs make the complete transition. They try to maintain their faculty responsibilities during their time in office and engage in both types of work simultaneously. This tends not to work well; as one researcher put it, “the work of administration and the work of the professor do not make good bedfellows.…The nature of administrative work is varied, brief, and fragmented, and therefore, the administrator cannot devote long periods of uninterrupted time to single issues. The nature of professorial work demands long periods of time to concentrate on issues, to write and see a work through to publication, and to prepare to teach and evaluate classes” (Seedorf 1990, 122-123). You must let go of your previous professorial role, at least in part, in order to make this transition successfully. This underscores the importance of wanting to serve for the right reasons. Intrinsic motivation may indeed be a prerequisite to accepting the leadership challenge.

Transitions to leadership
The drastic differences between the roles of scholar and administrator help explain the difficulty in making the transition to department chair. As this transformation—aptly termed the “metamorphosis of the department chair”— takes place, several of your “faculty” functions and work habits change into “chair” work-styles (Gmelch and Miskin 2004; Gmelch and Seedorf 1989). These new chair work-styles are much different from what you were used to as a faculty member and will take some adjustment. The following list outlines nine transitions you face when moving from a faculty position to department chair.

  1. From solitary to social. College professors typically work alone on research, teaching preparation, and projects. Now, as chair, your responsibilities force you to work with and through others. For example, department goals cannot be achieved alone, they must be achieved in concert with your faculty.
  2. From focused to fragmented. While professors must have long, uninterrupted periods to work on scholarly pursuits, your work as department chair, like other management positions, is characterized by brevity, variety, and fragmentation.
  3. From autonomy to accountability. Professors generally enjoy control over their time and the feeling of autonomy of activity and movement in their working environment. As you move from your role of professor to administrator you tend to lose this sense of autonomy, and become accountable to upper administration and the faculty for your time and accessibility in the office, as well as for your actions and activities.
  4. From manuscripts to memoranda. The scholar and researcher labors over a manuscript for a long period of time. Before finding printer’s ink, the work goes through many revisions and critiques. As department chair you must quickly learn the art of persuasion and precision through memos. Thus, chairs report less stress from manuscripts and more from completing paperwork on time.
  5. From private to public. The professor may block out long periods of time for scholarly work, while as chair you have an obligation to be accessible throughout the day. In essence, you move from the privilege of a “closed door” to the obligation of an “open door” policy.
  6. From professing to persuading. The professor disseminates information in a manner that will meet the learning objectives of others. As you turn from professor into chair, you profess less and practice more the art of persuasion and compromise.
  7. From stability to mobility. While always growing and exploring new concepts and ideas, faculty generally experience movement within the stability of their discipline and circle of professional associations. As a chair, you will of course attempt to retain your professional identity, but must become mobile within the university structure. In order to be at the cutting edge of educational reform and implement needed programmatic changes, you must be more mobile, visible, and political.
  8. From client to custodian. In relation to university resources, the professor is a client, requesting and expecting resources to be available to conduct research, classes, and service activities. As chair, you represent the custodian and dispenser of resources. You are responsible for the maintenance of the physical setting, as well as providing material and money.
  9. From austerity to prosperity.While the pay differential between professor and chair may not actually be significant, the perception that chairs have more control over departmental resources creates the illusion that chairs are more prosperous.

Consider these transitions by visualizing the professor at the inner core of a set of concentric circles. In the inner most circle, the professor is characterized as focused, autonomous, private, stable, solitary, austere, and a client of the department. As a metamorphosis transforms these professorial inner traits into an other-oriented (outer circles), an administrative profile is created, consisting of social, fragmented, accountable, public, mobile, prosperous, and custodial circles. These outwardly expanding circles represent the types of transitions needed to successfully move from a faculty member to administrative responsibility and challenge. It is critical to recognize the fundamental differences between the roles of academic professor and department chair.


Given the current leadership crisis in higher education, it is critical for department chairs to answer the leadership call. There needs to be continuity in the chair position, not just taking one’s turn. The position of department chair is too critical to the effectiveness of the institution, the faculty, the community, and to you personally to serve solely from a sense of duty. Your sense of duty must be combined with a real commitment to the position, with all its challenges and responsibilities.

Walter Gmelch
Dean, School of Education
University of San Francisco

Val Miskin
Director, Graduate Programs, College of Business
Washington State University


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