From local manager to strategic partner: Evolve and elevate the department chair role

Expert Insight

From local manager to strategic partner: Evolve and elevate the department chair role

Academic unit leaders have a uniquely challenging dual role on campus, as both an institutional leader and a representative of their particular discipline. On the one hand, provosts need chairs to align decisions with a budget model or strategic plan they have little authority over. On the other, chairs are charged by the faculty who elect them with advocating for the discipline’s needs, should they come in conflict with the institution.

When we spoke with academic leaders for our Academic Vital Signs research study, many chairs and former chairs told us they struggled with balancing the two aspects of their role. It is not difficult to understand why. According to a recent survey of 336 department chairs, 67% received no formal training, and of those who did, 66% say the training did not prepare them for their role.

The short-term, rotating model of chair leadership also discourages chairs from making unpopular-but-necessary strategic decisions. These choices may be held against them (if not simply reversed) when they return to the faculty. Departments are also just as likely to select a chair who prefers uncontroversial stances over asking difficult questions of their peers.

Amidst today’s difficult budget climate and the changing demand for higher education, department chairs are increasingly responsible for aligning unit strategy with institutional goals in cost efficiency, enrollment growth, student outcomes, scholarship, and fostering diversity and inclusion on campus.

Department Chairs Best-Positioned, but Least Prepared to Lead Change


Elevate the department chair role

As the demands on chairs change, their role must adapt so that chairs are in a better position to make strategic leadership decisions. Through interviews with over 100 university leaders, EAB has identified three specific changes that most universities should make:

  • Increase the term length for chair positions. Chairs typically serve three-year terms, often with an option for reelection. Extending the term length to four or five years gives chairs enough time to build and use leadership skills.
  • Extend chair contracts to cover summer work. Like most faculty, chairs are typically on nine-month contracts and receive overload pay if they choose to work during the summer. Twelve-month contracts make summer planning a core part of the chair role and encourage chairs to use the quieter summer term for in-depth strategic work.
  • Establish a competitive application process for chair roles. In the typical rotating chair model, departmental faculty tend to view their chair rotation as just another duty rather than a leadership opportunity. A competitive application process with faculty input on the ultimate selection helps ensure candidates are engaged in the role, and creates checks and balances to ensure the best candidate is selected.

The department chair of the future

More and more universities are launching leadership institutes for chairs, giving new chairs opportunities to learn from veteran peers, familiarize themselves with high-level institutional challenges, and practice change management and conflict resolution techniques that will serve them as they continue in their careers as academic leaders.

Today’s chairs also need reliable ways to check their progress toward institutional goals, beyond the discipline-centric program reviews of the past. Read EAB’s study, Academic Vital Signs, to find 14 analyses every department chair should be watching, and analytical tools to help chairs make continuous improvement on departmental goals.

How one university used department-level data to make better decisions

St. Ambrose University successfully streamlined its department review process and identified budgeting opportunities to save 700 hours with standard reports and $446K by reassigning new faculty lines. Here’s how.