Friday, January 05, 2007


Ask the Administrator: The Chair Talk

A senior correspondent writes:

I am interviewing for a "department head" position of a mid-sized academic department at State U. in a couple of weeks. I am a senior professor in the social sciences and have what I believe (perhaps falsely) is a clear enough sense of what a job talk should amount to these days: relaxed but professional introduction of pressing research problem, undeniably bold and creative research strategy, enlightening results,...

But I have never interviewed for semi-administrative positions before and was asked this time to talk not about research but about my "administrative philosophy," etc. I just wonder how this works. I've never even attended such a thing, which I suppose is the problem. I could compile something pithy and responsive about faculty governance (shared), the consultation process (for it), and strategic planning (excellent idea) but, as I said, I am at a bit of a loss as to what's expected. And google has let me down here. (Though there is plenty on "how to be a chair." P.s., a "head" in this system has more budget autonomy than, say, chairs in my system.)

I haven't chaired a department, though I can certainly share constructive war stories of what it's like in the trenches and I have had a fair number of related responsibilities. I know how to prioritize and link resources to plans. That leaves me short about 40 minutes of material.If it were my department, I would list our issues and my intentions regarding each. I could start with that, but this department is mostly a cipher to me. I could also chat with the previous head, whom I know and is now at another university. But I wonder if that's kosher -- put a better way, I'd rather talk with him once I have an offer.

Put better still, are there 3 main things that deans and faculties want to hear from prospective chairs (and do these take more than 5 minutes to explain)? That would give me all the legs I need, I suppose. Perhaps there is a classic reference...

You raise a tough question. I've never had the luxury of being able to recruit from outside for a department chair position; at both of my colleges, chairs have always been selected from among the incumbent full-time faculty.

First, I wouldn't be shy about talking with the outgoing chair. (I have no idea what a 'head' is, so I'll just go with 'chair.') If you come in guns a-blazin' on an issue the department considers long-settled, you're at a disadvantage. If nothing else, you should get a better sense of what the 'live' issues are.

From the hiring side, I'd look for someone who has survived some difficult administrative-type circumstances. How have you handled intra-departmental conflict? What are your views on student grade appeals, how to allocate travel money (or research money, or any other scarce and desirable good), and the direction the department needs to take for the next 5-10 years? Have you been involved in outcomes assessment, or accreditation self-studies, or anything along those lines? What mistakes have you seen made? How would you have handled them differently? (Good answer: “I was supportive of our first female hire, and I'm proud of that. In retrospect, though, we didn't think through the possibility that she would be saddled with more than her fair share of advisement, since female majors sought her out disproportionately. Now I'm more aware of the background conditions that can stand in the way of positive change, and if I had it to do over again, I would have addressed the advisement issue directly.”) More interestingly, what did you see that struck you at the time as a mistake, but now that you're older/wiser/more experienced, you understand?

The best answers, from my perspective, would reflect a realization that you need to separate processes and decisions from personalities. Have you ever had to say 'no' to a friend in the department, and go along with someone you really didn't like? Have you made a decision for the good of the group, even though it inconvenienced you personally?

You're right that everybody knows what to say about a few givens -- micromanagement bad, open-door policy good, etc. They're sort of the "this class will make you think"s of job interviews. Even if they're true in a particular case -- and they often aren't -- everybody says them. For me, the valuable part of an interview is when the candidate goes off-script. Get as specific as you can, and a little carefully selected candor ("in retrospect, I would have phrased that differently") adds credibility to the cliches.

I'd also come armed with a list of questions to ask the department and the dean. What issues are they facing right now? What's the elephant in the room? If you can draw them out on those, you have a much better chance of showing why you'd be a good choice.

(And no, I don't know of any classic references. Anyone?)

Good luck!

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

I second the advice to talk to the outgoing head, especially regarding the administrative power that the head has over his or her faculty members and staff. Headship can be quite a different experience from chairing (especially if you come from a unionized or balkanized system where the chair's power is miniscule). You might find that the job entails a lot more responsibility than you might expect.

In my experience (daughter of a longtime department head), a department head functions like a mini-dean. For instance, the head determines the faculty's annual ratings and raise. Heads also have a lot more responsibility for staff (an issue to consider if you're in a discipline or field with a lot of technicians or in a department that has many administrative assistants). Heads usually serve for longer than a chair's three or so years rota (sometimes for decades) -- yet they aren't subject to firing on higher powers' whims (they enjoy tenure and participate in the faculty culture).
I agree with talking to the outgoing dept. head, but I would suggest that you take what he says with a grain of salt. Your experience of the department will be different, no matter what. But he can give you some things to look out for.

I have seen a great talk by a candidate for Associate Dean (in my school, she is much like the department head). She began with the general stuff about where education in our field is going, needs of students and professionals in our field, etc. She then discussed some of the strengths she had heard from those to whom she had spoken and how it fit in with the directions she had discussed. She then talked about her leadership philosophy, her (good and bad) experiences, what she learned from them, and how they might be useful in the new program.

She also left a lot of time for questions, which allowed a lot of our mess (faculty rivalries, student concerns, etc.) to be aired and helped her know what she was walking into.

Good luck!
You've received some good ideas from DD and the others. I would add a couple of other suggestions. First, don't get hung up on the title of "chair" vs. "head." There is no consistency in what each of the terms means across colleges and universities. So, focus on whatever it is that the chair does at the place you are interviewing.

The best chair interview I saw last year was informal yet professional. The interviewee described his administrative philosophy with a mix of examples from previous chairs in his experience--what worked and didn't work--and a list of the things that were important to him as an administrator. The list was framed as a sort of "Top Ten" list so it worked out nicely.

Here are a few Chronicle columns on interviewing for administrative positions that I found helpful, and hope you will as well:

We Want Change, No We Don't:

With All Due Respect, Shut Up:

Quo Vadis:

Wrong Answers:

A Problem of Presentation:

A few interesting administrative philosophies:

Hope this is helpful. Post a note back to DD to let us all know how it went!!
Update from the interviewee: I followed everyone's advice here at least somewhat, because it was all more than reasonable. Better alerted to the nature of the responsibilities and key questions by ancarett and CCD, the first part of the talk was restructured per lesboprof and psychprof. I also spoke with the previous head.

As a result, I arrived with a much clearer sense of where the department, its individual faculty, and my own self were going, and wanted to go. It was a relaxed, productive, positive experience all around. From an interviewed pool of 5, I got the nod. Thanks very much.
Valuable post! A good writing style and information is certainly useful. For all readers continue to write such excellent articles. Thank you.Thanks for sharing this information.

Valuable post! A good writing style and information is certainly useful. For all readers continue to write such excellent articles. Thank you.Thanks for sharing this information.

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