So you’ve decided to become the head of your department….

Few professors went into academia with the intent of becoming an administrator (e.g., department head, dean, chair of a senate subcommittee). Of those that wind up serving–whether it be out of ambition, pressure, specific purpose, or existential angst–few are trained or receive training for their non-professorial duties. Learning is often gained on-the-job, haphazardly, and through trial and error. Management workshops are indeed available (e.g., CHERD), but even a week-long management course in administration is rarely sufficient preparation.

Of course, there are exceptions. Business and industrial-organizational psychology are both disciplines that would produce academics that are at least trained in the theory of management practice. But the Academy is a much different beast than other typical organizations.

When I was a department head, I was sometimes met with skepticism when referring to my job as a “management” position. The ivory tower often baffles outsiders; the impression being a collection of out-of-touch intellectuals that are basically harmless. But anyone who doubts that the department head of an academic unit is not a management position, has never tried to manage a group of willful, semi-autonomous specialists; all of whom have advanced degrees, extensive experience with argumentation, and an above average sense of self-regard. And, for all intents and purposes, they can’t be fired.

Regarding this last point, advice on leadership skills, persuasion, motivational techniques and other human resource management practices, all take for granted one thing: the fact that terminating an employee is a viable option, or at least perceived by employees to be a viable option. This safety net and motivational trump card does not exist in academe. (I exaggerate to some extent, since there are always ways to get rid of someone, but the basic point is that it is considerably harder to get rid of a tenured professor than the typical worker or manager.)

And let us not forget the students, for whom the university was designed to serve. Students are not typical stakeholders and–despite some irresponsible rhetoric–should NOT be likened to “customers.” Their needs and well-being must ALWAYS be considered no matter what decisions are being made; from budgeting decisions; to teaching assignments; to labour actions; to the revocation of a professor’s graduate faculty status, enabling him/her to be a research supervisor.

I am by no means an expert on every administrative problem to come your way, but as a research professor of Industrial-Organizational (I/O) psychology, with work and consulting experience on top of holding several academic administrative positions, I think I do have insights and experience that a new administrator will find useful. I hope they help with your transition. Leadership in academia is desperately needed.

– Greg A. Chung-Yan, PhD

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