Introduction to Being a Chair

The categories below are intended to provide an overview of some things to expect as you take on administrative responsibility at the College, most likely by acting as chair of your department or program, as well as to provide resources that may prove useful.  This site is intended to offer some guidance as you begin this service as well as to provide resources that may prove helpful. As always, feel free to contact the Dean of Faculty’s office as any concerns arise.

  • Williams is a small institution.  The longer you've been at the College, the more likely it is that you'll be asked to shoulder responsibilities beyond your teaching and scholarship.  Some of these will feel like obvious extensions of work you're already familiar with, but other tasks - chairing a department, program, center, or a major committee for instance - may stretch you beyond your specific areas of expertise.

    Your first step is to decide whether to take on the administrative role or task that is offered to you.  On the one hand, this work can take time away from your scholarship and teaching. On the other hand, becoming engaged in the larger enterprise of the institution is a chance to influence how things work and to interact with people across campus in ways that you wouldn't otherwise.  It's also an opportunity for professional growth.

    The "you" addressed here is primarily conceived of as a new department or program chair, but many of the remarks will likely be relevant (in outlook, if not in all details) to new chairs of major committees or centers as well. 

  • Faculty members tend to have a great deal of autonomy in the classroom and in their scholarly work. They often teach courses of their own choosing and design, and even when this is not the case, they typically have the liberty to adjust syllabi and course materials or to develop new assignments with relatively little consultation with colleagues.  As scholars, faculty choose their own projects and pursue them in whatever ways they deem most interesting and fruitful.

    However as the "service" leg of the "teaching-scholarship-service" triad becomes increasingly important, you may find that your work expands beyond the skills and expertise developed as a teacher and scholar.  As this happens, you will need to learn to approach this new work from a different, broader perspective. You will have responsibilities to faculty colleagues, departmental staff whom you now officially supervise, as well as to students that your unit serves.  You will want to consider the longer term aspirations and needs of your unit as well as its place within the institution as a whole.

    As chair, your relationship with your colleagues, both faculty and staff, will change, as you will be in the position of supervising individuals that you've long considered peers and colleagues.  You will be responsible for submitting formal evaluations and recommendations concerning promotion or continuation of contracts, and will likely have access to information that may be confidential or sensitive in nature. These adjustments to your role can be difficult to navigate, particularly in a community as small as ours. These pages are intended to provide some guidance as you begin this service as well as to provide resources that may prove helpful. 

  • Your role as chair will involve some amount of routine administrative work.  You'll deal with day-to-day details of student needs, enrollments, course sections and offerings as well as larger concerns associated with hiring, promotion and review of faculty colleagues and supervision of staff within your unit.   These responsibilities are likely the ones you're already aware of, and your former chair(s) and administrative assistant will probably be able to help orient you with respect to many of these tasks. The yearly calendar of such tasks can be found in the Chairs Handbook.

    Beyond the list of specific things to be done however, there are a number of responsibilities that come with becoming chair that are less concrete, but are critical parts of your role.  Aside from the administrative work for which you'll be responsible, you'll also have the opportunity to effect change within your unit. Some improvements might come from streamlining some of the annual or day-to-day work, while others might arise out of projects that are larger in scope.  You'll also represent your unit to the institution: there may be meetings where you'll need to represent your unit's interests, or perhaps where you'll learn of campus initiatives under consideration that you'll want to report back to your unit. As you embark on your role, some questions that you should consider are:

    • What are your key responsibilities, and who (or what interests) do you represent?
    • What are your particular goals?
    • What will the biggest challenges be?
    • Who can help advise you?
    • How can you best help your successor?

    As you begin, you may want to meet with various individuals or groups:

    • Meet with each member of your faculty and staff to understand their perspective on the unit and its key issues. Are there particular topics that they would like to see raised?  Are there particular areas of sensitivity or confidentiality that need to be considered?
    • Talk with previous chairs to understand what they accomplished, what they would have liked to accomplish, where they felt they succeeded, where they ran into obstacles.
    • Who else on campus do you need to consider as you think about the work of your unit and its place at the College: other departments/programs, individual faculty in other units who contribute to your curriculum, students, the library, OIT...
    • Talk with other individuals/offices at the College that you'll need to work with in order to understand the workflow, timing, and logistics of projects that you'll undertake (e.g. hiring, budgeting, evaluation of staff..)  The Office of the Dean of Faculty is always a good place to start if you have any questions.
  • Try to delegate duties and parts of major projects when possible.  Not only will this help you manage your workload, but this can be an important aspect of mentoring and preparing other colleagues to step into the chair's role themselves eventually.

    Obviously you'll want to consider each individual's strengths and weaknesses when delegating tasks.  At the same time, it often happens that a relatively small subset of people are called upon repeatedly.  Can you broaden the pool of people who can contribute? There may be individuals who would willingly take on additional responsibilities but don't think to volunteer, or need a little encouragement.  Or perhaps there are individuals who don't get tapped because of a perceived weakness, but who with a little mentoring could be more effective. Laying out very clear expectations for a given task may be useful as you think about how to delegate responsibilities.

  • Different groups will have different cultures surrounding meetings.  There's a balance between too many meetings and too few. Some practical advice as you begin leading meetings of your unit:

    • Set regular meeting times.
    • Have a clear agenda for each meeting, perhaps with time estimates for each item.  Distribute the agenda with supplementary materials in advance, highlighting topics of particular interest or complexity.
    • During meetings, be aware of group dynamics.  Is everyone participating? If not, can you work to discover why?  There may be issues that an individual is reluctant to raise but might be comfortable having you as chair raise.
    • Are there particular topics that are sensitive?  How will you frame discussion of these topics? Do you want a free-ranging discussion or a more focused one?
    • When the group needs to decide on a topic, think in advance about how you'll make each group decision.  By reaching consensus? By voting? Not every decision can be (or likely should be) handled the same way.
  • As a supervisor, you will have various official responsibilities. There are key internal resources you should familiarize yourself with, including those made available via the Manager's Corner and via the Performance Development site. 

    • You will be responsible for producing your unit's annual staffing memos, evaluations, and recommendations concerning reappointment, tenure, and promotion for your colleagues.  Some information concerning staffing memos can be found here.
    • You will be responsible for annual evaluations of staff performance.  Though you may feel discomfort at assuming this role, these evaluations are an important tool in both maintaining the smooth functioning of your unit, but also in signaling to staff the importance of their roles.  Staff often appreciate the feedback, and even when feedback is not entirely positive, appreciate the attention paid to their work and performance and the guidance that will allow them to improve. These are elements of professional development, and are no less important for staff than fellow faculty colleagues.  Forms to be used in conducting these reviews can be found here.  Additional information and resources for you as a supervisor can be found here and here (and you should feel free to contact Human Resources if you have any questions.)
    • Recognize that because faculty chairs in a unit turn over with some frequency, staff find themselves in the position of having a new supervisor quite often. This is not an easy situation as different chairs have different working styles, and many do not fully appreciate the way that staff view their roles with respect to faculty.  It is worth having explicit conversations with each staff member about their job responsibilities and that you provide them with the opportunity to explain and discuss their working relationships with the different members of your unit. It is worth also clarifying the job expectations for each staff member with faculty in your unit.  Staff often do not feel that they can decline faculty requests, with the result that there can be wide variation in what some faculty imagine staff in a unit are expected to do. Recognize also that in many cases staff working hours are considerably less flexible than faculty assume, and are regulated by law. If you have questions about this, contact the Director of Human Resources.
    • Familiarize yourself with institutional policies by consulting the faculty handbook, the administrative staff handbook., or the support staff handbook. If you have any questions, feel free to contact the Dean of Faculty or the Director of Human Resources.

    If you suspect that a colleague may need assistance of a more extensive or personal nature than you can provide, you can direct them to the Employee Assistance Program (available through Human Resources) which provides all Williams employees a wide range of support services. Note that there is also a “hotline” for managers (877-267-1585).

  • A large part of your role as chair will be to mentor and support those individuals whom you represent, both faculty and staff.

    • Acknowledge your colleagues' efforts, both large and small.  Whether thanking someone for help or a particular success in their own work, everyone appreciates hearing that they've been noticed and appreciated, even for seemingly small things. Particularly for staff, your acknowledgment, as chair, carries enormous value.  Asking for advice on a range of topics will both better inform your decisions, as well as signal that you value your colleagues' input.
    • Highlight your colleagues' qualities to others outside your unit as well.  This can lead to other kinds of opportunities for them, as others on campus start to notice them.  Your annual meeting with the President, Provost and Dean of Faculty is an excellent opportunity to highlight particular colleagues' contributions.
    • Try to understand where each of your colleagues is in their own professional career.  Are they feeling "stuck" in some way?  Can you think of ways to mentor them, perhaps by suggesting resources (conferences, off-campus workshops, on-campus workshops through HR, committee work) that might open up new opportunities for them?
    • Try to provide all your colleagues with opportunities to participate in new ways and to develop new skills by delegating tasks.
    • Don't take your role as supervisor and mentor to your staff lightly.  It's tempting to assume that a long history of apparently smooth relations with a staff member will ensure an easy transition to being that person's supervisor.  But this perspective often overlooks the very real differences in position and authority that many staff feel with respect to faculty.  It's easy to overstep boundaries by assuming a familiarity or more casual demeanor than a staff member may be comfortable with in a supervisor.
    • Part of your role as chair is to act as an advocate for the staff who report to you.  This may involve mediating interactions between faculty and staff.  Faculty are often able to simply avoid colleagues who might be difficult to work with, but as staff typically can not do this, interactions between faculty and staff can be more complicated.
    • On the faculty side, the Faculty Handbook is a primary source, and for pre-tenure faculty, the Evaluation and Promotion of Tenure-Track Faculty at Williams document may also prove useful. In addition, a great document to refer to - whether for new, recently tenured, or more seasoned faculty - is our Professional Development and Mentoring Guide and the resources for the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (NCFDD).