Step 1

1.1 The Role of Department Chairs

At uOttawa, the Department Chair is recommended by the department's faculty and appointed by the Dean, in consultation with the Vice-President Academic and Provost. You can find the exact process under Article 37.2 of the APUO Collective agreement, but here are the main points:

  • A selection committee is struck consisting of the Dean (who chairs the committee), the Vice-President Academic and Provost (or person designated), 2 regular faculty members from the department (at least one tenured) elected by secret ballot, and 1 or 2 persons from outside the unit to be chosen by the other 4 already mentioned members.
  • The Dean invites all regular faculty members in the department to submit names of possible candidates and reasons to support their candidatures.

Being selected as a department chair should be seen as an honour. You are considered as highly qualified to assume the leadership, to represent your colleagues, speak on behalf of the collective identity, and work with your peers to secure the future of the unit and of the institution it is part of. It is evidence of the respect with which your peers view you. They trust you to lead the department, facilitate their individual professional aspirations, and cultivate and sustain a vibrant and supportive environment for students, faculty, and staff. Additionally, you have the support and confidence of the Dean and Vice-President Academic and Provost.

There is a lot to balance when you assume the role of Chair: the variety of day-to-day and recurring tasks with the large vision, and also the various and numerous tasks of being chair with your continuing development as teacher and scholar. In addition to managing faculty relationships, you also have supervisory responsibilities over departmental staff, and you are responsible for departmental facilities including labs or art studios and ensuring that the facilities are in smooth operating conditions.

As titular head and chief administrator of the department, you are responsible for the department’s planning, development and functioning, particularly with respect to the strength of its academic and research programs. The chair is the main agent and representative for all relations between the unit and the Faculty, the central administration and the external community.

Although it is difficult to compile an exhaustive list of duties and responsibilities of a chair, two documents provide some guidance:

  • In 2007, the Vice-President Academic office offered a general description of the functions and required qualifications for a department chair. Although this document is over 10 years old, it is still valid and could be used as an agreement between a Dean and a Chair. It breaks down the different responsibilities - a generic list of functions common to all departments which can be complemented by more functions - under five categories: Leadership, Administration, Programs and Courses, Teaching and Learning, and External Relations. 
  • Article 37.3.4 of the 2016-2018 APUO Collective Agreement details some suggested 22 duties and responsibilities of a chair, which fall in the same categories highlighted in the description provided by the VPA office.

In section 2, we introduce some important processes to the role of chair. These processes rely on four spheres of activities you navigate when you chair an academic unit:

  • Ensuring Open Communication
  • Evoking a Shared Vision
  • Mentoring Faculty at all Levels
  • Serving as the Face of the Department
Ensuring Open Communication

Crucial to strategic leadership is the chair’s ability to ensure open communication – between you and faculty members, between you and the Dean, and, through the Dean, between you and the Provost. You are closest to the pulse of the department! An effective chair is able to explain and persuade faculty members, the Dean, and administrators of what is best for both the department and the institution.

Your Dean will consult with you on any issues facing your department, and, in turn, the Dean's office should be kept informed of problems, real or potential. You are the person who relates back to the department the perspective and concerns of the Dean.

If there is a conflict between what the department collectively agrees are its needs and what is presented by the Dean as the Faculty's needs, the Chair serves as the intermediary, conveying the department's perspective to the Dean, and the Dean's perspective to the department. If an issue is particularly contentious, the Dean may meet with the whole department.

You are also the primary representative of the department, a spokesperson and an advocate. Tell the Dean's Office about departmental accomplishments, as faculty and student achievements are important factors in budget allocations, approval of faculty lines and departmental prestige, both within the university and nationally. You may also want to construct an annual end-of-year report of departmental accomplishments for the Dean that you should share with your department. 

Below are examples of some of the issues that routinely call for the Chair to consult with the Dean:

  • Definition of positions in the department (when change is being considered)
  • Searches (various aspects, from approval of the search to candidate choice)
  • Significant curriculum change or proposed new initiatives
  • Faculty workload issues
  • Faculty development
  • Course scheduling
  • Course logistics (e.g. over- or under-enrollment)
  • Departmental contribution to interdisciplinary programs
  • Student learning outcomes
  • Program assessment
  • Faculty evaluation and review
  • Personnel issues and conflicts
  • Space needs

A word on your relationship with colleagues – you may find that it changes when you move into the Chair's position. Being aware that this change may happen can help ease the discomfort. It might help to preface remarks to your department with what "hat" you are wearing: colleague or chair. You cannot be perceived to have favourites. Though you may have friends within your department, as a chair, that friendship should not affect the decisions you make with regard to teaching and service activities or matters of personnel review. Each member of the department should have full trust in your fairness. 

By being fair and unbiased, being a good listener, and not taking things personally, you will be a better department chair.

You can read more about communication in section 4.1 of this guide.

Evoking a Shared Vision

Get to know both uOttawa's strategic plan, Destination 2020, and your Faculty's strategic plan and use them to generate a three- or five-year strategic plan for your department. In a perfect world, your predecessors will have created one. A departmental vision for the near and long term will be most effective if you keep in mind the following suggestions:

  • Your plan should emerge from discussions among all departmental faculty;
  • Your plan should explore potential opportunities for future development and growth, and ensure the enduring relevancy of your programs and courses, for example:
    • How is your department’s field of expertise evolving?
    • What emerging trends are you seeing? What trends do you need to look for?
    • In response to these trends, what opportunities could your department create or seize given its assets?
    • How have other universities been successful in harnessing these trends to create or seize new opportunities for growth, differentiation and competitive advantage?
    • What potential impact could it have on your Department, on uOttawa?;
  • You should use your Dean as a source of advice and a partner in planning;
  • You serve as both the academic and research leader of the department;
  • A strategic plan is not a static document — not only should you update your plan annually, noting the progress in achieving the benchmarks the department has set, but it should guide your daily activities.

 

Please contact the Centre for Academic Leadership for support with strategic planning - workshops and coaching are available. 

Mentoring Faculty at all Levels

Each Faculty and department have their own approach to mentoring faculty, but department chairs serve as a key resource for ensuring that mentoring is, in fact, taking place. Within this general area of care and concern for departmental faculty members, untenured faculty members have a special place; it is crucial that the department chair provide support and resources to new and untenured faculty. You can also count on the Centre for Academic Leadership to help find a mentor for a colleague (university-wide level individual and group mentoring are available) or provide some coaching at specific stages of the career (for example, two years before submitting a tenure and promotion dossier).

Tenured faculty members need your attention too, not in the same way as untenured faculty, but they will also benefit from encouragement, support, and attentive listening. Beauboeuf et al. (2017) remind us that “being seen, valued, and included are critical aspects of career satisfaction and affect the degree of connection” faculty feel to the institution. The researchers propose a typology to describe professors according to their career satisfaction and their institutional connection. Although their typology was created from a survey of liberal arts faculty in teaching-intensive institutions, you are likely to come across the main four types of colleagues they described: synergetic citizens, independent agents, weary citizens and the disgruntled and discouraged.

This is especially valid for associate professors who have had their objectives set by others during their whole career: PhD, Postdoc, getting a tenure-track position; now having achieved tenure, there is no other compulsory barrier to jump over. "[A]ssociate professors are often left to figure out how to manage the varying demands of the job – and fit in time for their research on their own" (Wilson, R., 2012, quoted in the Mid-Career Faculty Report, 2013, p.2). This report provides recommendations for institutions to put in place, including at the department chair level, to address the mid-career malaise.

The vitality of a department, Faculty and university depends on the continued energy, productivity, and intellectual edge of all faculty, including full professors who could become disengaged with an attitude that they have played their part. This principally occurs when professors and institutional expectations are not aligned, or when faculty feel that they do not receive what was implicitly promised to them. (Heidle, 2011). Hudson et al.(2007) recommend that “departments and institutions work to re-engage senior faculty by designating time and space for intellectual exchange, recognizing and celebrating faculty achievements, and empowering dissatisfied faculty to respond to problems via voice rather than exit, silence, neglect, or destruction.” Additionally, Crabtree and Sap (2018) recommend that "[a]s faculty are promoted to full rank, department chairs have an ideal moment to encourage them to set new goals related to the institution's needs as well as to their own aspirations." They even suggest that it is the Chair's responsibility to engage these faculty and ensure that they don't pull away. "Keeping full professors fully engaged (…) [ensures] all faculty, particularly those in early and midcareer, also have satisfying professional lives."

Serving as the Face of the Department

You are the entry and exit points of the department – Which means that a lot of people will want to get to you and that you must be accessible -- to students, faculty, and staff, both in person and on email. You will need to be in the office, with the door open. Although certain times of the term are especially important (e.g., at the start of each semester, during the add-drop period, advising and registration weeks each semester, during course withdrawal deadlines; the period before grades are due is when faculty members may seek your counsel or intervention around instances of plagiarism and ask for advice on the process).

However, your door does not always have to be open – make the most of your calendar and your support staff by protecting periods of uninterrupted time when you can concentrate on projects, including your teaching and research.

As the face of the department, your presence will be required at certain events, such as convocation and recruitment days like the Ontario University Fair and the uOttawa Open Days.

A brief word about email (more in section 3.8 of this guide). Timely answering of email will be appreciated by all the people turning to you with questions. Much of this communication stems from the Chair's role as point person for communication – make sure that you use a positional email (rather than your personal one) so that you build the institutional memory. Another way to build institutional memory and ease the yearly cycle is to keep a calendar of important events and activities related to the department. (see section 3.4).

REFERENCES

Tamara Beauboeuf, Jan E. Thomas, and Karla A. Erickson, (2017, March, 15). Our Fixation on Midcareer Malaise. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/article/Our-Fixation-on-Midcareer/239476

Canale A.-M. Herdklotz C. Wild L. (2013). Mid-career faculty support: The middle years of the academic profession. Faculty Career Development Services, The Wallace Center Retrieved from https://www.rit.edu/academicaffairs/facultydevelopment/sites/rit.edu.academicaffairs.facultydevelopment/files/images/FCDS_Mid-CareerRpt.pdf

Crabtree, R. D. and Sapp, D. A. (2018). Living the Full Life: Mentorship for Full Professors and Senior Faculty. The Department Chair, 28: 3, 22–25. doi:10.1002/dch.30178

Therese A. Huston, Marie Norman & Susan A. Ambrose (2007). Expanding the Discussion of Faculty Vitality to Include Productive but Disengaged Senior Faculty. The Journal of Higher Education. 78:5, 493-522. doi:10.1080/00221546.2007.11772327

Back to top