The Department Chair’s Job

Here is a very interesting article that describes how the department chair’s job has evolved over the years from something desirable, which many faculty aspired to, to a thankless and burdensome job that few faculty want: “For Chairs, the Seat’s Gotten Hotter: With new demands for fund raising and assessment, academe’s middle managers feel the pressure” (CHE, 2 December 2013, subscription required). Here are a few key quotes:

“When Domenick J. Pinto first became a department chair, more than 25 years ago… [he] created the schedule of classes, advised students, hired adjuncts, evaluated faculty members, and reviewed the curriculum.”

“In a middle-management job that has become increasingly complex, department chairs must cut costs in a time of shrinking resources, write grant applications and meet with potential donors to increase department resources, manage growing pools of adjunct labor, and respond to new calls for assessment.”

The department chair is not a middle-management job. It is a first rung supervisor job. The dean of a school is a middle management job.

“They have become fiscal overseers and fund raisers, student recruiters and public-relations gurus… Growing emphasis on assessment is one reason paperwork is increasing. Department chairs are typically responsible for overseeing the process of documenting what students are learning.”

According to the article, the main duties of today’s department chair are: signing paperwork, meeting with parents, coordinating assessment, fund raising, and managing adjuncts. In Lean world, we would reduce the number of signatures (and inexpensively automate paper workflows where sensible); marketing people, deans, provosts, and presidents (overhead function/non-value creating employees) would meet with parents; assessment would be simplified and made visual (versus long reports) and updated weekly by faculty; adjuncts (part-time labor) would be handled by HR and procurement after qualified instructions have been identified by faculty.

The job has clearly suffered from scope creep over the years. Department chairs are doing the job that so many well-paid administrators have been hired to do, but apparently do not actually do. So, department chairs pick pick up the slack to help assure the success of their department. Bravo – but stop doing that! When you do someone else’s job, they don’t do theirs, yet top administrators mistakenly think they are doing their assigned work.

University senior management is irresponsible in that they keep adding administrative tasks to the department chair’s workload and take no administrative tasks away. The job has become so undesirable that few people want to do it. That should be a big, loud signal that administrative processes need to be dramatically improved in order to once again make the job something that faculty aspire to. That’s what leaders do.

In Lean, top management’s job is to ease the burdens on the value-adders (faculty) and first-level managers (department chairs). Were I to be department chair, my focus would be to correct the 10 percent problem and eliminate the 45 teaching errors. I would automate routine academic advising and provide personal attention to the special cases. Request for lengthy reports would be turned down in favor or 1 to two page reports. Processes should be managed visually so they can be evaluated quickly and easily at any time. Reviews and approvals would be reduced or eliminated. The course scheduling process would be kaizened and mistake-proofed so that we offered the courses we said we would offer, every time, without fail, so students (and payers) can plan properly.

The scope of the job would be narrowed and all processes improved to provide students and payers with the value that they expect, and to reduce administrative burdens on the department chair and faculty. Activities that do not create value for students and payers would be eliminated. Activities that do not create value yet must still be done, such as conforming to state or federal regulations (more reports), would be combined and simplified, while still meeting the requirement with quality and distinction. The university’s budgeting process would be improved to take 10 days instead of six months.

The Lean principle, “Respect for People,” is absent among top administrators (where “people” is not just the department chair, but faculty, students, payers, alumni, etc.). The idea of leading efforts to simplify work and department chairs to get 100 percent of the job done in the normal weekday work hours, with time for teaching, research, and service to the profession and university, is alien to them.

Instead, there is a devotion among top administrators to do lots of stupid stuff, and do even more stupid stuff whenever the opportunity arises, which consumes precious resources – time and money. Wasting people’s time = wasting people’s life. Top management prefers to make the job ever more complex and more demanding on one’s personal time (or is indifferent), ignorant of the effect of chronic stress on one’s physical and mental health, and clueless on how to eliminate or improve work processes.

So why don’t I become chair of my department? Two reasons: 1) department chairs are set-up to fail, and 2) because I have had many years of management experience in industry, from supervisor to senior manager. The department chair’s job is similar to a road I have previously traveled and no longer have interest in – especially if the job remains as it is today – because senior administrators remain committed to the status quo when it comes to day-to-day work processes. By the way, these poor day-to-day work process greatly undercut the ability to achieve their grand vision.

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