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Things I Wish I Knew Before Becoming Department Chair

Written by: Ashley Bruckner
Published on: May 15, 2023

Photo credit: iStock. Illustration of a person sitting at a desk with multiple symbols on the screen.

We know that there are most likely a TON of things you wish you knew before becoming Department Chair. Here are some tips from a few chairs who participate in the Department Services Program (DSP) to assist in guiding you through the transition and adjustment, and maintaining that P.M.A. - positive mental attitude! The AAA supports chairs through the DSP program by providing opportunities for monthly conversations in DSP Forums where chairs can speak freely about the challenges of administering their department with their peers, as well as through the Department Leaders Summer Institute held each June. 


On Finances and Management Practices 

Dr. Judy Pine, Chair of Anthropology at Western Washington University, discussed issues regarding financial insight stating, “I wish I had known about how the department’s budget worked and how it interacts with the college and the university. This applies especially to things like the department’ is required to pay for which seems, from a faculty perspective, to come “from the university”.” 

Providing a perspective as Chair of Great Bay Community College, Department of Social Sciences, Dr. Aimee Huard also discussed the importance of financial knowledge and personnel guidelines stating, “Know your CBAs…Collective Bargaining Agreements can be tricky things to navigate for pros and cons. Also, in my case, part-time adjunct instructors and full-time instructors have different CBAs and expectations…and misunderstandings.” Dr. Huard went on to express compounding challenges in managing a mixed discipline department, “For me, that means Anthropology, Sign Language, Geography, History, Political Science, Psychology, and Sociology all have to live together in tenuous harmony. They may have humans at their core, but they are very different discipline standards, expectations, professional development, and personalities.” 

It’s Stressful... 

Something that all the department chairs agreed on was how stressful the position can be. “One thing that I hadn’t fully realized was the amount of time and energy that must be allotted to personnel matters, nor had I anticipated how draining and exhausting these issues tend to be”, said Dr. Mary Ann Raghanti, Chair of the Kent State University, Department of Anthropology.  

Dr. Krysta Ryzewski, Chair of the Wayne State University, Department of Anthropology, discussed challenges with maintaining an open and flexible schedule. Dr. Ryzewski said, “I didn't realize or want to admit the extent to which I'd have to relinquish control over my schedule and calendar. My calendar is available to my staff and admin supervisors, and subject to editing by them. I've lost some scheduling freedoms, and have had to learn new strategies to carve out time for research, advising, and personal time.” 

Dr. Huard went on to describe juggling the plethora of hats that need wearing stating, “I have several roles that overlap as a student advisor, professor, course scheduler, complaint department, instructor mentor, researcher, and middle manager. Switching between the roles – sometimes in the same meeting – can be intense and confusing. The mental and emotional load can be easy to underestimate, as can the time it takes to weed through the problems each role can create.” 

But Don’t Stress Too Much! 

Staying calm and being able to adapt were top points among the DSP chairs we spoke to. “Leading with calmness is important for maintaining perspective, keeping communication channels open, and reducing stress levels in the department. It's important to persist, not hesitate about following up, and not take personally what may seem like being ignored”, said Dr. Ryzewski. In agreement, Dr. Pine stated, “I already knew, but think I need to have it continuously reinforced that it is important to take a step back and a deep breath especially when something seems like an urgent issue.” 

Dr. Raghanti shared finding strength and cultivating equanimity and resilience in meditation as the most important tool in her de-stress toolkit stating, “since becoming chair, I have become a daily meditator (8+ years) and have become a certified meditation teacher for Kent State University (Koru mindfulness and meditation- a curriculum developed at Duke University). It provides a perspective and a space between stimulus and response that both decreases my own personal suffering and allows for much more reasoned (and hopefully wise) responses.” 

In conclusion, Dr. Ryzewski reminds us that sometimes you just have to roll with the punches stating, “I never missed a deadline before I became Chair. As Chair, surprises happen. All the time. This has meant that when an administrative grenade falls into my lap, what seemed like an urgent priority one day, often becomes a back-burner to-do list item the next.  This is just a fact of life as Chair!” 

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