Faculty Handbook 2023-2024

I.1.f. Managing special issues

Department chairs perform many routine tasks daily (e.g., running meetings, supervising staff members, etc.). However, there are other duties (e.g., unanticipated tasks with immediate deadlines, unexpected change in faculty/staff employment, faculty/staff illnesses, etc.) that infrequently occur and that require special care. While it is very possible that you may not have encountered similar situations before as chair, you can still be prepared to recognize special issues and to address these issues in a reasonable manner.

Reflect before you react. Gather pertinent information about the special issue, but resist the urge to make a snap decision or to provide a hasty response (with either the spoken or written word). Sometimes it is best to just “listen”, and then reflect on what you have learned.

Keep calm and positive. Unexpected tasks/issues/emergencies will arise. How one behaves in potentially stressful situations may say as much about us as leaders as what we ultimately do to address the situation.

Read and understand the academic handbook and other college policies. This is not particularly scintillating reading, but may make you aware if there already is a policy in place to address your particular situation. Ask questions if you don’t completely understand college policies or procedures (few of us probably do for every situation), as the special issue may fall in an area that requires interpretation.

Seek advice. In particular, talk to staff in Academic Affairs, Human Resources, and/or other offices around campus. In addition, you may consult with your area chair or with an experienced colleague (perhaps a former department chair) with whom you feel comfortable discussing the situation. Before discussing the issue with anyone, you first should consider legal, confidentiality, and privacy concerns as well as any college policies that might apply.

Develop a plan to address the issue. Devise a means of addressing the special issue (as necessary). In doing so, it may be important to revisit some/all of the previous “What to do” steps. It is essential to identify what outcomes are desired, what steps will lead to those outcomes, and what deadlines/time constraints exist. By keeping these key components in mind, your resolution is likely to be more effective.

Prepare for the unexpected. It is virtually impossible to anticipate and prepare for every possible scenario that you might encounter. However, you might learn about possible types of situations by listening to other chairs, area chairs (or colleagues) discuss special issues. Be careful to realize that their approaches might not be correct or even applicable to your situation (each issue may have its own unique circumstances). 

Common mistakes

  • Thinking that you know what to do, but not checking to make sure that you do. It is much preferable that you double-check to make sure that your approach is the appropriate one.
  • Taking well meaning advice that might be incorrect, rather than checking. Similarly, if a chair obtains advice from colleagues that is incorrect or not applicable, you run the risk of making matters worse. It is worthwhile to discuss possible solutions with your area chair or the Provost to get their feedback on your approach before it has been implemented.
  • Being afraid to appear incompetent and not asking for help. As with many aspects of being chair, it is far better to worry about doing the right thing, rather than trying to save face.
  • Not wanting to “bother” anyone in administration. The administration is here (and wants) to help. Make use of their expertise and experience.
  • Thinking that you can handle the problem yourself. Sometimes special issues have more far-reaching implications than you considered, so it is important to discuss the special issues with the Provost before acting.