What do you want in a Head-of-Department?

By Grant Jacobs 28/07/2010

Office with speaking tubes (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)
Office with speaking tubes (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

While skimming a long comment thread elsewhere, I noted Austin Elliott pointing readers to an article, The HoD Delusion (warning: large PDF file) in Physiology News, written by an anonymous (recovering) head of department.

It opens with an anecdote about being a Head of Department (HoD), then examines what the writer considers are the issues facing a incumbent HoD. The opening passage reads,

“It is frequently said, though I forget who started it, that managing academics is like herding cats. My experience, as both cat owner and Head of Department (HoD), suggests that this is grossly unfair to cats; our feline friends tend not to discuss their destination at length, let alone all the ins and outs of if, why, and how they want to go there; nor do they resist change with nearly as much enthusiasm as academics.

Over several years I have realized that becoming a HoD, rather than cat-herding, is more like becoming a parent — for the following three reasons in particular. First, you take it on in addition to your other jobs; second, nothing really prepares you for the reality; and third, you undertake its major responsibilities and possible consequences with little — if any — appropriate training.”

Think of this blog post as a call to both walk in their shoes for a little bit, and to discuss what you think HoDs should do – and not do. Comments from current or previous HoDs are particularly welcome.

One thought* that follows from the quote above is for training, and with that professional managerial support (that is, permanent managerial staff who work alongside the department head proper). I can’t speak from experience on this, but invite others to share their thoughts.

For those unlikely to ever become an HoD, understanding their role may help you work better with them.


* I may add more thoughts in the comments as I find time.

I’ve listed the highlighted points from the article below, but I encourage people to read the actual article as the content is more fulsome, and entertaining, than these headers might lead you to believe.

  1. Know your objective(s) and act accordingly
  2. Lead from the front
  3. Manage your time carefully
  4. Be accessible
  5. Don’t judge or act until you have heard both sides of the story
  6. Say ‘yes’ when you can, but learn to say ‘no’ when necessary
  7. Do what you believe to be right and fair
  8. ‘Care but don’t care’
  9. Say what you think, especially in meetings
  10. Minimise work that doesn’t contribute to the primary goals of your department

This is apparently part of a larger series, which interested readers might track down. (See footnotes immediately after the end of the article.)

HT: Austin Elliott.

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0 Responses to “What do you want in a Head-of-Department?”

  • To which I would add: understand your role. These days the CoD job is that of a middle-manager, & a key role is implementation of institutional policies; my own (admittedly) limited observations suggest that this isn’t necessarily well-understood.

  • Hi Alison,

    It’s a good point, thanks for bringing it up. I suppose in some ways that precedes the first point in his (her?) ten points:

    1. Know your objective(s) and act accordingly

  • About that picture:

    The reason I chose the picture was a bit of a joke. Looking at it, I had a vision of an old-time HoD hollering down a speaking tube at staff slaving away in spartan room elsewhere in the building.

  • I am a retired Department Chair and retired early because a combination of university sites and centralization, doubled my duties, with no relief time from faculty duties where suddenly class size in my department was seen as the ticket to the bottom line. Increased paperwork added to depersonalization, along with an academic vice president who should have stayed in the state police.
    But back in the golden days in the early Nineties when I took the position, it was a learning experience, but I had a dean and colleagues there to mentor me. At the time there was a small publication called The Department Chair, to which I instantly subscribed. They had a list of Seven Habits of Successful Chairs, and I can’t think of anything on your list that wasn’t on their except one: Know your faculty.
    That is something that I tried to live by. Not only does this mean being accessible, but it means when they come by, stop what you are doing, look up, and give them your full attention (or set a time when you can). They are why you are successful. If they bomb out, you fail too, in this world when students think of themselves as customers (or so it is in my tuition-driven school). Take the time to talk to them and like them and discuss what they are working on and hope to accomplish. You know that a true scholar loves learning in any form. Just knowing it’s one of your duties makes it all the more pleasurable.

  • Christine,

    Thank you for your long and thoughtful comment.

    To me your remarks tie in with something I once said to a friend who is now a Professor. We were ruminating about life, promotion, and the roles of jobs, and I said something to the effect that perhaps once someone has been promoted to Professor their job isn’t so much to promote their own work as to promote (read: aid) the work of others, and succeed through their success. I’d like to think that part of doing that is knowing the people and what their goals are.* Reading your words, I can’t help thinking you have worked in that spirit – the sort of Department Chair I might have liked myself.

    * Which might differ from what others might perceive them to be.

  • Number 5 is an important one that I remember fumbling shortly after becoming a manager, but you only do that once. Number 6 is also important for your own sanity and part of it is learning to delegate.
    Being middle management is a challenge as you get pulled from both directions. For me I see my most important job as being an advocate and a filter for the staff I line manage.