Feb 10, 2014Vol. 44, Issue 3

The Care and Keeping of Chairs

Brian Oppy, Chair, Department of Psychology

Brian Oppy, Chair, Department of Psychology

New Program Provides Leadership Training

Scheduling up to 150 courses each semester. Stretching shrinking department budgets. Negotiating student and faculty concerns. Managing office staff. Keeping up with research and publishing. Often, teaching.  

The role of the department chair is arguably one of the most complex on a university campus, and one whose heavy administrative and personnel demands often leaves its practitioners with little time for anything but crisis management. A new professional development program funded by the provost’s office and backed by the president is trying to change that.

The Chico State Leadership Initiative, headed by Department of Psychology Chair Brian Oppy, aims to provide chairs and associate chairs with the tools and skills they need to lead their departments in a proactive, meaningful way. The first of five monthly meetings was held Dec. 13 and was attended by 15 chairs and associate chairs from across campus.

As course participants, the cohort hears expert presentations, spends time in brainstorming and discussion, and completes reflective writing assignments focused on goal-setting. Each participant receives a small stipend, covered by $25,000 in program funding from the provost’s office and a $5,000 Faculty Learning Communities grant from the CSU Chancellor’s Office.

The program was born out of Oppy’s participation last year in the American Council of Education’s (ACE) Fellows program, which develops leadership skills in academic professionals. Working closely with President Paul Zingg, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Belle Wei, and Associate Vice President for Faculty Affairs Wenshu Lee, Oppy helped developed the pilot curriculum, which focuses on management skills and strategic planning. The group is collectively reading the American Council on Education’s book, “The Department Chair as Academic Leader.” Reflection papers are completed at the start and end of the semester through Blackboard Learn.

Most new chairs get a one-day introduction to the role. {Brian Oppy, Psychology}

“Most new chairs get a one-day introduction to the role,” Oppy explained. “We tend to get bogged down in the administrative duties and spend a lot of our time reacting to crises. In this program, we’re focusing on what it takes to lead versus manage a department, and look ahead at some of the bigger issues and trends in higher education.” Some of those trends might include relieving course bottlenecking, the role of online learning, leveraging resources, and nowadays, fundraising. The program's goal is to help chairs become strategic in their leadership, he said.

Oppy points out that the University lost two deans last year to provost positions in the CSU: former College of Behavioral and Social Sciences Dean Gayle Hutchinson (Channel Islands) and former College of Natural Sciences Dean Frederika Harmsen (Sacramento State). While their appointments speak volumes about the quality of those administrators and the University, their absences necessarily create holes in its leadership fabric. One of the program’s goals is to train up leaders on campus, to maintain continuity when administrators are appointed to positions at other campuses.

“We need people who are committed to the academic mission of the CSU,” he said. “Faculty who are already a part of the culture here are likely to have a greater personal and professional investment in the University than those who are not.”

For Provost Wei, the course complements trainings offered by the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT). The choice to target chairs was a natural one, she says, as they play an important role in working with faculty, advising students, and handling administrative duties.

There is a lot we can learn from each other. {Susan Wiesinger, Journalism and Public Relations}

“The role presents a new set of responsibilities and requires a different skill set,” she said. “Because of chairs' unique position in the academic structure, we can have a big impact.”

That impact is already being felt by program participant Susan Wiesinger, who has served as Chair of the Department of Journalism and Public Relations since 2011. Like others in her role, she juggles a multitude of responsibilities and challenges, including dwindling faculty and resources. She recently agreed to serve another three-year term as chair and said she wanted to be part of the training because “there is a lot we can learn from each other.”

“We know the budgets are never going to be where they once were,” Wiesinger observed. “Fundraising is something we must embrace. Academia is on a course of change. One of the things we need to know is: How can a chair build alumni relationships?”

That is exactly the kind of questioning Oppy, Wei, and Lee are hoping to elicit, and respond to, in the coming months.

—Sarah Langford, Public Affairs and Publications