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Graduate School Did Not Teach Me How to Run a Department

Pamela S. Nadell

Graduate school did not teach me how to run a department. The skills it hones, long days of reading, writing, and—except for ethnographers—solitary research are the very antithesis of what a department chair needs to succeed. But, at some point in our academic careers, no matter how unprepared we feel, many of us are tapped to head our departments. We may fend off the call for a while. I managed to do so for more than two decades. But eventually there will come a time when we can no longer say no.

Having chaired American University’s Department of History for five years, I am happy to share some thoughts on what I learned.

Day one, I am at my desk before the office opens. After an hour of thumbing through files, I know that I need help. Higher education publications routinely bemoan the lack of training for department chairs. I ask the dean when the new chairs’ orientation is. He schedules one, but not until the start of my second year as chair.

Department chairs are lower middle-level managers. We know that we have entered that exalted rank when we report to a dean and provost who routinely remark that our job is tougher than theirs. What they mean is that department chairs are on the front line. Our quiet days of contemplation are over. When we are in the office, and we are there almost every weekday, the door is open. Colleagues barge in whenever they feel a crisis coming on or want to touch base or just chat. We answer their emails at 6:00 am and 11:00 pm, and their calls during the normal working hours of 8:00 am to 10:00 pm.

Nevertheless, this job brings many rewards. Chairs get to know colleagues they never really knew. I spent my first summer on the job taking every member of the faculty to lunch or coffee.

New chairs bring fresh perspectives to old practices. My department had a tradition of a monthly two-and-a-half hour-long faculty meeting where everyone spoke. I dreaded them. As our department grew, they accomplished less and less. I broached shifting the timing and shortening our meetings with every member of my department. Most bought into the idea and thanked me; a few resistant old-timers agreed to a trial semester. Now, more than five years later, no one looks back, and departmental culture has shifted slightly.

Chairs put out fires, big and small. Some, like a report of a potentially suicidal student, must be addressed immediately. Other “crises” benefit from thought and reflection. The unhappy colleague, who, having finally looked at next year’s schedule that was sent out a month ago, can wait for a bit. If her class time can be changed, it will; if not, the chair will explain why. The angry senior colleague who complains that junior faculty never listen to his “advice” needs time to calm down—so that he can listen. The new faculty member who was a fine teacher elsewhere but who is struggling on our campus needs access to resources.

Perhaps the most important lesson for department chairs, especially for those who have never managed staff, is that we must cultivate, cherish, reward, and feed them. Once upon a time, a very long time ago, faculty had secretaries. Today two staff, plus a gang of work studies, run a very complex department. Because of low salaries, staff positions typically require a high school diploma. I never hired anyone who had less than a B.A., and most were using tuition benefits to get a master’s degree. None of our staff stayed for more than a year and a half, and all went on to promotions elsewhere on campus. I am proud of the fact that my department fielded the college’s staff farm team, and that several of our staff went up to the big league of the dean’s office. Nothing gets done without reliable, excellent staff, and working with them and learning from them is crucial to the success of the department chair.

My final words of advice: Embrace the role’s challenges and opportunities. You will learn much that you never knew and hone skills that you did not know that you possessed. You will acquire a new vocabulary filled with words like operating budget, restricted accounts, buy-outs, and stewardship. You will experience the joy of changing someone’s life with the call of a tenure-track offer and the sorrow of planning a memorial service for a colleague. But always remember that, one day, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, you will move out of that nice corner office with its conference table and interruptions and return to days filled with what graduate school trained us to do, research, writing, and teaching.

Pamela S. Nadell is President of the Association for Jewish Studies and is Professor and Patrick Clendenen Chair in Women’s and Gender History at American University, where she chaired the Department of History for five years.