Preparing a Successor

I’m nearing the end of my chair term—one more year to go, though on some days I fantasize about just dropping it all right then and there. In general though, I’ve enjoyed being a chair, even if I don’t want to do it again. My university has processes in place to select a new chair, but what can I or should I do in the next year to set up for success whoever my successor might be?Passing the Torch

Dear Prof. Passing the Torch:

Your question raises a larger question of mentoring departmental leaders that goes beyond simply finding a successor. I’d like to talk about that first, before I address your specific situation.

Often when I ask people why they decided to run for chair, the answer I get is a variation on two themes: “No one else would do it” and “The only other person who talked about running would have been a disaster.” To my mind, these are the consequences of the same phenomenon — the unwillingness, inability, or cluelessness of the prior chair to build leadership within your department. This is part of the work of being chair that isn’t discussed much, but that is crucial to the long-term health of a department.

In many departments there are informal training grounds for future chairs, whether that’s being DUS, chairing an important committee, serving as deputy chair, or some other responsibility.  Sometimes these are explicitly recognized within the department, other times not. But it’s the job of the chair and departmental policy committee (whatever it’s called in your department: personnel and budget committee, P&T committee, appointments committee, etc) to talk openly about cultivating promising faculty members to take on these roles so that they have a sense of what it means to be in an executive position. These are also positions in which faculty members can figure out whether they’re suited to or like this kind of administrative work, and their colleagues can get a sense of their leadership style, for better and for worse. It’s always to a department’s advantage to build a deep bench of folks willing and able to take leadership roles. You might also encourage your administration to hold workshops for aspiring faculty leaders. And definitely encourage your successor to attend an ADE Summer Seminar.

So let’s say you have a department in which there are some strong candidates for chair. That’s great! How you smooth the way for your successor depends on a couple of things. In some institutions, there’s a lag of several months between the election of the new chair and the end of the current chair’s term. In others it’s only a month or two. If you have several months, you can have the new chair shadow you for a few hours at a time over the course of a couple of weeks, so they get a sense of the breadth of the job. If it’s only a month, if that (in my institution, new chairs are elected in May and are expected to start over the summer), it’s somewhat harder, although not impossible. The most important thing to remember is that the new chair will need several sessions to absorb everything you want to tell them. A good idea would be to set aside each session for a specific set of issues (e.g., “today we’re going to talk about student complaints, grade appeals, and mediating between students and faculty,” or “this afternoon I want to focus on search procedures”).

One thing you can do is put together a calendar that lays out the trajectory of the school year. When are the next semester’s or year’s schedules due? When does the chair do annual reviews with junior faculty? When do you do budgeting? In addition, you could generate step-by-step guidelines for the big-ticket procedures in the department. Put all the important files on a USB drive, organized thematically and chronologically (for example, department meeting minutes organized by year, or faculty review folders arranged alphabetically). Of course, you’re not going to be able to anticipate or remember everything, but the more you can pass along information in a structured and legible way, the better.

Finally, remember that stepping down as chair does not mean you are free as soon as you hand over the keys! You’ll need to be available for advice and guidance for the next several months. At the same time, be sure to keep a lower profile in the department than you did even before you were chair —  it needs to be clear that there’s only one chair, and it’s not you.

Then, pour yourself a drink, put your feet up, and let the new chair get on with it.

The Chair
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