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Dear BI Career Consultants:

by Black Issues

Dear BI Career Consultants:

I want to become head of my department, but I’ve been having trouble persuading my colleagues that my expertise extends beyond subjects pertaining to people of color. What would you suggest?

Dr. Roderick J. McDavis, Dean and Professor,
College of Education, University of Florida

If you want to become head of your department, you should apply for the position and let your credentials speak for you.
Keep in mind that faculties are different and they look for different qualities in department heads. Some look for colleagues in specific areas of expertise, while others are more interested in colleagues who possess specific leadership qualities. Sometimes it is difficult for faculty members in the same department to perceive one of their colleagues, regardless of expertise, as the head of the department. Ultimately, however, deans select people who can provide the best leadership for departments based on the needs of departments at a given time.
My advice is to continue building the credentials necessary to become head of an academic department. To be sure, you should continue your research and scholarly activities, as well as involvement in professional associations as a chair or member of committees and task forces. In addition, you should try to become elected to leadership positions in these associations. You also should volunteer for leadership assignments on a variety of committees or task forces in your department, college, or university. These assignments will demonstrate the breadth of your expertise in other areas and show that your are committed to being a leader for all.
You may have to apply for a department head position at another university. I suggest that you let the dean of your college know that you are interested in becoming a department head in your college or elsewhere. Deans of colleges always receive announcements about chair positions at other universities. Ask your dean to send you copies of such announcements for your discipline. If you have a good relationship with the dean, you also can ask the dean to nominate you for leadership positions at other universities.

Dr. Norma  Burgess,
professor of sociology and chair, Department of Child
and Family Studies,
Syracuse University

Careers in higher education administration often begin with becoming a department chair. It is one of the most challenging jobs on the spectrum.
Many of the skills that your discipline specified for advancement are not necessarily the same ones that will be useful to you in the role as chair. Learning how to interact with your colleagues and facilitate their work becomes a major part of your job, whereas your scholarly work did not have such requirements. Understanding people, what they value, and what makes them successful is critical to being an effective chair.
If you have the opportunity, it is important to attain the rank that you seek prior to becoming chair. In preparation, approach the task as a new learning experience just as you did your scholarship. Reading the literature on management and leadership will provide much insight about the workings of organizations and its dynamics from a different perspective.  As chair, you are a colleague but also shoulder the responsibility for the unit in ways that faculty members will not.
Focus on the skills that you wish to strengthen within your professional development portfolio so that you are informed about campus matters and issues in higher education. Your colleagues are generally looking for a leader and supporter of their agenda with good measures of your judgement added. They might be much less concerned about your scholarship than they are about your willingness to help them reach their goals. If you have strong interest in administration, begin to think about ways in which you can positively influence the group with the ideas about the future growth and development for the department.

“Focus on the skills that you wish to strengthen within your professional development portfolio so that you are informed about campus matters and issues in higher education.”

Learning the organizational dynamics will help in understanding the environment. It will also help you assess the level of support necessary for your success. Should you decide that this is not the best administrative route to take, the reading that you are willing to engage in and the observations that you are willing to make will help to prepare you for other opportunities along the way. 


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