DU Chair Handbook

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The bulk of this handbook delves into processes, information, and pragmatic issues related to being a Department Chair, both broadly speaking and specifically at DU. These introductory essays are different. They invite you to reflect upon your new role and to understand its importance as well as value the vibrancy of your program and for your own personal success.

On Starting as a Department Chair

By: Keith Ward, Director, Lamont School of Music
College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences

Imagine, for a moment, an orchestra. You have been playing clarinet, second chair in this ensemble for some time. You have been there long enough to earn tenure. (Yes, orchestra players in major professional ensembles earn tenure.) You have consistently arrived at rehearsals on time, have prepared your part thoroughly, conferred regularly with other players in the woodwind section, have performed admirably in concerts, and have even volunteered to serve on the orchestra’s governing committee representing the musicians in the ensemble.

That, however, is the past because you have been appointed the conductor of this ensemble. Things seem different. Indeed, they are! You now set the agenda – that is, you select the repertoire the ensemble will perform. You need to know more than a clarinet part. For your ensemble to excel, you need to know all the parts. You have to invest time understanding how string players, woodwind players, the brass section, and percussionists think so that you can unite them to produce an exceptional performance – one that may be rooted in your conception of the music, but one they will play. The orchestra members expect you to have a compelling vision of the repertoire. Brute command and control, however, does not work in the orchestras of today; you need to find ways to influence how your ensemble plays while understanding the idiosyncrasies of individual musicians. How do you inspire them to listen to each other? You cannot produce a winning performance on your own; you will need people to believe in your interpretation of the music and simultaneously honor their ideas about how to make it happen. How will you get these musicians on board so that they trust you? You will need to be efficient with your time and distinguish what is essential and what is accompaniment. Budget limitations prohibit going overtime, and you will need to adhere to the contract stipulations negotiated by the committee you once served specific to rehearsal breaks, loads, and the like. Oh, did I forget to mention that the Board of Directors, to whom you report, has expectations for you as well that are not necessarily the same as the players?

Welcome to the role of a department chair! Like the clarinetist in the narrative above, you have moved from being a member of your department to leading it. You will have many roles: leader, mentor, middle manager, fiscal officer, advocate, and supervisor. Like an ensemble making beautiful music, the success of your department does not happen on its own; it takes purpose, commitment, negotiation, and some sweat from you. Trust me: it is worth the effort!

Chairing a department requires navigating between the ideal and the mundane. What do you need to know as a chair? How do you start? There are skills and knowledge you must develop. You need to learn the balancing act between assessing what is urgent or not, important or not. You have to become accustomed to loose ends. You must avoid the pitfall of insisting everything must be perfect (which is not possible) and accept that “ok” is better than nothing at all. You will need good delegation skills to avoid a state of mind that you are responsible for everything (you are not). What are the benefits of collaboration as opposed to unilateral action, of being able to influence outcomes? How can you develop the ability to see issues from multiple angles and perspectives? Are you prepared for a new rhythm to the year? How do you promote the work of your colleagues and be your program’s strongest advocate? Why is your visibility important? Most important, how well can you listen?

Similar to teaching, chairing a department has its challenges and frustrations. It also, like teaching, has its moments of exhilaration and deep satisfaction, of making a difference in people’s lives. You also will need to accept criticism and learn from the suggestions of your colleagues. You won’t be able to please everyone.

The goal of this website is to help you at the start of your role as a department chair. It will offer practical advice and guidance, and it will offer ideas on how you can make this role your own. It is written and compiled by your colleagues at DU, some of whom are directors or chairs, while others are members of the faculty. Our hope is to provide you with a better understanding of your new responsibilities, that you will take this moment as an opportunity to gain new insight into this institution, and that you will assume this role to make a difference in your program, its vibrancy, and its significance at the University of Denver. What will your mindset be? What do you want to achieve?

Colleges and units at DU define the roles of chairs and directors differently. There will be variation in what you and others do depending on whether you are in Korbel as opposed to CAHSS. Regardless, the goal of this website is to provide a starting place. It will explore pragmatic matters essential to your success with an invitation to explore this position beyond a three-year rotation. It will discuss the nuts and bolts you need to learn. Hopefully, it also will inspire you to make a difference. A program suffers when its department chair does not lead with understanding and commitment to the role. Opportunities for your program will be lost. A sense of shared purpose likely will wane. As your colleagues, we do not want to see that happen; we want to provide you a guide that will produce a far better outcome for you, your program, and DU.

Suggested Readings

Bennis, Warren. On Becoming a Leader. New York: Addison Wesley, 1989.

Bernstein, Albert. Dinosaur Brains: Dealing with All THOSE Impossible People at Work. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1988.

Boice, Robert. The New Faculty Member: Support and Fostering Professional Development. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1992.

Bolman, Lee G. and Joan V. Gallos. Reframing Academic Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.

Buller, Jeffrey L. Academic Leadership Day by Day: Small Steps that Lead to Great Success. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.

Chun, Edna and Alvin Evans. The Department Chair as Transformative Diversity Leader Building Inclusive Learning Environments in Higher Education. Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2015.

Covey, Steven R. Principle-Centered Leadership. New York: Fireside, 1990.

Fisher, Roger and William Ury. Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. New York: Penguin Books, 1981.

Gunsalus, C.K. The College Administrator’s Survival Guide. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Kellerman, Barbara.  Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters.  Cambridge: Harvard Business School Press, 2004.

Morrell, Margot and Stephanie Capparell. Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer.  New York: Penguin, 2001.

Nierenberg, Roger. Maestro: A Surprising Story about Leading by Listening (London: Penguin Books, 2009). The opening of this essay is an adaptation of ideas from this book.

Sample, Steven B. The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002.

Ward, Keith. “Ten Years Later: Preparing for the Chair’s Role,” The Department Chair 12/2 (Fall 2001): 7-8.

Watkins, Michael. The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter. Cambridge: Harvard Business Review Press, 2013.

Wheeler, Daniel. Servant Leadership for Higher Education: Principles and Practices. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012.

Respected Department Chairs

Lorenzo Patelli, Associate Professor
School of Accountancy, Institute for Enterprise Ethics Daniels College of Business

It is not necessary to have served as department chair to acknowledge that being a department chair is a tough job. Not so much because of the variety of leadership roles to play (coach, referee, and teammate), the multitude of tasks to perform (budgeting, course scheduling, supervising, etc.), the lack of preparation and training (and yet, we have prepared this Handbook for you!), and the possible lack of recognition for crucial work behind the scene. But mostly, because the job of a chair ultimately requires coordinating other faculty without many levers of control over them. Hence, soft skills (skills that go beyond the technical mastery of processes, systems, and tools which are covered in this handbook) are crucial to support your role as chair.

The objective of this introductory essay is to elicit some reflections before you dive into the pragmatics of your new role. Although they have been reviewed by colleagues, the viewpoints expressed here remain my own and they are not meant to mandate a certain leadership style or define a universally-optimal model. Yet, they are intended to make you reflect on two points: (i) the intangibles of your job as chair will determine your legacy (ii) colleagues (faculty and staff) will be significantly affected by your work and ultimately, they will be the ones assessing the quality of your accomplishments. These two points are rooted in the evidence and strong conviction at DU that department culture is the most important factor influencing the professional experience of a faculty. They do not undermine the importance of mastering tools essential to coordinating and effectively empowering other people’s jobs and responsibilities. They do not want to distract you from the sense of accountability that must be infused in your service towards your dean as well as (prospective, current, and former) students. Yet, they stress that as the head of your department, you will inevitably influence your department culture and thus, have a wonderful opportunity to contribute to the growth of your fellow academicians.

Three skills emerge as distinctive factors of a chair who faculty colleagues admire: respect, communication, and weighted decision making. These skills can lead to trustworthy relationships that are essential since chairs have limited possibility to pull other levers of coordination.


Chairs must exercise a profound respect for academic freedom (i.e., scholarship interests and methods, topics and methodologies), for the shared-governance guiding small and big decisions, for the personal social sphere of colleagues since many pursue an academic career because of the need for autonomy. Thus, respect at the top is key for faculty retention and motivation. The kind of respect needed is not as a background that can be partially seen at times while the main actions take center stage. Respect should be the lens, the glass window, from which to look at every issue to be dealt with. Chairs deserve admiration when they support colleagues like ski instructors who ski alongside novice skiers, facing the same bumps and enjoying the same jumps. Chairs may lose trustworthiness if they ignore difficulties of a colleague or obstruct the unique contribution that each faculty member offers to the academic community.


Chairs are the receivers of a great deal of information, not just administrative details, but also very consequential information. Chairs should wisely channel information horizontally (amongst faculty) and vertically (from students all the way up to upper administration). Information without communication does not become knowledge. Being able to communicate effectively is different from transparently providing information. Chairs need to critically sort through the information they receive to prepare, share, and discuss in ways that can empower faculty choices. In this sense, for chairs, listening and asking questions are crucial to learn what departmental information needs really are. Only through careful listening can chairs seek, gather, and present information that matters. Chairs deserve admiration when through their communications, they foster a true sense of inclusion and belonging. Chairs may lose credibility if through their communications, they do not nurture human connections and miss opportunities to convey openness.

Weighted decision making

Chairs have the responsibility to make decisions that balance various stakeholders’ (faculty, students, and administrators) interests. Shared governance is a pillar of a sound academic community. Chairs have the duty to ensure that this model of governance produces the right decisions. This implies that Chairs must help their departments weigh decision making mechanisms that can lead to informed and appropriate decisions. In order to weigh the various inputs that go into a decision, it is important for chairs to assess the incremental value of each input to the decision at stake. Broad participation and extensive sets of information do enrich departmental decision making processes if chairs are able to properly weigh each input and finalize a robust decision. Chairs deserve admiration when they engage in decisions that are based on rigorous processes informed by believable inputs. Chairs may lose support and damage collaboration if they shy away from making decisions, hide decisions that they make, or make decisions based on less credible factors.

These three skills are not mutual substitutes, meaning that possessing and exercising just one of them is unlikely to suffice for a chair to excel. All three skills contribute to establish trustworthy relationships within the department that represent building blocks for academic excellence. Chairs who overlook them may experience conflicts, disengagement, and aversion within their departments. Chairs who exhibit them can enjoy admiration and provide an essential contribution to positive departmental cultures.


Institute for Academic Leadership: https://ial.fsu.edu/

Chu, D. (2012). The Department Chair Primer: What Chairs Need to Know and Do to Make a Difference. Retrieved from http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/du/detail.action?docID=817456

Chu, D. (2019). Summer School for New Chairs: Department Management 101. The Department Chair, 30(1), 22–23. https://doi.org/10.1002/dch.30272

Campbell & O’Meara, Faculty agency: Campbell & O’Maera-Faculty Agency.pdf

Campbell, C. M., & O’Meara, K. (2014). Faculty Agency: Departmental Contexts that Matter in Faculty Careers. Research in Higher Education, 55(1), 49 74. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11162-013-9303-x

Cipriano, R. E., & Riccardi, R. L. (2018). The Department Chair Revisited. The Department Chair, 28(3), 18–19. https://doi.org/10.1002/dch.30176

Cipriano, Facilitating a collegial department in higher education (Chapter 1): Collegiality And Civility In Higher Education.pdf

Gardner, S. K. (2019). Seen and Not Heard? New Faculty Participation in Shared Governance. The Department Chair, 29(3), 4–5. https://doi.org/10.1002/dch.30229

Wheeler, D. W., Krase, E., Hansen, C. K., & Zimmer, M. B. (2019). Leading Up: The Challenges and Opportunities of Working with the Dean. The Department Chair, 30(1), 1–3. https://doi.org/10.1002/dch.30262

Department Chairs and Administrative Assistants: A Perspective

Kara Duggan, Academic Services Associate for Curriculum & Instruction Program
Department of Teaching and Learning Sciences, Morgridge College of Education

I appreciate the challenging nature of the department chair’s role with its many facets and differing obligations. Part of that role is collaborating with an administrative assistant to support the department. In my experience as an administrative assistant at the University of Denver, successful department chairs and administrative assistants work as a team. I will highlight some of the expectations administrative assistants have for their department chairs as well as the challenges they may experience serving a department.

The most important thing an administrative assistant needs from a department chair is to be supported. On a professional level, part of that support comes from the department chair understanding the administrative assistant role and the expectations around it. In my experience, the work of administrative assistants can seem more nebulous than other positions, as the position is usually defined as support to the department, rather than being project-based. With the broad mission of “support,” administrative assistants are pulled in many directions and have many expectations placed upon them by faculty, staff, students, and other departments and offices in and outside of the college. It is important for an administrative assistant to be able to collaborate with the department chair to continually define both the expectations and limitations of the role. I value a department chair who supports me by soliciting my input as well as listening to my concerns and challenges in the position. I feel supported when I am comfortable raising a question or concern with them because I know they will listen to me and we will work together toward a solution.

Additionally, part of a department chair’s support comes from being cognizant of the different systems an administrative assistant may work within, particularly compared to faculty. For example, the administrative assistant’s calendar of responsibilities does not necessarily align with the faculty schedule. Oftentimes, the deadline for the administrative assistant is much earlier than faculty expect, which makes coordinating and finalizing details challenging. Frequently, the numerous details and steps required for these deadlines and responsibilities take additional time and effort for everyone. A department chair needs to be cognizant of the multiple calendars and requirements in order to mediate between them to best serve the department. I feel supported and valued when I know that the department chair has incorporated my needs and calendar into the larger departmental organization and planning.

Overall, one of the greatest challenges an administrative assistant experiences is when the expectations and values of the faculty or other staff do not align with the expectations of the administrative assistant’s position. Like differing calendars, this disconnect seems to occur most when the administrative assistant needs to follow larger University of Denver policies, deadlines, and systems and the faculty are – understandably – focused on the needs of their program or an individual student. In general, administrative assistants want to support faculty members’ needs, but they need to be able to do it within the larger University of Denver system. When these sorts of situations arise, I value a department chair who listens to concerns and points from all sides of the conversation and collaborates with all of us to determine the best solution for the specific situation. Sometimes that means clarifying the necessity of the larger DU process, sometimes it is finding workarounds within the system, and sometimes the problem is the system itself. When it is the system itself, the department chair is the one to take the issue up the ladder and advocate for a systemic change.

Another challenge administrative assistants and department chairs encounter is navigating faculty discussions regarding clear departmental policy and procedures. In my experience, faculty tend to focus on the larger picture and fundamental concerns for the program. While these discussions are valuable and necessary for the department, the administrative assistant’s role is generally more concerned with details regarding practices and policies — the “how” compared to the “why.” The challenge for department chairs is to mediate these two foci, oftentimes by navigating faculty discussions toward clear details and practices when the situation requires them. After a decision or policy has been decided, the department chair needs to hold the department and its faculty to the decision. Sometimes students and faculty might come to the administrative assistant for clarifications or changes to the policy, and the administrative assistant needs to be able to rely on the department chair to clarify and enforce the department’s decision or decide if the conversation needs to be revisited.

In the end, an administrative assistant needs a department chair who wants to collaborate with them by listening to and supporting them. I find it is a team effort, with both parties supporting each other as they work together to serve their department.