Exploring the Tensions and Ambiguities of University Department Chairs

By Armstrong, Denise E.; Woloshyn, Vera E. | The Canadian Journal of Higher Education, March 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Exploring the Tensions and Ambiguities of University Department Chairs


Armstrong, Denise E., Woloshyn, Vera E., The Canadian Journal of Higher Education


In most Canadian postsecondary institutions, faculty are encouraged and expected to serve in a variety of leadership capacities, including that of department chair. Department chairs represent the largest administrative sector in higher education, and the quality and well-being of academic units are often attributed to their effectiveness (Normore & Brooks, 2014; Wolverton, Ackerman, & Holt, 2005). Worldwide, many universities are facing increased public scrutiny and are undergoing systemic changes consistent with corporate cultures that privilege marketization, efficiency, entrepreneurship, and executive-style leadership (De Boer, Geodegebuure, & Meek, 2010; Normore & Brooks, 2014). The interpenetration of business and educational values has created new challenges and ambiguities for middle managers such as department chairs, who are tasked with implementing new institutional policies, procedures, and directives while administering and representing their units (American Council on Education, 2014; Block, 2014; Carroll & Wolverton, 2004).

While substantial advances have been made in understanding department chairs' duties and role expectations (Bryman, 2007; Czech & Forward, 2010), this research originates primarily from the US. Furthermore, few studies have focused on the perspectives of role incumbents (for exceptions, see Acker, 2012; Berdrow, 2010; Boyko, 2009; Floyd, 2012), despite calls for such analyses (Boyko & Jones, 2010). This is especially true for studies exploring the role enactment of the department chair within Canadian postsecondary institutions, where the position differs from its US and international counterparts in terms of its configuration as a largely temporary, service-oriented role, typically within a negotiated collective agreement (Boyko & Jones, 2010). This article reports on the lived experiences of 10 department chairs at one Canadian university and the tensions and ambiguities they encountered in enacting their roles. We begin by drawing from U.S. and international studies to provide a brief overview of department chairs' roles and related challenges. We then review the research context associated with this study, provide an analysis of the relevant findings, discuss associated implications, and make recommendations for supporting department chairs.

Department Chairs' Role Challenges

It is well documented that the transition from a faculty position to department chair is a challenging yet important one (Gmelch, 2004; Jenkins, 2009). These difficulties, in part, reflect the paradoxical nature of moving from a co-equal to a managerial position (Armstrong, 2009) and the ambiguities inherent in department chairs' dual roles as administrators and academics (Carrol & Wolverton, 2004). As the person in the middle, department chairs are accountable to senior administrators while simultaneously representing their faculty, student, staff, and departmental interests (Carrol & Wolverton, 2004; Gmelch, 2004). These boundary-spanning and brokering functions are complicated further by institutional demands to complete numerous managerial tasks (e.g., developing structures, budgets, schedules, policies, and procedures) while providing leadership in terms of developing department culture and vision, nurturing faculty development, and fostering engagement (Berdrow, 2010; Bryman, 2007; Smith, Rollins, & Smith, 2012). Furthermore, chairs are often caught in the political currents between senior administrators, faculty members, and unions, who often differ regarding the relative importance of these roles and how they should be enacted. For example, Gordon, Stockard, and Williford (1991) concluded that faculty members tend to evaluate chairs based on their ability to engage in and support research in their units, motivate others, and provide advocacy and advisement. Conversely, senior administrators increasingly are pressuring chairs to assume positions of oversight and "to adopt 'professional' management approaches and attitudes" (Meek et al. …

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