On being a good chairperson

I was Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Biology at Indiana University, Bloomington when our department chairperson decided to move to a different university.  I had zero interest in becoming chairperson; I was an avid researcher, having just completed my term with an NIH Research Career Development Award, and it was clear that taking on such a major administrative position would not be good for a research career. However, a close friend and colleague of mine convinced me to accept the job when offered. I decided right away that it would be bad for me and bad for the department for me to kill my research career.  So I very deliberately tried to set up my new duties to ensure my research would be minimally harmed.

Initially I decided to set up my days so that all department business would occur in the mornings, with afternoons reserved for research.  I had a separate chairperson office far from my lab. This didn’t work at all; I quickly decided to use only my lab office and to make myself available whenever someone needed me. Surprisingly, people mostly respected my need to spend time with the lab.

I decided I would have to give up classroom teaching if I wanted to do both research and chairing well, and I stuck to this through this chairpersonship and three more over the following 25 years.

I organized the department so that it was divided into three subject areas: Molecular, Cell and Genetics; Microbiology; Ecology and Evolution.  Each of these semi-independent areas had its own Director, and this took many of the responsibilities off the Chairperson.  In addition, it allowed each of the areas to be self-directed and hence to thrive.

Most important: I promoted a senior post-doc in my lab to be a lieutenant, to co-run the lab with me.  I could not have succeeded either in research or as department chairperson without this.

Before accepting the Chair position, I bargained with the Dean to provide enough resources to allow both the Department and the lab to succeed.  These funds were NEVER mixed; they were provided explicitly separate and remained separate.

In the end I gained a lot of experience being department chairperson, both in two undergraduate institutions (Indiana and Colorado) and two departments at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Through all of this, I continued to succeed in research.  I was always supported by at least one NIH grant, sometimes more. I loved the research I was doing, and would never have been willing to sacrifice it for the job of department chairperson. So I was careful to do the chairing in such a way as to allow my research to thrive.

I believe I could provide lots of advice on how to do the chairperson job well, but instead I will just touch on a few highlights that served me well, and served my departments well.  In any case, there are several good books published on the subject that offer lots of additional advice. 

Before I proffer advice, please note that I wasn’t always able to stick to the best course myself.  Really, nobody is. The job of chairperson is an interesting one; it provides an unending series of challenges. It is quite often very difficult. However, don’t let the inevitable failures weigh too heavily on your shoulders.  Do the best job you can, but don’t take it too heavily.  (That’s actually reasonably good advice for everything one does.)  If you love the job, you’ll do much better at it and love it more: a positive feedback loop.

  1. View yourself as a servant of the faculty, of the administration and of the students. Do not act as a dictator.
    1. You are a manager, especially a personnel manager.
    2. Do not fall into the trap of valuing your own opinions above those of others.
    3. When making decisions, argue for your point, listen to those of others, and then abide by the will of the majority. This will result in mostly better decisions, and the rest of those involved will feel empowered, resulting in peace and increased productivity.
    4. Keep the best interests of the department in mind when making every decision. Never make a decision in your own best interest when that can be perceived as contrary to the best interest of the department.
    5. Look at the decisions the Dean makes from the Dean’s point of view. Then convince the Dean that the best interests of the College or School align with the best interests of the department.  When they aren’t aligned, don’t try to argue that they are. No department, no matter how good, can thrive in a mediocre place. Keeping the other departments thriving is in the best interest of your department.
    6. Do not always argue for bigger and bigger shares of the pie. Argue for what the department needs and no more. You will retain credibility on the grander stage.
    7. Do not always sing the praise of your department to heads of other departments.  That accomplishes little and it’s obnoxious.
  2. Behave honorably
    1. If you are always honest, people learn that, so they believe you.  The more credibility you have, the more others respect and like you. This results in cooperation without resentment.
    2. If criticism is correct, accept it publicly. Everyone already knows you’re not infallible. This convinces them you’re also honest.
  3. Getting the most from everybody
    1. View conflicts from the point of view of each party. You are surrounded by unusually intelligent people. None of them is always wrong.
    2. Be aware of your own hidden agendas. Never let them override the best interests of the department.
    3. A staff that feels empowered does a better job.  Trust people to make their own decisions as often as possible and do it publicly.
    4. When a compromise is forced (and this happens all the time), or a decision is made that is totally against someone’s wishes, lots of extra communication is required.  Work hard to ensure that the loser sees the issue from the winner’s point of view. There is no such thing as too much communication.
    5. Don’t make enemies unnecessarily, but don’t shrink from making decisions in the best interest of the department just because it creates an enemy. Communicate openly with the offended party to ameliorate the effect.
    6. People not on top need to be reminded they are nevertheless valuable.
    7. Reward high productivity and good service with public appreciation.  Love is not too strong a word.
    8. However, don’t shrink from telling people when they fail to meet expectations, but do this in private.
    9. Unspoken resentment against a leader makes them ineffectual.  You can’t lead if nobody’s following. When you can’t avoid doing things people resent, they need an opportunity to express themselves in your presence. Force the issue if necessary by bringing it up yourself.  Hidden resentment has much more destructive power than when it is out in the open.
  4. Miscellaneous additional advice
    1. Don’t let your work pile up or it will bury you. When it comes in hot and heavy, work harder. 
    2. Always keep a portion of your time available for anyone to come see you.  The more time you are available to people, the happier they will be.  Maximize communication. When possible, skip the email and telephone, and meet face-to-face instead.  This will minimize miscommunication and make people feel valued.
    3. Put out all fires as a first priority, but don’t stop there. Spend time thinking about new directions the department ought to be taking.
    4. Excellence is a top departmental value.
    5. Never believe anything flattering. It may be heartfelt, but it may not.  People will certainly try to buy good will and favors with flattery.
    6. You probably have enemies in the department, or at least people who don’t like you and whom you do not like.  Be completely fair with them.
    7. You no doubt have good friends in the department.  Do not let friendship with you have value for them, other than the value of the friendship itself.  Being even-handed will enhance your reputation and increase your ability to serve the whole department.
    8. Empathy is the most important attribute of a good chairperson. Try always to see every issue from others’ perspective.  If you can see where they are coming from, you can see all sides of the issue and therefore make the best decisions.
    9. Look deeply. Generally, decisions you make will directly affect those most proximal to the issue.  But most issues also touch many others and careful consideration of all affected will lead to the best outcomes.
    10. At the level of a small organization like a university department, democracy works well. Make decisions that the members have voted for.  They will feel empowered and the decisions will usually be better.  Even in med school departments, which are often run by executive fiat, I have found that making important decisions democratically is the way to go.
    11. Beware of your ego. If you ever seem like you are serving yourself at the expense of the department, you will lose a lot of credibility and, therefore, support.  You may occasionally have to make decisions that serve you, but do not obviously serve the department. That is the most important time to over-communicate with everyone about why you made that choice.
    12. There is no such thing as too much communication.

Tom Blumenthal, Professor emeritus

Department of Biology, Indiana University, Bloomington (1973-1996)

Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics, University of Colorado School of Medicine, Denver (1997-2006)

Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, University of Colorado, Boulder (2006-2012)

Linda Crnic Institute for Down Syndrome, University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, Denver (2012-2018)