The chair position is essential for implementing progressive changes in higher education institutions. However, the position has been unattractive to many faculties due to its ambiguity and the limited training chairs receive prior to assuming the office. Chairs must balance the dual responsibilities of managing faculty and student affairs who they support and evaluate as they implement the mandates from higher administration. Similarly, they shuttle between their managerial roles and faculty roles while balancing work-life demands. Hence, the purpose of this paper was to explore the managerial approaches of chairs in the USA who were serving in departments in the field of educational leadership to learn how they balance their various responsibilities. Fifteen chairs who are members of the University Council for Educational Administration (UCEA) were interviewed for this study. The theory of liminality was used to understand how chairs serve and manage multiple dimensions of their role and beyond. Overall, the performance of chairs in the study was enhanced by four themes including (a) managing the molecule, (b) people work vs. paperwork, (c) leadership qualities enhance performance, and (d) possessing academic seniority. Based on the findings, we recommend three major support areas for chairs that include providing mentorship opportunities for chairs, advancing leadership role models for chairs, and initiating formal trainings for leadership development.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Abele, L. (2013). The associate professor as chairs. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2013/03/27/if-you-must-appoint-associate-professor-chair-essay
Armstrong, D. E., & Woloshyn, V. E. (2017). Exploring the tensions and ambiguities of university department chairs. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 47(1), 97–113.
Barge, J. K., & Musambira, G. W. (1992). Turning points in chair–faculty relationships. Journal of Applied Communications, 20(1), 54–77.
Bengtsson, M. (2016). How to plan and perform a qualitative study using content analysis. Nursing Plus Open, 2(1), 8–14.
Benoit, P., & Graham, S. (2005). Leadership excellence: constructing the role of department chair. Academic Leadership: The Online Journal, 3(1) Retrieved from http://www.academicleadership.org/volume3/issue1/index.html.
Berdrow, I. (2010). King among kings: understanding the role and responsibilities of the department chair in higher education. Educational Management and Leadership, 38(4), 499–514. https://doi.org/10.1177/1741143210368146.
Bess, J. L., & Dee, J. R. (2008). Understanding college and university organization: theories for effective policy and practice. Volume I – The state of the system. Volume II: Dynamics of the system. Sterling, VA: Stylus publishing.
Bolden, R., Gosling, J., O’Brien, A., Peters, K., Ryan, M., & Haslam, A. (2012). Academic leadership: changing conceptions, identities and experiences in UK higher education. Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, 1-60. Retrieved from https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/bitstream/handle/10871/15098/academic_leadership_v1_19312.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y
Bolden, R., Petrov, G., & Gosling, J. (2008). Developing collective leadership in higher education - final report. (project report) London, U.K. Leadership Foundation for Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.lfhe.ac.uk/protected/bolden.pdf
Bolman, L. G., & Deal, T. E. (2017). Reframing organizations: artistry, choice, and leadership (6th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Brann, J., & Emmet, T. A. (1972). The academic department or division chairman: a complex role. Detroit, MI: Belamp Publications.
Brown, F. W., & Moshavi, D. (2002). Herding academic cats: faculty reactions to transformational and contingent reward leadership by department chairs. Journal of Leadership Studies, 8(1), 79–93.
Bryman, A. (2007). Effective leadership in higher education: a literature review. Studies in Higher Education, 32(6), 693–710. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075070701685114.
Bryman, A., & Lilley, S. (2009). Leadership researchers on leadership in higher education. Leadership, 5(3), 331–346. https://doi.org/10.1177/1742715009337764.
Buller, J. (2012). The essential department chair: a comprehensive desk reference (2nd ed.). New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.
Cipriano, R. E., & Riccardi, R. L. (2016). The department chair: a nine-year study. The Department Chair, 27(1), 16–18.
Cervino, J. D. (2018). Department chairs’ research-related roles and responsibilities at a public research university (unpublished doctoral dissertation). Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama.
Cilliers, F., & Pienaar, J. W. (2014). The career psychological experiences of academic department chairpersons at a South African university. Southern African Business Review, 18(3), 22–45.
Czech, K., & Forward, G. (2010). Leader communication: faculty perceptions of the department chair. Communication Quarterly, 58(4), 431–457.
Cook-Sather, A. (2006). Newly betwixt and between: revising liminality in the context of a teacher preparation program. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 37(2), 110–127.
Creswell, J. W. (2013a). Qualitative inquiry research design: choosing among five approaches. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.
Creswell, J. W. (2013b). Research design: qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Creswell, J. W., Wheeler, D. W., Seagren, A. T., Egly, N. J., & Beyer, K. D. (1990). The academic chairperson’s handbook. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903). The souls of black folk. New York, NY: Dover Publications.
Etikan, I., Musa, S. A., & Alkassim, R. S. (2016). Comparison of convenience sampling and purposive sampling. American Journal of Theoretical and Applied Statistics, 5(1), 1–4.
Flarherty, C. (2016). Forgotten chairs. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/12/01/new-study-suggests-training-department-chairs-woefully-inadequate-most-institutions
Fusch, P. I., & Ness, L. R. (2015). Are we there yet? Data saturation in qualitative research. The Qualitative Report, 20(9), 1408–1416.
Gmelch, W. H., & Burns, J. S. (1994). Sources of stress for academic department chairpersons. Journal of Educational Administration, 32(1), 79–94.
Gmelch, W. H. (2004). The department chair's balancing acts. New Directions for Higher Education, 2004(126), 69–84.
Gmelch, W. H. (2006). Stress management strategies for academic leaders. Effective Practices for Academic Leaders, 1(1), 1–16.
Gmelch, W. H. (2011a). Assisting your new dean's transition. The Department Chair, 22(1), 20–29.
Gmelch, W. H., & Miskin, V. D. (2011). Department chair leadership skills. Madison, WI: Atwood Publications.
Gmelch, W. H. (2011b). Typology of department chairs: The case of the swivel chair. The Department Chair, 22(2), 1–3.
Gmelch, W. H., & Buller, J. L. (2015). Building academic leadership capacity: a guide to best practices. John Wiley & Sons.
Gonaim, F. (2016). A department chair: a life guard without a life jacket. Higher Education Policy, 29(2), 272–286.
Gordon, B. G., Stockard, J. W., & Williford, H. N. (1991). The perceived and expected roles and responsibilities of departmental chairpersons in schools of education as determined by teaching faculty. Education, 112(1), 176–182.
Gumport, P. J. (2012). Strategic thinking in higher education research. In M. N. Bastedo (Ed.), The Organization of Higher Education: Managing colleges in a new era (pp. 18–41). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Harris, J., Martin, B. N., & Agnew, W. (2004). The characteristics, behaviors, and training of effective educational/leadership chairs. The changing face(s) of educational leadership: UCEA at the crossroads paper presented at the conference of the University Council for Educational Administration. November 11–14, Kansas City, Missouri.
Heading, D., & Loughlin, E. (2018). Lonergan's insight and threshold concepts: students in the liminal space. Teaching in Higher Education, 23(6), 657–667. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2017.1414792.
Higgerson, M. L., & Joyce, T. A. (2007). Effective leadership communication: a guide for department chairs and deans for managing difficult situations and people. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing.
Jenkins, K. (2016). Your to-do list as chair. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/article/Your-To-Do-List-as-Chair/237052.
Jones, J. P. (2017). The challenges of a new department chair: success despite reality. Academic Leadership Journal, 2(3), 5–14.
Knight, P. T., & Trowler, P. R. (2000). Department-level cultures and the improvement of learning and teaching. Studies in Higher Education, 25(1), 69–83. https://doi.org/10.1080/030750700116028.
Knight, W. H., & Holen, M. C. (1985). Leadership and the perceived effectiveness of department chairpersons. Journal of Higher Education, 56(1), 677–690.
Lehfeldt, E. A. (2015). Should I be the next chair? Retrieved from https://chroniclevitae.com/news/969-should-i-be-the-next-chair.
Maxwell, J. A. (2012). Qualitative research design: an interactive approach. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Miles, M. B., Huberman, A. M., & Saldaña, J. (2014). Qualitative data analysis: a methods sourcebook. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.
Moses, I., & Roe, E. (1990). Heads and chairs: managing academic departments. St Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press.
Morris, T. L., & Laipple, J. S. (2015). How prepared are academic administrators? Leadership and job satisfaction within US research universities. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 37(2), 241–251. https://doi.org/10.1080/1360080X.2015.1019125.
Palinkas, L. A., Horwitz, S. M., Green, C. A., Wisdom, J. P., Duan, N., & Hoagwood, K. (2015). Purposeful sampling for qualitative data collection and analysis in mixed method implementation research. Administration and Policy in Mental Health, 42(5), 533–544.
Patton, M. Q. (2002). Qualitative research and evaluation methods. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.
Pennsylvania State University. (2020). Director and professor-in-charge appointments for 2019–2020. Retrieved from https://ed.psu.edu/internal/director-and-coordinator-appointments
Pontefract, D. (2014). Leadership in liminal times. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2014/10/leadership-in-liminal-times.
Purnamasari, A. V. (2015). Beyond tenured: analysis of the influence of department chair role conflict, stress, job satisfaction and their likelihood to serve for another term (unpublished doctoral dissertation). Ames, IA: Iowa State University.
Rantatalo, O., & Lindberg, O. (2018). Liminal practice and reflection in professional education: police education and medical education. Studies in Continuing Education, 40(3), 351–366. https://doi.org/10.1080/0158037X.2018.1447918.
Rhodes, S. J., & Lees, N. D. (2016). What deans expect from chairs. The Department Chair, 26(3), 3–4.
Rutherford, V., & Pickup, I. (2015). Negotiating liminality in higher education: formal and informal dimensions of the student experience as facilitators of quality. In A. Curaj, L. Matei, R. Pricopie, J. Salmi, & P. Scott (Eds.), The European higher education area (pp. 703–723). Cham: Springer.
Smith, R. (2002). The role of the university head of department: a survey of two British universities. Educational Management Administration and Leadership, 30(3), 293–312.
Smith, R. (2005). Departmental leadership and management in chartered and statutory universities. Educational Management Administration and Leadership, 33(4), 449–464.
Straley, T. H., Sward, M. P., & Scott, J. W. (2005). Leading the mathematical sciences department: a resource for chairs. Washington, DC: Mathematical Association of America.
Su, X., Johnson, J., & Bozeman, B. (2015). Gender diversity strategy in academic departments: exploring organizational determinants. Higher Education, 69(5), 839–858.
Taggart, G. (2015). Department chair advice on teaching and research at US research universities. Innovative Higher Education, 40(5), 443–454.
Thornton, K., Walton, J., Wilson, M., & Jones, L. (2018). Middle leadership roles in universities: holy grail or poisoned chalice. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 40(3), 208–223. https://doi.org/10.1080/1360080X.2018.1462435.
Turner, V. (1969). The forest of symbols: aspects of Ndembu ritual. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Van Gennep, A. (1960). The rites of passage. London, UK: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Wharton, A. S., & Estevez, M. (2014). Department chairs’ perspectives on work, family, and gender: pathways for transformation. Gender Transformation in the Academy, 19, 131–150.
Williams, J. R. (2007). The conceptualization of leadership and leadership development by academic department heads in colleges of agriculture at land grant institutions: a qualitative study (unpublished doctoral dissertation). Stillwater, OK: Oklahoma State University.
Ward, K., & Wolf-Wendel, L. (2012). Academic motherhood: how faculty manage work and family. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Wolverton, M., Gmelch, W. H., Wolverton, M. L., & Sarros, J. C. (1999). A comparison of department chair tasks in Australia and the United States. Higher Education, 38(3), 333–350.
Young, M. D. (2018). Who we are. University council for educational administration (UCEA). Retrieved from http://www.ucea.org/2014/08/13/who-we-are/
Zach, L. (2006). Using a multiple-case studies design to investigate the information-seeking behavior of arts administrators. Library Trends, 55(1), 4–21.
We, Drs. Sydney Freeman, Jr. and Ibrahim M. Karkouti would like to dedicate this manuscript in the memory of Dr. Kelly Ward (posthomonously) due to her untimely passing during the development of this manuscript. We would like to thank her husband Gene Solomon for giving us persmission to continue this manuscript to completion. We would also like to thank the editors and reviewers for their feedback as their suggestions have made the article stronger. Lastly, we would like to thank Dr. Linda Sierra Hagedorn for her critical and substantive feedback on revisions of this manuscript.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Freeman, S., Karkouti, I.M. & Ward, K. Thriving in the midst of liminality: perspectives from department chairs in the USA. High Educ 80, 895–911 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-020-00521-6