Intensified Leadership Challenges
In response to the first research question, crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, intensify leadership challenges, add complexity to the work of academic leadership, and contribute to a seemingly endless list of new challenges for department chairs. As one chairperson noted, “Every aspect of my job from personnel management to teaching to research to budgeting has been impacted. I think from the larger picture it highlighted that the department administrator is the key linchpin for communication in both directions. Directives coming from above need to be interpreted at the local level and concerns from the trenches need to get to upper administration.”
Many of the chairs acknowledged their desire to create meaningful opportunities for faculty and staff engagement in response to the pandemic; yet the realities of a socially distanced or fully online workplace create barriers. As one individual pointed out, “We’re in the ‘people business,’ and being visible, accessible, human, humane, and responsive across a variety of forms … is critical to the job. All of this is all the more important now, and yet difficult or impossible.” Many of the survey respondents pondered, how do you keep “the personality of the department with everyone dispersed?”
A number of chairpersons also acknowledged the difficulties that lie ahead for academic leaders. For example, as one of them shared, “To be frank, I am in an impossible position, and have no real way out of what will likely be an intensely painful and stressful period.” Or, as another respondent offered, “Virtual leadership is an entirely different animal especially during unprecedented transformative change in higher ed and people in various forms of crisis as a consequence of the change and the virus and life in general. Leading toward the future is also next to impossible when the future changes day by day.”
One chairperson noted the ways in which the pandemic “has taken a hard job and made it much harder.” In summarizing the volume of current leadership challenges, the issues for which chairs maintain responsibility include the following items, which are loosely organized around task- and relationship-centered challenges, along with leadership-centered challenges that tend to straddle both the task and relationship dimensions involved in navigating periods of uncertainty and engaging others in a collective process of learning. Although these categories are not mutually exclusive, they illustrate the widespread impact on the department chair as manager, leader, advocate, and source of emotional support.
Addressing consuming administrative overhead of the role of the department chair.
Everything takes more time, “even the most mundane of the clerical chair duties.”
There is an additional level of meetings, most of which are conducted remotely, which creates a set of unique challenges.
Actively planning for the 2020–2021 academic year (e.g., course planning, academic planning, contingency planning).
Facilitating the pivot to fully online teaching and learning environments.
Ensuring continuity of research and protection of laboratories and research infrastructure.
For those with clinical responsibilities, ensuring appropriate patient care amid a pandemic.
Performing ongoing communication and advocacy with senior administration.
A need exists for increased active support of faculty, staff, and students, each of whom have unique needs.
Handling the impact on mental and emotional health of self and others.
Balancing the responsibilities of the chair with personal commitments and obligations.
Addressing gossip and misinformation.
Responsible for ensuring the safety of colleagues, students, and members of the community.
Engaging in meaningful virtual leadership and continuing to focus on departmental morale in a socially distanced environment.
Dealing with a greater level of uncertainty and a lack of clear information.
There is a need for effective and “balanced” communication.
There are concerns with budget freezes and reductions, and the uncertainty of future budget cuts and job furloughs.
Learning individually and collectively from the experience of the Spring 2020 pivot to fully online learning and teaching.
In direct response to RQ2, the collision of challenges facing institutions of higher education and those engaged in academic leadership require chairs to continually pivot to provide support for and address the needs of senior administrators, faculty and staff colleagues, and for some, graduate and undergraduate students within their departments. As one chair described the burden of responsibility, “I feel as though I now operate a 1-800 hotline answering questions all day long given the uncertainty people have about classes, teaching, research, grants, payroll, etc. It is truly exhausting.”
Respondents were asked to consider the ways in which they demonstrated leadership in their interactions with these multiple audiences during this period of sustained crisis. Beginning first with their engagement with senior administrators, department chairs highlighted the frequency of meetings with their deans, the need to advocate for the needs and interests of the department, and the dissemination of relevant information and strategies to inform university policies and practices. Additionally, chairs reflected on their efforts to instigate change, convey faculty questions and concerns, protect departmental budgets and resources, and sustain attention to issues of departmental and institutional importance, such as diversity and equity. As one person described their engagement with senior leadership during the crisis, “For the most part, I have tried to be a voice of calm and perspective during the crisis. At the Provost’s Office level and at the Dean/College level, they have contemplated and/or made decisions that seem a bit rash or not well thought out (or that seem to underestimate the disruption that the crisis has brought to everyday activities). So, I have been a bit more assertive in pushing back against some potential or actual decisions from upon high, and for the most part this action seems to have some positive influence.”
When asked to reflect on their leadership efforts when interacting with departmental colleagues, respondents offered a detailed list of strategies. Some of these strategies focused specifically on understanding the nature of the pandemic and sharing appropriate measures for keeping everyone safe, aiding faculty in the transition to online instruction, and supporting faculty and staff in addressing the short-term tasks at hand for the department. Others reacted to this question by highlighting the emotional support they provided to departmental colleagues, such as demonstrating flexibility and empathy, adding “Zoom happy hours” and “trivia nights” to connect with colleagues, supporting colleagues who were dealing with personally challenging situations. Their role as an emotional support was pronounced in the qualitative responses to the survey. One chair, for instance, described their role in “assuaging fears about job loss, bad teaching evaluations, and loss of research progress,” and another commented on the importance of “providing reassurance that our department can survive the consequences of the pandemic.”
Of all the responses shared by chairs, the most frequently mentioned approach for demonstrating leadership in their interactions with departmental colleagues during this crisis involved efforts to engage in meaningful communication in ways that went beyond normal circumstances. These communication practices included providing frequent updates, communicating openly and honestly about the situation, ensuring that colleagues felt heard, and conducting individual check-ins with each member of the department on a regular basis. As one chairperson described
In the early days of the crisis, I issued twice-daily bulletins outlining what I knew. The weeks following that dropped to once-daily and then occasional missives. I thought it was crucial that my colleagues would know enough information to make their own decisions. Typically, I would outline issues and then watch as they would come to reasonable conclusions. This meant that I had extraordinary buy-in from my colleagues, who shared the information and therefore almost inevitably shared in my decision-making. I also have worked to gather information from them about teaching and shared that data, in raw and in summary formats, with administrators as needed. I have found it particularly important to reach out to the many faculty who have special health issues—of 27 tenure-system faculty, 11 of them have such conditions, so it is crucial that I check in with them regularly to see if anything is needed or if they just need to run through ideas.
Another chair described the communication challenges presented by the absence of in-person interactions: “Teamwork is key in this kind of situation. That said, it’s very challenging to mobilize, cultivate, and keep intact a team through virtual interactions absent any in-person contact. Communication, engagement, empathy, nearly constant interaction in one form or another, are keys to cultivating the team. This includes engagement from micro issues like the personal/human implications of the outbreak and the macro issues of moving a curriculum 100% online.”
Respondents were also asked to consider the ways in which they demonstrated leadership in their interactions with students throughout the crisis. For some, engagement with students, particularly undergraduate students, was minimal. This was due to relying on others in the department who oversee direct student engagement, the desire to have students interact more directly with their faculty, or, in some cases, it is “less easy” given that “it’s been hectic.” For those who did engage directly with students, leadership activities included organizing mechanisms to provide summer funding and health coverage to graduate students, providing resources for online education, engaging with student leaders, adopting creative strategies to honor graduating students and recognize student accomplishments, advocating for student needs, and helping students to secure jobs and internships and “plan for a very uncertain future.” Department chairs also reflected on their ways of engaging in ongoing communication with students to gather input, provide updates, answer questions, and offer support and encouragement. As one chair described, “Just before the onset of the crisis, I began adding a ‘Chair’s Note’ to our weekly newsletter of dates and deadlines. Once the crisis was underway, I tried to use this as a place to convey empathy and compassion to students who were dealing with a rapidly changing situation, and to help students recognize how their instructors were also struggling with such changes. My goal was to build a mutual environment of empathy and compassion across the department.”
The liminality of the role of the chairperson causes one to engage in a multidimensional pivot in responding to the needs of these various audiences. This pivot requires academic leaders to engage in audience analysis and to adopt communication strategies that best meet one’s leadership goals. For example, as one person described this pivot, “Be cognizant of the fact that [senior administrators] may be operating with broader viewpoints and support their decisions as well as possible at the department level. Convey their decisions to department members, with appropriate level of sugar coating, so that those who may not be receptive feel obliged to abide by the decisions made for collective good.” Furthermore, this pivot demands that leaders attend to the individualized needs of the various stakeholders in one’s unit. As one chairperson highlighted, “Earlier this semester I sent every single faculty (42) and grad student (70) a quick message asking them how they were. About two-thirds of the faculty and half of the grad students answered me in substantial ways.” Finally, the multidirectional pivot for which chairs engaged during this crisis required individuals to provide frequent and ongoing updates that were accessible, transparent, supportive, and relevant. One chair described this effort as follows: “For the most part, I have sent regular calming/supportive messages to the department (all faculty, staff, and grad students) sharing with them as much non-confidential information about our current situation and likely future situations as I can.” And as another respondent indicated, “Trying to provide a consistently organized and calming tone about what is happening, leading by letting people know the department cares about their well-being, and trying to provide as much support as possible for new duties.”
Competing Perceptions of Higher Education Reinvention
The weight of renewal and reinvention in higher education rests on the shoulders of many across our institutions. Given the role they play in representing the interests of their faculty, chairs will likely be engaged in active ways in addressing reinvention efforts as institutions of higher education imagine their future in a post-COVID world.
When asked to assess current views of the post-crisis “reinvention” of higher education on a scale of 1 (strongly negative) to 5 (strongly positive), the results were divided, with 19 respondents viewing reinvention as either extremely or somewhat negative, 31 respondents viewing reinvention as either extremely or somewhat positive, and 31 respondents indicating a neither positive nor negative view.
For those who expressed a favorable view of reinvention, respondents described the opportunities for innovation, creativity, and growth that have been made possible due to the impact of the pandemic. Describing “necessity as the mother of invention,” one chairperson indicated the ways in which the pandemic “forced us into innovative models that otherwise would have taken years to implement.” As another chair noted, “Much of what is best about traditional higher education will still be valued, while at the same time, this unexpected circumstance is causing us to have new and innovative discussions.” A number of chairs reflected on the growing recognition of the value of online education and remote instruction, while also commenting on the “lack of in-person interactions [as] detrimental to the education of our students.” For some, the notion of crisis as a necessary corrective led them to posit a favorable view of reinvention. For example, according to one chairperson, “Higher education was in crisis before the pandemic. There are a lot of things we need to fix. Massive state underfunding, administrative bloat, obscene salaries paid to athletics, reliance on cheap contingent labor, and graduate programs which are training students for a market that really does not exist anymore. The pandemic has laid bare all sorts of inequalities, so we need to do some fundamental fixing. I am not sure we can, but I think the discussions are useful.”
The slow-moving and deliberative traditions of higher education have been called into question, and for chairs who reviewed reinvention in a favorable light, several acknowledged the ability to respond in a more agile and purposeful way to the challenges of the academy. As one individual noted, “Higher education ‘suffers’ from a large amount of inertia. Crises make us take stock and re-evaluate priorities. If a better understanding of priorities results from this crisis, and if we resolve to actively work toward satisfying the most important priorities, the resultant changes will end up being somewhat positive.” Recognizing the double-edged impact, another chair invoked the imagery of the punctuated equilibrium theory of evolution: “There are times or events that turn the world on its head after periods of relative calm. The calm periods lead to small incremental changes in the way we do business, but it is the catastrophic events that lead to rapid innovation. Unfortunately, those periods are ones in which there is loss and I believe that we will see a great deal of ‘radiation’ in higher ed, but also a lot of ‘extinction.’”
This idea of extinction, along with the many threats posed by the pandemic, led many chairs to critique views of reinvention. As one chair noted, “I did not think it needed reinvention. This seems like a b-school term for consultants.” Another individual described reinvention as a threat to liberal education: “The last decade of funding cuts have left public higher education fiscally exposed to such a crisis. The reinvention will be driven by fiscal concerns and not pedagogical or intellectual interests, and is sure to have more negative consequences than benefits. This crisis will provide a strong push further down the dubious path towards a mission of workforce development rather than a broad liberal education.” Reflecting on the financial impact of the crisis, one chair reflected on the ways in which “Budgets at public universities will likely be drastically affected by the economic disruption associated with the pandemic for years to come. My concern is that the ‘reinvention’ may amount to being asked to do more with less: fewer full-time faculty, more deferred maintenance, smaller investments in infrastructure, etc.” A negative view of reinvention seemed to align with a generally negative outlook of the state of affairs, which, as one respondent described, “Right now there is too much of a state of disarray to feel positive about the future direction in which we are headed.”
For many respondents, the shift to a fully online teaching, learning, and working environment led many to view reinvention in a more negative light. According to one respondent, “Online education falls well short of the quality education to which our students are accustomed.” Or, as another chair commented, “I am not opposed to some increase in the amount of remote teaching we do. But I think it is less than ideal, and I fear that this crisis will enable universities to increase remote teaching in ways that outstrip its pedagogical usefulness.” The sudden shift to a fully remote context led several chairs to question the value of making larger structural changes without considering the short-term and long-term impact of such decisions. For instance, one chair offered this poignant observation: “The solution of online teaching can only be accepted at this time of emergency and it is already presenting so many problems, from logistical issues to psychological concerns, let alone pedagogical difficulties. Given the predicted duration of the contagion, the [persistence of online teaching] may be a necessity, but it is certainly, in my view, a negative necessity, especially if it will encourage the academic world to support that technological path and downsize the conventional forms of teaching, with the risk of reducing the number of faculty members.”
Finally, for half of the respondents who provided a neutral rating of their view of the post-crisis reinvention of higher education, many reflected on the ambiguity and subjectivity of reinvention. For example, as one chair shared, “I have no idea at this point what on earth that will mean. If it means the further hollowing out of public investment in education, then reinvention will mean disaster. If it means that we can realize the importance of the university to the vibrancy of our country, and reinvest, then I think we might be able to reinvent in very important ways. But the temporary movement of instruction to remote models is not a reinvention. Don’t be silly.” Or, in highlighting the dual views of reinvention, one chair described the tension as follows: “I don’t know what to think of this. I think some who have long advocated for IMPROVING the quality of teaching and learning experiences are calling for using this pandemic as a timely opportunity to push all of us to more effectively orient ourselves to what we SHOULD have been doing all along (e.g., more active learning, experiential learning, greater use of backward design, flipped classrooms, greater intentionality, etc.). But, I also think some (particularly those who have been railing against the commercialization, corporatization, or neoliberalizing of higher education) think of the ‘reinvention’ of higher education in a very different way. And their cynical take on this ‘reinvention’ is a warning to us all to not allow these above economic trends to take further hold in our educational institution.” Finally, as many chairs commented, “it is too early to tell” and “there are currently far too many unknowns, recognizing that perspectives on reinvention will continue to evolve as institutions of higher education come to terms with the short- and long-term impact of the pandemic.”