Dean Chronicles: Transitioning from Department Chair. Part 1: Becoming a Chair

Before reporting to my first day as Dean, I wanted to reflect upon my time as Department Chair, a very fast 7 years, from 2015-2022. I look back with fondness for my colleagues, pride at accomplishments–almost all of which were collaborative, gratitude for dealing with challenges, and more than a little astonishment that any of it happened at all.

I had been faculty at Kennesaw State University since 2005; it was my first academic job after getting my Ph.D. at LSU. I had led a pretty typical academic life–going to conferences (and everything that entails–which is a lot), stressing out over publications, trying to write, and figuring out how to live this new life. I never thought about going into administration. Like many women, I fell into it rather than pursue it, first as a Program Coordinator and then as an Assistant Chair. These were faculty leadership positions that amounted to around 40% of my workload, with teaching and research rounding out my job.

In 2015, a mentor (one of many) and colleague encouraged me to apply for Interim Chair of the Department of Educational Leadership. I chuckled (scoffed?) as I counted off the reasons why I couldn’t consider it: 1) Educational Leadership is not my field–curriculum theory is; 2) I don’t know anything about running a department (Assistant Chairs do the schedule and odd jobs, generally); 3) stories I had heard from the department were not flattering–they were a tough bunch! She nodded as I talked and then asked me again to think about it. The department had not had a permanent chair for over 2 years. The punchline: my colleague was serving as Interim Chair at the time she asked me to consider it. Reason number 4–chairs couldn’t get out fast enough.

What would it hurt to write a query letter and let the search committee see my cv, I thought. It turned out to be an easy letter to write. I wrote about my qualifications and what I my responsibilities as Assistant Chair. The Search Chair called and said they would like to talk to me. Those were her exact words, “They would like to talk with you.” So, I went over one afternoon to talk with them. No, the thought that it was an interview never crossed my mind. It’s true. But that is exactly what it was, an interview, which I had absolutely not prepared for. Turned out to be like writing the letter–I just talked about what I had actually done. The committee was positive and energetic, which fueled my own energy. The Dean called the next week and offered me the job. I had nailed it with a single question: If you are successful, will you apply for the permanent Chair position? I gave a quintessential political yet honest answer without even thinking. I’m here because I want to be your interim chair, and I’m going to do the best job I can at that. And I meant it.

The Department Search Committee had already been formed to search for the permanent Chair, which meant that it was going on while I was doing the job. This can feel a little awkward, since there are details and reviews that weren’t appropriate for me to be privy to. I was thoroughly enjoying the job. I remember walking out of the building grateful and happy that I would do it again the next day. Yes, I thought about applying for Chair. I wanted to keep doing the job. This was the happiest and most gratified I had been in 10 years. I liked administration.

I did not apply until the last minute. I figured the pool of applicants would be full of Educational Leaders who actually held credentials in the field. And, at that time, there were no internal candidates who were interested. None of them wanted to chair themselves–which is not uncommon–chairing is hard! Remember my points above? I heard stories of altercations and grievances. One faculty member was notorious across campus for being challenging to work with. Programs were out of date, and doctoral student files had not been audited for years. My partner and I created a spreadsheet one Saturday afternoon just so we could find out how many were writing dissertations. We discovered that about 8 out of 10 had the same dissertation chair. Yet, I kept pondering why things seemed to be flowing pretty smoothly for me.

The reason was the people. They were smart, hard-working, and kind scholars. They were leaders, and leaders sometimes have strong personalities. Did the department have some challenges? Of course. Did they need what I had to offer? I believe so, and I never asked anything of them that they did not rise to the occasion. I developed new mentors, Educational Leaders, who taught me that from the outside looking in, leadership looks different, unfamiliar. I formed my own opinion of the department–and a deep admiration–as I began to think of them as “my faculty.” In return, they showed me grace helped me develop as a leader. The Department of Educational Leadership became a sanctuary for me during difficult times, and I am grateful. That is why I am writing them this love note.

A few days before the search closed, one of the faculty members, who would become another mentor, and who also was on the Search Committee, asked me if I planned to apply. It’s due this week, he said. He gave me a look that signaled he would like to give me more information, but trust him, I needed to apply. I later found out that the pool was pretty shallow. I turned out to be a more effective Educational Leader than candidates in that field. I’m going to be honest: that felt pretty good. I wrote my letter, which, again was easy since I was doing the job.

This time, when I got a call to interview, I prepared for it. I had the advantage of being a successful internal candidate. I took the tough questions and answered them powerfully. I got the job, and this time, I did not fall into it. That’s what leaders do.

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