research Department chairs bear a great deal of responsibility for handling grants and contracts, as well as many other administrative tasks. But while chairs usually have strong educational or research backgrounds, most have minimal formal administrative training. Some institutions seek individuals with experience in the position at other colleges, while some prefer to promote from within on a rotational basis. Regardless, almost all chairs learn their new duties as they go.

The suggestions below apply to all chairs, and should be especially useful to individuals who are new to the position or who are considering department administration in the future.

Know your faculty's needs. Your junior faculty members have less experience in the grantsmanship game, and will need a disproportionate share of your time. If you can recall your own concerns during the various stages of your research career, you should have little trouble understanding the needs and wants of your faculty.

Keep in mind, however, that the research arena's demands on faculty members do change over time. Staying abreast of agency modifications to the programmatic and administrative requirements on grants and contracts, and communicating the changes to those in your charge, are a big help to busy researchers.

Learn your responsibilities. A chair's duties are complex and often encompass areas in which they will need to gain expertise. Standard responsibilities affecting the research enterprise include space allocation, regulatory compliance, personnel allocation, managing and supporting departmental administrative staff, and budget oversight.

Those of you who were not promoted from within should also be aware that expectations vary greatly from institution to institution. Therefore, speak with those who can help you define the scope of your duties. These may include your dean, chairs in other departments, and, if available, your predecessor.

Know your weaknesses. As soon as you have inventoried your responsibilities, perform a second inventory of areas in which you may need assistance. Then enlist the help of resident experts in those areas so you can begin to learn some of their craft, and recognize that these experts may be where you least expect to find them. For example, clerical staff, though often underappreciated, routinely know the ins and outs of getting things done better than anyone else on campus.

Appreciate your signature's authority. You will learn very early that just about everything requires that you sign it, usually right now! Avoid the temptation to rubber-stamp your signature to move the pile along. New chairs commonly fail to grasp that signatures on proposals are promises made by the department. Though some can be fairly inexpensive, such as guarantees that certain faculty and staff members can work on a project, others are more pricey—cost sharing or paying for expensive space renovations, for example. Signatures on other documents indicate that an action is in accordance with the regulations that govern a grant or contract. Always know what you're signing or be certain a trusted individual has reviewed the document in detail before you sign it.

Keep your eye on the budget. However your budget is configured, remember to keep track of all the ways you are spending it. If you say yes to every request for cost sharing, you probably won't be able to afford to develop the new programs you have planned. An award you didn't expect to get may come through—helping you develop a new program but requiring you to fully support it after the first five years.

A good plan to avoid overextending is to assume that funding agencies will require you to provide everything included in your proposal. Not every proposal your faculty submits will be funded, so you can overcommit your cost-sharing budget somewhat, but do so cautiously!

There is no doubt that department chairs have one of the most demanding jobs in the university, but in return, an effective chair has the opportunity to make a tremendous difference to the school, the department, and its faculty members.

Cheryl-Lee Howard is president of the National Council of University Research Administrators and assistant dean for Homewood Research Administration at Johns Hopkins University. Douglas M. Green is chair of ASEE's Engineering Research Council and associate dean for research at Johns Hopkins. The opinions in this article are solely their own.


The ASEE Engineering Research Council Workshop and Forum will be conducted February 21–23
in Arlington, VA. For program and registration information, see the ERC Web site at

return to PRISM online