Prism Magazine September 2001



Teaching Toolbox
Mission Almost Impossible

- By Linda Creighton

Running an engineering department can be one of the toughest jobs around. Those who've been on the hot seat offer advice on how to make it work.

It's there in black and white over and over again, in the manual of policies and procedures at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: If you're a student, faculty or administration member and you've got a problem or question: SEE YOUR DEPARTMENT HEAD. So where do you go for advice if you are the department head? Sorry, but you're on your own.

"Most people have no idea what they're stepping into," says Earll Murman, a former head of the department of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT. "We don't provide any training for faculty who take on administrative leadership roles."

Across the nation, engineering schools are filling the crucial posts of department head or department chair with promising academic stars or veteran faculty members who may or may not be well suited for the punishing demands of what may be the most rewarding, challenging and yet thankless job on American university campuses today. Being asked to head a department is something like the Groucho Marx joke about not wanting to belong to a club that would have you as a member. "You don't lobby for it," says Gil Emmert, department chair of engineering physics at the University of Wisconsin's School of Engineering for nine years. "It's said that if somebody wants to be department chair, he's automatically suspect."

The post is the key link between a university administration and its faculty and students in developing a vision and direction for the department. But trying to implement that vision means building consensus among those constituencies--a process that can quickly drag down even the loftiest of intentions.

And on a smaller scale, resolving disputes among staff and faculty is a big part of the job. Department heads are confronted with personnel problems that can be thorny unpleasant, including sexual harassment, alcoholism, and even suicide. Some can expose a university to litigation. "It's just part of the job," says MIT's Murman.

Dealing with promotions, denied tenure and layoffs may be even harder, department heads say. "You're creating tenure dossiers and promotion dossiers for people that you care about personally," says Sherra Kerns, former president of the National Electrical Engineering Department Heads Association--who spent five years as chair of the electrical and computer engineering department at Vanderbilt. "You know the name of their dog. You've been to their children's birthday parties. And you have to tell them that they will no longer be working at the institution."

Not only that, the demands are constant and the hours long. "Somebody said this was a half-time job," says Fred Mannering, chair of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington. "And that means every other minute." It's a part-time job of 60 to 90 hours a week, often cutting the heart out of a professor's teaching and research. "My research programs took a real hit," says Mike Meyer, until recently chair of civil and environmental engineering at Georgia Tech. "As department head in charge of a $20 million budget with 50 faculty, 60 staff and 1,200 students, I was managing a small business. You can't do that and teach and research."

And although they have the responsibilities of running a business, department heads don't have the latitude and resources of middle management in the world outside academia. Tenured faculty cannot be fired except for the most serious missteps. Incentives are few to entice professors or staff to take a new direction, with real budgetary decisions made above the rank of department chair. "The big management problem is you don't have a carrot and you don't have a stick," says Mannering of the University of Washington, who begins a new job this fall as department head of civil engineering at Purdue.

Experience Not Required

What kind of training or preparation do universities offer for such a uniquely demanding position? Virtually none. "It's a big weakness in the academic system that we don't provide any training for faculty who take on administrative leadership roles,” says MIT's Murman. ``Usually they haven't had any experience with personnel review or problem resolution.” Murman says his previous position as vice president of a small company gave him insight and direction, experience most academics lack.

David Irwin, chair of the electrical and engineering department at Auburn for 28 years, taught a workshop for new department heads at the annual NEEDHA meeting this year, which over 40 of the 200 conferees attended. An hour and a half of open discussion is not much more than warning them about what's ahead, says Irwin, and giving them a few tips. “I don't have a silver bullet.”

Why on earth, then, would anyone take this job? It certainly isn't for the money. At the University of Washington, Mannering's salary increased by $1,000 a month. At Stanford, mechanical engineering department chair Ron Hanson gets an extra $4,000 a year to manage 35 faculty members. Surprisingly, most department heads say that once they got their sea legs, it was immensely satisfying. “I felt I could make a difference,” says Meyer of Georgia Tech. “And I believe I did.”

They exercise enormous influence over hiring. “You bring about change from the bottom,'' says Hanson, who has served eight years as mechanical engineering chair at Stanford. ``It's hard to change older faculty, so I've found it much more rewarding to hire and work with a junior faculty. They really are our future.'' At MIT, Murman hired about three new faculty a month in his new post, choosing about two thirds of the current faculty.

Department heads also can update curriculum. Mike Meyer, former chair of civil and environmental engineering at Georgia Tech, revamped the undergraduate and graduate curriculum, built three new buildings and raised $18 million for civil engineering endowment.

Ed Lazowska, who is about to leave his post as chair of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington, says he relished seeing students soar. His department produced a Rhodes Scholarship winner and a long list of national-award winners, as well as spinning off 10 companies in the past four years based on technologies that undergraduates played a role in creating. “Lots of leverage,” says Lazowska of his job as chair, “but still close enough to feel the heat.”

There are some things that department heads agree would smooth the way for someone taking up the post. An orientation course, access to a mentor and guidelines, experience on administration committees to prepare faculty for leadership, and enough authority to command respect from peers are on their wish lists.

But the only thing that really makes the job work effectively, say most who have done it, is the ability to work with people—a skill that, if not your strongest suit, can be learned.

Good Guidelines

So, if becoming a department head might be in your future, voluntarily or otherwise, what can you do to be successful?

First, ensure the university has created a search process likely to assure success. Mannering, of University of Washington, warns that many departments skip a costly external search and “just hire someone internally who they think is a nice person — but may be totally unprepared for this job.”

Second, make sure you have the right personality for the job, or are willing to hone particular people skills. Murman says faculty members are often chosen as department heads because ``they're outstanding in their technical fields.'' But he warns: ``If you're not knowledgeable about people, you're not going to be very successful.”

Third, make consensus building your priority. Without exception, department heads cite this ability as the key to a successful term.

Hanson, Stanford's mechanical engineering chair, says the challenge is to develop a vision and then ``get the faculty to have that vision and support it.” Lazowska, in his final days at the University of Washington, agrees, saying, “You sort of trick the bureaucracy into doing the obvious right thing.” Persuasion and patience are the tools, says Georgia Tech's Meyer, who wrote down and often referred to three rules to guide the way. The Meyer rules include: acknowledging all faculty are not alike, but all can contribute; providing leadership in the midst of many little fiefdoms; and showing faculty you're willing to fight for them.

Fourth, know the limits of your power; some department heads assume they have the power to do something and exercise it with a heavy hand, says Murman. But he warns, “You do have authority, but if the faculty on one side or the administration on the other side aren't behind it, it's a hollow decision. It has no meaning if no one will do it.”

And fifth, give it time. “It took me several years to learn the job, and to get good,” says Hanson of Stanford. Most universities have a three-year minimum, and many professors say a longer period is the best—but not too long.

Hard-earned advice from those who have been there and done that: if you're asked to be a department head, run. But if you're caught, make it a good life experience.

Linda Creighton is a freelance writer living in Arlington, Va.