By Linda Creighton
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
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.
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."
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."
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.
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."
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
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.
of training or preparation do universities offer for such a uniquely
demanding position? Virtually none. "It's a big weakness in the
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 peoplea skill
that, if not your strongest suit, can be learned.
So, if becoming
a department head might be in your future, voluntarily or otherwise,
what can you do to be successful?
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.
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
consensus building your priority. Without exception, department
heads cite this ability as the key to a successful term.
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.
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.
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 bestbut not too long.
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.
Creighton is a freelance writer living in Arlington, Va.