Do You Have What It Takes to Be Accounting Department Chair?

Learn what the position of chair really entails.

July 19, 2016

You have worked as a faculty member for years, and now you have been offered, or have been recruited for, the position of department chair. Should you accept it? On the one hand, it’s got a certain prestige, and it can give you an opportunity to make more of a difference in your department. On the other hand, you’ve heard it’s a major commitment, and you worry that it might detract from your teaching and research.

We spoke to a few faculty members who have become department heads, to get their perspective on the pros and cons of the role and what it takes to be a good administrator. If you’re contemplating becoming a chair, here are a few things to know:

You’ll wear many different hats. The chair serves as the public face of the department, the department’s primary businessperson, and a liaison between faculty and the dean’s office. Moreover, as chair, you’ll also have to build relationships with other departments as well as with the dean. 

Sometimes, the chair will be asked to look at launching new academic programs that will generate revenue, to discuss how resources are allocated, to decide which programs should be cut and which should be continued, and understand what employers seek from graduates. The role may also involve creating schedules and faculty assignments, working with students to ensure they are on track, and leading meetings to resolve faculty issues.

Audrey Gramling, Ph.D., professor and accounting department chair at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo., observed that chairs are sometimes managers, sometimes leaders, and sometimes both.

You’ll be more of an influencer than a commander. You may envision that, as chair, you’ll be the one calling the shots. But that usually isn’t the case. “There really is no power vis-à-vis the faculty or vis-à-vis the dean,” Gramling said.

Steven Huddart, Ph.D., professor and accounting department chair at Penn State in University Park, Pa., prefers to call the chair’s power “soft power.” Although there is very little room to command, he said, the chair is highly influential in establishing standards and norms that have an immediate impact on outcomes.

However, that influence often depends on how much latitude you are given by your colleagues to lead and how much authority the dean gives you to make decisions. “It also depends on how bureaucratic your institution is,” Huddart added.

The slow pace of academic decision-making might frustrate you, especially if you come from a practitioner background. Douglas Boyle, CPA, DBA, accounting department chair and professor at the University of Scranton in Scranton, Pa., spent many years in practice before becoming a faculty member. “In business, things move more quickly,” he said. “There are more clear lines of authority. You can use the power of your position to get things done.”

You’ll need to be a consensus-builder and diplomat. Boyle observed that, “among a collection of academics, no one person has the power.” Therefore the chair must create consensus. Being a chair requires building trust and helping faculty come to share a common vision, he said.

Tact is required; after all, you will be leading a group of faculty members who, until recently, viewed you as a peer. You’ll be required to do things that may lead to confrontation with your former colleagues, such as creating schedules. Good communication skills and decisiveness are important, Boyle said. Huddart noted that he has to be very careful about how he voices his opinion.

You’ll need to think like a business leader. Chairs need to view their departments with an executive’s eye as they handle staffing, hiring, budgeting, and even fundraising decisions. They also must consider the marketplace for their “product”: the employers who will hire their graduates.

Boyle said he worked with faculty to create a formal business plan and conducted a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis to determine whether it was meeting the needs of the market. During curriculum review, Gramling worked with employers on her department’s advisory board to ensure that its curriculum helped students cultivate the right skill set.

You have to think on your feet. Life as chair can be full of uncertainties. “Faculty can call in sick. Or the dean may suddenly decide on a 20% budget cut, making it necessary to do emergency budgeting to make it through the fiscal year,” Huddart added. To be an effective chair, you also need to be able to prioritize and learn to identify a problem early and deal with it right away.

You’ll have less time for research. The chair’s position can make enormous demands on your time. To be a chair, you must willing to accept that your time is not your own, be comfortable with giving up control, and recognize that research and teaching may have to be put on the back burner, according to Gramling. Or, as Huddart put it, “If you are not willing to spend more time on administration and, consequently, less on teaching and research, don’t take a chair position.”

Boyle said that you may not want to become chair if you’re not tenured, because the role makes it more challenging to keep up with research.

You’ll have to take a different view on things than the faculty. Faculty members’ relationship with their colleagues often changes once they become chair. But don’t assume the faculty will necessarily view you as an antagonist. How well you get along with them has a lot to do with your leadership style, Boyle said. Taking a “collaborative approach to decision-making” rather than a “top-down” approach can even help your relationship with the faculty grow stronger, he said. 

You’ll shape the direction of your department. Despite the challenges that come with being chair, the position can be very rewarding. It allows you to influence the institution’s strategic direction, Boyle said. “If the chairs are not effective, institutions will fail,” he said, noting that it is at chair level where academic programs are developed and implemented.

You’ll get to help shape students’ careers. Though it can take time away from teaching, the chair’s role can still be “very student-centered,” Gramling said: “As chair, there is more engagement with students from a career perspective.” For someone like Gramling, who engages frequently with outside stakeholders such as accounting firm employers, being chair allows her to be very focused on student placements.

You’ll grow professionally and as a person. Administration can be an avenue to professional development and personal growth, Boyle said.

Huddart said becoming chair has expanded his horizons. He used to focus mainly on his teaching and research, he said, but now he’s more concerned with the direction his department is taking. He also likes the fact that he gets to hone his public speaking skills through his interactions with various interest groups: alumni, advisory boards, and students.

You have to think big. To be a chair, it helps to be a dreamer, Gramling said, and to believe that things can be done differently. Add to this enthusiasm and high energy levels, and you have a winning combination, she said.

Usha Sankar is a Cary, N.C.-based freelance writer and editor. To comment on this story, email lead editor Courtney Vien at academicnews@aicpa.org.

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