Leading the Psychology Department

Reflections on an eight-year stint as department chair

Posted May 11, 2017

By Glenn Geher, Chair of Psychology at the State Unviersity of New York at New Paltz (2009-2017)

(note that this article is an unabridged version of a piece that I was invited to write for Times Higher Education)

Glenn Geher; with Vania Rolon at ribbon cutting of Wooster Hall
Source: Glenn Geher; with Vania Rolon at ribbon cutting of Wooster Hall

I have a reputation for sometimes being overly positive, so feel free to take my suggestions and comments on the department chairship with a grain of salt. I joined the psychology faculty at New Paltz in 2000 and I started what turned out to be an 8-year stint as department chair in fall of 2009. I do a lot in my work—I engage in lots of additional service activities (e.g., I chair our campus’ Free Speech Task Force), I continue to contribute in the classroom (teaching a broad variety of classes regularly), and I’m an active scholar (having published three books during my tenure as chair).

This all said, when you are the department chair, that role becomes primary. And no matter how much negativity people associate with the role, to my experience, the department chairship can—and should—be an extraordinarily positive experience.

As department chair, you have the capacity to help grow an academic community—a community of students and scholars who all share a common set of interests and goals. You have the capacity to cultivate opportunities for students and faculty in your area—and you have many ways that you can make a positive difference in the work and lives of many.

When you’re a department chair, it is all too easy to get swallowed up in the paperwork and the politics—and trust me, paperwork and politics abound! This all said, if you can develop good skills for doing the paperwork efficiently and for smiling at the politics as it rolls down the sides, then you are in for the academic ride of a lifetime—filled with amazing opportunities to help advance your field in all kinds of ways.

Below are several aspects of the department chairship that chairs at any stage would be wise to consider.

Cultivating an Academic Community

Glenn Geher; with alum, Akeem Samuels
Source: Glenn Geher; with alum, Akeem Samuels

I see my primary role as department chair in terms of being a leader of our academic community. We have a large department—with about 20 full-time faculty, 15 part-time faculty, and about 15 professional, student-worker, and support staff folks. We have about 700 students spread across 10 different undergraduate and graduate programs. Our students are our lifeblood—and from the outset, we make it clear to students that we expect to see them beyond the confines of the classroom. Our department is connected with many extra-curricular opportunities for students and faculty—including three student clubs, four different annual lecture series, the highest rate of student-collaborative research on campus, two annual student awards events, two semi-annual group advising events, a strong record of having students join faculty at conferences, an annual research-team-on-research-team kickball tournament, and more!

As department chair, I see my role as cultivating and coordinating these activities in a way that truly creates community. In seeing our department as a shared community, students feel both connected and empowered. And faculty have the opportunity to see their work as part of something bigger.

And student success follows! Our department has a strong history of sending students to top-notch graduate and professional programs in all kinds of areas—mental health counseling, clinical psychology, research psychology, neuroscience, law, medicine, and more.

While not all faculty in the department may share my communal vision for our work, we all care greatly about fostering student success and achievement—and having a focus on our students as part of a legitimate community of learners and scholars allows us to really champion their growth under our mentorship.

Making all of that happen is, to my mind, my primary task as department chair.

Rewarding Great Work

Glenn Geher; with Rich Holler, recipient of award for excellence
Source: Glenn Geher; with Rich Holler, recipient of award for excellence

If your world is like mine, then you know full well that people don’t recognize others’ achievements nearly enough. As department chair, you have the opportunity to fix this situation! Under my chairship, I have made sure that we prioritize our semi-annual student award ceremonies—where we give out departmentally determined Student of Excellence awards for our graduates. Our ceremony includes a PowerPoint presentation (created by the chair of our awards committee) and we hand out certificates to all of our graduates who have been selected for these awards. Parents and friends are invited—and these events are always positive across the board.

As department chair, you also have the opportunity to recognize the great work of faculty. This can come in the form of supporting faculty who have been nominated for awards, creating a newsletter that highlights faculty achievements (e.g., new publications, successful conferences, etc.), and creating a physical space in your building for presenting recent faculty publications and research posters.

Faculty are, to my mind, the engine that truly drives an academic community—and recognizing faculty accomplishments is something that simply cannot be overdone in my mind. No one in an academic community is better-positioned to recognize the achievements of faculty than is the department chair.

Staying Connected with Alumni

Glenn Geher; with alumna, Sharrell Matta
Source: Glenn Geher; with alumna, Sharrell Matta

In the teaching professions, our primary pay is not fiscal. It’s better than that. As I see it, our primary pay is found in the successes of our alumni—of the people whom we have worked to so hard to develop. So staying connected to alumni—and providing an infrastructure for recognizing the achievements of alumni is critical to our mission.

As department chair, you can—and should—take the lead in creating opportunities for connecting with alumni. Our department has a Facebook group that includes hundreds of alumni—along with hundreds of current students and faculty. This group provides a strong mechanism for communication and collaboration with our alumni. We also have an annual departmental newsletter that largely focuses on featuring our alumni. They are amazing! They are all over the world doing all kinds of things! Each alum featured therein has his or her email included—and current students are encouraged to reach out to them for advice, networking, etc. As department chair, making sure that students stay connected beyond graduation is central to maintaining a community-based approach to your work.

Be Ready for A Multi-Faceted Work Day

If you are a new department chair, you had better be ready for anything! The job is so multi-faceted that you literally cannot fathom what it’s like until you’re in this seat. Here is a short list of things that I might do in my role as chair:

  • Dealing with a crying student who is complaining that a professor’s grading policy is too harsh.
  • Responding to the dean’s request to cancel a class due to low enrollment.
  • Working to staff a class for a week due to the illness of a faculty member.
  • Signing forms for students to be able to study abroad.
  • Signing forms for students to have classes from other schools count toward our major.
  • Responding to the dean’s request for an itemized and detailed list of the work responsibilities of all full-time faculty.
  • Working with our department secretary to order food for our end of year event.
  • Meeting with a faculty member who is having a problem with a particular teaching assistant.
  • … and that was just this morning!

When people ask what I do in my role as chair, I just smile - and say “a lot!”

Trials and Tribulations

I am very passionate about the role of the department chair and I believe that this role ultimately allows you to do great things. This said, I’d be lying if I said that the position is all peaches and cream. As with the oversight of any organization, there are going to be problems. The trick is to remember that there are always more solutions than there are problems.

Problems will come in a variety of forms. Any time you have to deal with an academic dishonesty situation, you have a problem. Sometimes students complain about the advising that they receive from a faculty member. You will also hear complaints about teachers being delinquent in a number of ways - overly harsh, missing in action, non-responsive, unfair, etc. You will hear from the dean’s office that a class has to be canceled. You will hear from other administrative offices that your numbers are too high. Or too low. Or too something. You will hear about “catastrophic budget cuts” - almost undoubtedly. You will have a role in hiring decisions that don’t help your popularity index. You will have a role in reappointment decisions that, similarly, don’t help your popularity index.

With this all said, to my mind, the benefits of the department chairship strongly outweigh the costs. Sure, there is some dirt and nonsense associated with the position. But this is organizational leadership - and that is part of the terrain. The benefits of knowing that you are helping cultivate a community for the intellectual development of the next generation of leaders should always be considered vis a vis the many trials and tribulations that surround the position of the chairship.

Words of Advice to New Department Chairs

I end here with words of advice to relatively junior department chairs. In bullet-list form, no less.

  • Never see the job as a tax - it is a privilege and an opportunity - allowing you to have a unique role in shaping the futures of so many bright young minds.
  • See your role as being a leader of an academic community - comprised of all kinds of individuals who share the common goals associated with advancing your academic discipline.
  • Don’t worry about being popular - keep your focus on doing the job to the best of your ability. Haters going to hate.
  • Never forget that the intellectual development of students is at the core of your work.
  • Figure out which duties are relatively unimportant - and come up with efficient ways of addressing them (for instance, you should not spend more than five minutes a month on signing time sheets).
  • Never play favorites - each and every faculty member, whatever your history with that person, is a scholar who is dedicated to advancing student knowledge and to advancing his or her particular sub-area. Provide as much support to your colleagues as possible. And let the dean be the one to say no.
  • Conceptualize your academic community in broad terms. If faculty come up to you asking you to support an initiative, be extremely liberal. After all, the request comes from someone who is inherently going above and beyond on behalf of your community. Say YES more than NO.
  • Don’t form a small ingroup around your chairship. All faculty should be given equal weight in terms of providing input into departmental decisions.
  • Hold many office hours - and have an open-door policy. And always make students feel welcome to see you.
  • Remember that your support staff are gold - they are the engine that allow you to do your work. Never take them for granted.
  • Speak your mind with the administration. Don’t worry about being a squeaky wheel. The success of your academic community is at stake.
  • Come up with a variety of ways to celebrate successes of students, alumni, faculty, and staff.
  • Develop efficient ways for dealing with tons of emails.
  • As corny as it sounds, make the job fun - positivity emanating from the department chair has the capacity to set the tone for the broader community.

Bottom Line

The department chairship role in academia is famous for being a thankless, paper-pushing job that nobody wants. If you find yourself in the role of chair, I say that you fully turn the tables on this portrait of the position. The chairship is an extraordinary opportunity. It is a chance to build a true community of teachers and learners. It is a chance to help build the future leaders along a variety of fronts.

Are you an academic who is interested in an extraordinary challenge? Do you like to help bright young minds develop in an exciting and multi-faceted way? Are you interested in helping a community of scholars advance knowledge in your field of inquiry?

Then the department chairship is for you.

Glenn Geher, PhD - Professor of Psychology - and Department Chair of Psychology at SUNY New Paltz between 2009 and 2017.


Acknowledgment: Big thanks and appreciation to my students, alumni, faculty colleagues, administrative colleagues, and others, who have helped make these eight years amazing - and here is the bright future of the Psychology Department at SUNY New Paltz!