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May 25, 2000


University Senate Matters

Nathan Hershey

On April 27 I was the luncheon speaker at an on-campus retreat held by the Provost's office for department chairpersons. The purpose of the retreat was to assist the chairpersons to improve their performance, through presentations and discussions on various issues that chairpersons encounter. My selection as speaker stemmed, at least in part, from my position as president of the University Senate. I believe the idea was that I would be able to bring some useful experience to the group because, as Senate president now, and during a long period in the past, I have been consulted by aggrieved faculty for advice about their problems with the administration, including chairpersons.

I organized the bulk of my remarks around three themes: leadership, respect and understanding. With regard to leadership, I expressed the view that candidates for, and holders of, positions as chairpersons need to make honest evaluations of their leadership skills. Some people seem to be born with leadership skills; others may have to devote considerable effort to demonstrate effectiveness as a leader. In this context I mentioned the title of a recent lecture given by Roger Fisher, a Harvard Law School emeritus professor, "Getting It Done: How to Lead When You're Not in Charge." A major point in my remarks was that, if the only way a chairperson can influence others in the department is through the exercise of control over fiscal resources (and the power that comes from holding the higher position in the organization), the chairperson lacks leadership skills and will probably injure the department; the institution, in the long run, will suffer.

Regarding respect, I said that respect is a two-way street; if the chairperson does not extend respect to those whom he or she is responsible for leading, and I included here both students and staff as well as faculty, as those being lead, respect will not flow up to the chairperson. Several grievances I am familiar with were founded more on disrespect than anything else.

Understanding is a fairly vague term. I used it when discussing the need for a chairperson, whose children have left home and begun their adult lives, to keep in mind that many younger faculty members have responsibilities to their spouses and children, and that these require a chairperson to exercise some discretion and flexibility in making assignments, scheduling and the like, to avoid unreasonable burdens on a family.

I also, without the prior knowledge of the Provost's office, set forth my view of the desirability of fixed terms of office for chairpersons and deans. Fixed terms for chairpersons are already the practice in several units of the University. I argued that fixed terms should be the rule throughout most, if not all, of the University. Considering department chairpersons first, it appears that, over time, an individual's enthusiasm and ability to apply his or her talents effectively in a particular position tend to wane. We often hear the remark that someone has "stayed in a position too long." I urged fixed terms, with the opportunity, if warranted, for successive reappointments for additional terms. When a chairperson is not effective, it is far less traumatic for all concerned if the dean has the option of allowing the chairperson's term to expire, rather than having to remove the individual from office. As I indicate above, I believe that deans should be given fixed terms also, with the opportunity for reappointment of deans with suitable performance by the appropriate senior academic administrator. The use of fixed terms provides a way to replace individuals without any stigma being attached to their change in status. In some instances chairpersons and deans will choose to relinquish their administrative roles and decline reappointment.

I observed at the outset of my remarks that I recognized a good number of department chairpersons in the audience and that, based on my years of experience with in-service and continuing education programs in the health field, those in attendance were probably the chairpersons least likely to need the assistance being provided, and the absentees were probably those most in need of performance improvement.

Finally, I was very pleased to be re-elected as president of the University Senate, and I look forward to working with professors Carol Redmond and Audrey Murrell, who will serve as vice president and secretary, respectively. I expect we will have a very active year dealing with a variety of issues that affect many elements of the University community. Some issues involve students; others affect faculty mainly, such as the proposed evaluation of department chairpersons by faculty. We will be continuing the "Take a Board Member to Class" program, and I look to build on it, and other activities conducted during the current academic year, to better relationships within the University's governance structure.

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