Life as Department Chair

College faculty and administration have been known to have their differences in priorities – not just at Manhattan College. This creates a particularly tough challenge for department chairpersons, who are caught somewhere between being faculty members and administrators.

Balancing this dual role is particularly difficult for department chairs – especially Constantine Theodosiou, Ph.D., acting chair of the biology department, and fulltime dean of the School of Science. Theodosiou said that depending on the institution, chairs can have more administrative or faculty roles.

Here at Manhattan College, their role “has been more faculty representatives and less administrators,” Theodosiou said. Despite this, Theodosiou argues that the converse would be more beneficial, saying, “I like more the alternative.”

Regardless, much of the workload of a department chair is already in an administrative capacity.

“My responsibilities include scheduling courses, so I schedule all of the faculty’s courses for the fall and the spring semesters, and I make sure the students get all the courses they need to graduate and to accomplish their goals,” said Lisa Anne Rizopoulos, Ph.D., professor and chair of the education department.

Scheduling courses can be an arduous and difficult. Chairs have to fulfill their obligations to provide enough courses at opportune times, not only for students in their majors, but also for students in outside majors.

“The chair has to look at what needs to be offered in total, and the chair needs to have it that not everybody gets exactly what they wanted, because the department as a whole needs to offer the courses at the times they need to be offered,” Provost William Clyde said.

Scheduling courses can be especially difficult in some departments such as English and mathematics – both of which have  large numbers of students from outside majors enrolled in courses they offer – called service courses.

In the School of Science, where the programs have looser curricula than in the professional schools, the role of the chair is more difficult, Theodosiou said.

“We’re challenged by the diversity of the courses we have to schedule,” he said.

The role of chair is spelled out clearly in the Faculty Handbook, and is roughly the same across all departments at the College.

“They’re responsible for the same pool of activities, but that pool looks different in different departments,” Clyde said. Those variations can be anything from the number of majors, to the number of service courses, to accreditation.

That pool of activities is different in the School of Engineering than in the other schools, Ward said.

“Each program in engineering, if it’s an accredited program, is accredited separately. Unlike the School of Business or the School of Education where the entire school is accredited, in engineering it’s individual programs,” Ward said. “They have to make sure that they’re staying on top of their assessment and doing all those types of things.”

“It’s a major part of the way we’re organized,” Ward said.

Chairs sign on to a four year term after being selected. The selection process can be cumbersome. First, the dean must discuss possible chairs with the faculty in the department. After this, the dean will nominate a candidate and put that person to an up-or-down vote in the department. If the nomination passes, the dean must bring the nominee to the college president, who will accept or reject the nomination.

In some departments, the next chair can be in waiting before the incumbent chair even leaves office.

“We rotate chairs,” said Ricardo Dello Buono, Ph.D., professor and chair of the sociology department. Though there has been no formal election for the next chair yet, Dello Buono said he can “pretty much guess who it’s going to be.”

The education department has also had a chair rotation.

“Another faculty member did it for four years, then Brother Gus did it for four years, and now it’s my turn,” Rizopoulos said. “But I think they’re going to be hiring from the outside for the next chair.”

This is not an uncommon occurrence. Under certain circumstances, deans will seek to hire an outside chair.

Dello Buono was one such hire.

“It’s usually for a reason, like the department’s decided they want new blood, or a new perspective,” he said.

It has happened, however, that the dean cannot find a chair from within the department or from the outside. This is what is unfolding in the biology department, where the dean is the acting chair.

“The faculty had expressed the need for an outside chair to change the department’s outlook,” Theodosiou said. When Theodosiou could not find a chair, he took the position himself, saying, “It’s my responsibility to have a successful department.”

Hiring outside chairs can be costly, however – especially in the case of biology. According to Theodosiou, the cost associated with hiring an outside chair may mean terminating a visiting professor within the department.

Regardless, Theodosiou argued that chair compensation should be higher, given the responsibility associated with the position. Currently, chairs are compensated with an annual three course release, but no stipend or extra pay.

“If I ask them also to do planning and leadership, you have to reward that,” Theodosiou said. “A chair is a very important and responsible position in our structure. They need support from above and below.”

The chairperson continues to assert itself as an important position in the Manhattan College administrative structure.

“Chairs play a really critical role. Chairs are coordinating the faculty. They have a hard job, but it’s really a critical job,” Clyde said.

Despite the power and responsibility, being a chair can prove to be just as rewarding as being a non-administrative faculty member.

“It’s very exciting because this is outside of my comfort zone,” Rizopoulos said.