May/June 2012 Issue • Volume 40 • Issue 5

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Providing Professional Development for Department Leaders: Chairs and DGS Conferences at the Annual Meeting

Margaret Weigers-Vitullo, Academic and Professional Affairs Program

In the introduction to their book on department leadership, Walter Gmelch and Val Misken state that “too much is at stake in this time of change and challenge to let leadership be left to chance or taking turns. The department chair position is the most critical role in the university, and the most unique management position in America” (2011). Yet, according to the authors, only 3 percent of department chairs in the country receive leadership training. 

Gmelch and Misken found that 60 percent of the broad range of department leaders they surveyed agreed to take on the role for what they call “intrinsic reasons”—desire to contribute to the department or to grow as professionals. In a survey focused only on sociology department chairs, Tiemann and Van Valey (2010) also found that most department leaders agree to take on the role of Department Chair for reasons that are generally “positive in nature and often altruistic in character—to have an impact, personal challenge, protect the department, mentor faculty.”  But optimism is far from enough. Don Chu, in The Department Chair Primer (2006), said, “Navigating academic units through difficult times requires the sensitivity of an artist, the quantitative skills of an accountant, the vision of a scout on constant reconnaissance, and a moral philosopher’s sense of what is right.” 

If the training needs of department chairs are generally given short shrift, the training needs of directors of graduate studies programs are rarely acknowledged. A small example–one can easily locate over 100 books on department chair leadership by searching and the Jossey-Bass Higher Education website. Looking at the same sites reveals not a single book focused on professional development for directors of graduate studies programs.

One place where both department chairs and directors of graduate studies programs can find professional development focused on their specific needs is at the ASA Annual Meeting.

Clear Headed Approaches to an Idealistic Endeavor

The 2012 ASA Department Chairs Conference, titled “The Academic Department as a Real Utopia: Clear-headed approaches to an idealistic endeavor,” will be held on Thursday August 16 from 8:00am – 5:30pm. Conference participants will have the opportunity to discuss the real and often apparently intractable challenges they face, and then to consider both ideas for innovation and concrete approaches for action that together have the potential to generate positive change.

The Chairs Conference Keynote Address will be delivered by the 2012 ASA President Erik Olin Wright, who observed in his book Envisioning Real Utopias (2010), that “the actual limits of what is achievable depend in part on the beliefs people hold about what sorts of alternatives are viable.” This plenary will help conference participants look at their own departments with fresh eyes, and a new sense of viable alternatives.

Of course, after envisioning an alternative, department chairs need tools to help move toward it. Diane Pike, long-term department chair, Past-President of the Midwest Sociological Society, and co-winner of the 2012 ASA Distinguished Contribution to Teaching Award, will provide a second plenary during the Chairs Conference that will examine how analyzing social organizations with a multi-frame approach can help sociology department chairs identify the real source(s) of departmental challenges as well as develop creative ways to move a department toward its goals (Bolman and Deal 2008).

In addition to the plenaries, the conference will also include three sessions of concurrent roundtable discussions. Each roundtable will address the general themes of the conference as applied to a practical concern, including evaluating faculty scholarship; establishing an alumni advisory board; departmental considerations in online and distance learning; research-based ideas for attracting majors; useful and manageable assessment; and conflict resolution for department chairs. Roundtable topics are strategically scheduled to allow Chairs from a range of academic institutions—from PhD-granting to BA-liberal arts—to find topics in each session that respond to their context.

Fostering Meaningful Diversity

The 2012 ASA Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) conference will focus on the organizational challenges of managing MA and PhD programs in sociology. The theme is: “Fostering Meaningful Diversity in Graduate Sociology Programs: Insights from the Report of the ASA Committee on the Status of Racial and Ethnic Minorities in Sociology.” For the full report, see

In most departments of sociology today, diversity as a theoretical construct is an unquestioned good. But theory and practice are often quite different, and the results of a recent survey of graduate students conducted by the ASA Committee on the Status of Racial and Ethnic Minorities in Sociology reveals that diversity in practice remains a highly contentious issue in our graduate programs. For example, graduate students in sociology programs perceive “race” advantages for other groups—with White students seeing students of color receiving discriminatory advantages, and students of color seeing White students receiving discriminatory advantages. For students of color, diversity impacted their decisions regarding which program to attend as well as their overall satisfaction with the program in which they were enrolled. Important differences among students of color were also found, including the finding that Latina/o students reported lower levels of mentoring, lower levels of perceived respect, and lower levels of satisfaction with their programs overall, compared to African American or White students.

This year’s DGS Conference will examine current data regarding diversity in sociology graduate programs, and then engage participants in an extended discussion of specific strategies that MA and PhD Directors of Graduate Studies can use to increase diversity, respond to tensions, and develop support systems that strengthen peer relations, faculty mentoring, academic success, and professionalization. The conference will be led by Denise Segura (UC-Santa Barbara) and Scott Brooks (UC-Riverside), Chair and Co-Chair of the SREM Committee. The DGS Conference takes place August 16 from 1:30-5:30pm.

Past Participants’ Reviews

Year after year, ASA Chairs Conference and Director of Graduate Studies Conference evaluations indicate that these pre-Annual Meeting events offer a unique opportunity for sociology department leaders to talk with their counterparts in similar departments facing similar challenges as well as a valued source of strategic insight and professional renewal. One of last year’s conference participants wrote “I actually got excited over several of the speakers and their roundtable discussions.”  Another said, “It helped me reflect more clearly on our department’s strengths and weaknesses.”  A third commented that the conferences helped “raise important issues that were off my radar.” 

For more information and to register for both the Chairs and DGS Conferences, see