American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
March/April 2016

Why I Go to the ASA Department Chairs Conference

Julia McQuillan, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Of the many occupations I aspired to as a child, “Department Chair” never came to mind. It didn’t even sneak in during graduate school or my early faculty years. Yet, to my great surprise, in July of 2012, I switched from planning courses and big research dreams (after directing our department survey research unit) to learning how to be a department chair. I felt overwhelmed and scared. I wanted to maintain the success of my dear department.

The former chair forwarded to me ASA’s “Chairlink,” which described the Chairs pre-conference. I signed up right away.

I don’t remember the exact program in August 2012, but I know that each speaker and activity provided useful information. In addition, talking to colleagues over meal breaks was invaluable. I had little questions (how do you find a last-minute instructor? When should I cancel a class? How do I keep up with e-mail?) to big questions (how much should I focus on online classes? How do I handle dual-career issues? What can I do to increase majors? What about finances?) I received multiple answers, perspectives, and frameworks for thinking about all of these questions and questions I had not even though of. In addition, I realized I was not alone. Everyone was dealing with multiple challenges, few had had administrative training to handle a million dollar budget, public relations, personnel management, and institutional bureaucracy.


In addition to the excellent program, speakers, and table topics, it was great to talk to other people who had similar foci and needs. Even former chairs in my department could not necessarily understand the current situation due to rapid changes in higher education. (Our former chair had become an associate dean, making some conversations subject to conflicts of interest.)

Spending time with other department chairs—new and experienced—was delightful. Attendees had perspectives that were broader than most faculty. We no longer thought primarily about our careers, but about the whole department. We were aware of the need to be knowledgeable about higher education policies and trends in general, plus the need to read handbooks, bylaws, and legal-ish e-mails from university administrators. All of a sudden I was supposed to know how to ask alumni to give money and to make critical decisions about needed resources.

I was surprised how helpful it was to hear about issues that I should be thinking about (but was not) and to realize things about my department I should be grateful for.

Returning for More

I attended the Chairs Conference again the next year because a year as chair brought up new concerns that I wanted help with. I’ll admit that the first semester was so rough I wanted to quit academia, not just being chair. The second time I attended the Chairs Conference I had new questions and even words of wisdom to pass on to the chairs starting out. It was fun to engage in “gallows humor”:  (a) you had a graduate student not show up? We had one quit mid-semester! (b) you got your copy paper budget cut? We lost all of our distance education money that was paying for our temporary instructors; (c) You had four graduate assistants in a 3 desk office? We had our emerti faculty all share an office; (d) You lost your part time office assistant? Our 30-year office administrator retired – and we had to figure out the secret administrative assistant network, how to get the best classrooms, how to get people paid on time, how to handle tricky hiring paperwork, and more. Top that!

Twice. That should be enough. Right? I should have fun in the conference city rather than attend another Chairs Conference? Well, I went a third time. I still did not feel that I had a full handle on being a chair. I was working on being pre-emptive so that I did not have to do retention offers. I wanted more diversity in our program. We had less revenue because the university changed the cost-sharing for the online program, and I needed to figure out a better approach to budgeting. I wanted a winning strategy to garner more alumni donations. Our undergraduate program was trying to increase internships and student engagement. I had questions about more beneficial faculty evaluations, and I wanted to talk through challenges and see what others were doing... Plus, I wanted information on helping our alumni with job searches. And, how could I get more majors? I was happy that I did attend. I felt fortified to finish the APR (Academic Program Review) and energized to charge ahead with the exciting opportunity to lead a great department.

Practice Makes Perfect?

A few months into the following semester I forgot much of what I had learned. I didn’t ask for as much help as I should have from colleagues to prepare the APR report. I was teaching a graduate methods seminar to help the department but forgot how time intensive it was. We had a new dean who was full of new ideas—leading to more e-mails and meetings. By November I had had enough I sent an e-mail telling the Dean and the Department that, after three years of service, I was stepping down the next summer.

In the subsequent months, I put more of what I learned from the Chair Conference into practice. No longer worried about failing, I asked for help and delegated more. I did what I thought was best for the department (even when others grumbled) and prepared the office and files for the next chair. I enjoyed the glowing APR report from our external team, and reveled in the changes we were making based on data and analysis done during the APR. I felt a little sad that I would not be helping to hire new faculty and would not shepherd some faculty through promotion to associate or full. I wondered if I could let go of thinking about teaching schedules, investing in research ideas, and finding creative solutions to issues such as work/life balance, dual career, nominating people for awards, and celebrating department successes. Long story short, in June I found out I was going to stay on as chair. Did I go back to the ASA Chairs conference? Yes indeed I did.

This time during breakfast I had a great surprise: one of my first undergraduate students was now a new department chair. We reminisced and then started talking about what we hoped to get out of the workshop. I wanted ideas about how to have more balance (some teaching and research as well as chair work), learn to let go more (delegating responsibilities and prioritizing), and new insights to help with the ongoing budget, staffing, retention, majors, communication, and department climate issues. In 2015, we were hiring in the area of sexualities, and I was excited that the workshop would have a round table discussion on making a department more LGBTQA friendly. I liked to think, as a feminist and a gender scholar, that my department was in good shape, but I wanted to make sure. What I learned at the conference led me to consider ways to make the department, including syllabi and classes, more inclusive and welcoming. I also listened to chairs who have served in their position for a while discuss pacing and picking challenges to work on in a reasonable sequence.

Still Learning

With my fourth Chair Conference, in addition to knowledge learning and community discussions, I added a new reason to attend: time for reflection and thinking through a vision for the coming year. During the meeting I wrote notes about goals and thinking creatively about the bigger picture. I realized that too often I was stuck in day-to-day crises and issues (Is the promotion letter to the dean done? Did you finalize the faculty meeting minutes? Did you cap the online class? Did you review the documents for the college meeting with the Dean? Finish the Human Resources hiring paper work? Approve the teaching assignments?) and neglected to think about the big picture. I decided to use the conference for reflection as well as knowledge accumulation. In addition, I tried to be open to my blind spots and limitations. What was I not even thinking about that could be helpful for my department?

Carving out time to think big picture, learn from others, talk things through, and look at issues from new angles was refreshing. Plus, looking back was a touchstone: what had I implemented in the last year? What had I handled well? What could I do better this year?

Will I go next year? That is my plan. I need to be re-exposed to new ideas and solutions because our department priorities shift year to year. In addition, I want to know the larger trends, how ASA can help my department, and what other departments are thinking about and doing to advance sociology and the success of our research and our students. The most valuable way for me to have a retreat from the day-to-day pressures of running a department and to think about a vision for the future of my department is to go to the ASA chairs and directors workshop. Where else can I get concentrated, fruitful information on how to improve as a chair and to support department members? I have no idea and I don’t need to worry about it. I get “booster shots” from the Department Affiliates webinars, but not the valuable casual networking that comes from in-person conversations. Therefore, if you are a new or returning department chair, I hope to see you in Seattle the day before the formal meetings start.