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Title:Democratic Leadership and Faculty Empowerment at the Community College: A Theoretical Model for the Department Chair.
Authors:McArthur, Ronald C.
Source:Community College Review; Winter2002, Vol. 30 Issue 3, p1, 10p
Document Type:Article
Subject Terms:*COMMUNITY colleges
*DEPARTMENTAL chairmen (Universities)
*COMMUNITY college administrators
NAICS/Industry Codes61121 Junior Colleges
Abstract:Discusses a theoretical model for a department chair of a community college. Roles of the department chair; Relationship between the department chair and the faculty; Characteristics of an ideal department chair.
Full Text Word Count:3379
Accession Number:9168093
Persistent link to this record:
Cut and Paste: <A href="">Democratic Leadership and Faculty Empowerment at the Community College: A Theoretical Model for the Department Chair.</A>
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Democratic Leadership and Faculty Empowerment at the Community College: A Theoretical Model for the Department Chair

When I first became the chair of our department in 1998, I immediately realized that being a chair would be very different from what I had experienced in the military or from what one would experience in a typical corporate hierarchy. I discovered that utilizing a theoretical approach of democratic leadership and faculty empowerment was the most appropriate model for working with the faculty on the departmental level, especially at the community college where so many disciplines are often grouped together under the same administrative umbrella. This approach contradicts the practice of many academic organizations. As one group of observers have indicated (Myram, Zeiss, & Howdyshell, 1995), "Throughout this nation's history, top down decision making has characterized most organizations, including community colleges" (p. 3).

The History of Academic Departments

Academic departments date back to the nineteenth century. Prior to, and shortly after the Civil War, presidents personally administered American colleges and everyone, including the faculty, reported directly to them. The presidents served as scholars, leaders, teachers, chief disciplinarians, and business managers. As the number of students increased, various dean positions were established to assist the president in an increasingly complex organization. The expansion of the faculty required a need to improve organization and management of the academic areas (Hecht, Higgerson, Gmelch, & Tucker, 1999), and by the late nineteenth century academic departments were formed.

While most colleges and universities structure their departments strictly according to academic discipline, departments in the community college setting often reflect an aggregation of many academic areas. The various disciplines are often combined, more for administrative convenience, such as numerical parity, rather than for cohesiveness. It is not unusual for a department to have liberal arts and technology disciplines reporting to the same chair. As a result, departments can have faculty members whose academic disciplines have little in common. Recent literature (Lucas, 2000) acknowledges that one of the most important skills that the chair needs is the ability to orchestrate the functioning of departments that have widely divergent disciplines and orientations.

Regardless of its makeup, the departmental structure consists of an academic unit comprised of faculty and support staff. The department should be perceived as a home for faculty and students who are associated with the appropriate disciplines and as the epicenter of academic initiative and discourse. One group of researchers note that, "It is at the departmental level that the real institutional business gets conducted"(Seagren, Creswell, & Wheeler, 1993, p. 2). If there is any safe haven for faculty against perceived threats from the administration, it should be their academic department.

Colleges generally are hierarchical organizations, and based on personal observations, faculty members often view the distant administration with distrust and skepticism. Instructors may be uncomfortable with the structure, bureaucracy, and layers of authority at their institutions (Cohen & Brawer, 1987) and feel they have little control over anything outside the classroom. At highly structured institutions the faculty might refer to the president and deans as "them" or as "central administration" (Birnbaum, 1988), thus reinforcing the concept of separation. In summary, the faculty's sense of distance from the administration makes the department chair a critical link in the organizational structure. Faculty and administration often have different professional agendas, and it is the chair who provides the link between the two.

Role of the Department Chair

In an environment where trust is so important and often so difficult to achieve, the chair has an important role to play in making the faculty feel appreciated and valued by the college (Gmelch & Miskin, 1993; Lucas, 1994; Hecht, et al., 1999). Having donned the mantle of administrator, department chairs need to be sensitive to addressing the issues of trust, motivation, and the existing culture in order to gain the confidence of the faculty (Angelo, 2000) and to move the department forward.

The literature on higher education acknowledges the significance of culture in the study of the academic department. Austin (1994) concludes:

Like institutions, departments and other units have unique cultures characterized by norms, values and behavior patterns...the departmental mission and goals, the leadership style of the department chairperson...the characteristics of the students and faculty, the physical environment, and the relationship of the department or unit to other units and to the institution as a whole are all part of the culture of a department. (p. 51)

In addition, Sokugawa (1996) suggests that faculty often perceive different cultural typologies within separate campuses of a single state community college system. Understanding the significance of culture is an important leadership skill because resistance to change and how it is dealt with can be a reflection of institutional culture and climate.

This understanding is crucial because the chair is in the position of linking students to faculty, faculty to administration, and the outside world to the college. Traditional views of the chair identity the role as a buffer between the faculty and the administration. One analogy used is the Roman god Janus (Seagren, et al., 1993) who has two faces, one as an administrator and one as a faculty member. A more current perception might be that of a mediator, a communicator, and a facilitator (Gillett-Karam, 1990) who has an important role to play in faculty development.

Gmelch and Miskin (1993) identify four main roles that department chairs assume. These roles are faculty developer, manager, leader, and scholar. The faculty developer responsibility involves the tasks of recruitment, selection, and evaluation of faculty as well as leadership to enhance faculty morale and professional development. Managing involves the maintenance of department budgets, records, finances, and equipment. Leadership refers to the long-range planning and vision of the department, and the scholar function attends to teaching and maintaining currency in academic disciplines. Any one of these responsibilities can seem overwhelming to a person who is contemplating academic leadership.

Although there are self-help books for the new chair (Creswell, Wheeler, Seagren, Egly, & Beyer, 1990) that can assist in the transition from faculty member to departmental leader, the reality is that many chairs come to the position with very little managerial experience. Research indicates (Smith & Stewart, 1999) that most new two-year department chairs learn how to function in their role through informal and discovery learning rather than through a formal process that addresses the specific needs of a new chair. The transition from colleague to chair can be a delicate process, especially when coming into an organization that has been described at the university level as an example of "organized anarchy" (Cohen & March, 1974). Anyone assuming the role of chair must know that the road is full of perils that can put strains on the notion of collegiality.

Faculty members do not necessarily aspire to become the department administrator. The ambivalence about the role might lead some to question why faculty members choose to become department chairs. A study conducted by the Center for the Department Chair at Washington State University (Gmelch & Miskin, 1993) revealed that chairs responded in one of two ways. Some chairs choose to serve for extrinsic reasons; their dean or colleagues convinced them no one else could do the job as effectively. Other chairs seek the position for intrinsic reasons; they view taking the job of chair as an opportunity to help either the department or themselves.

Regardless of the source of appointive authority, chairs cannot lead effectively without the support of the department faculty (Hecht, et al., 1999) because the majority of the work at an institution of higher education is done by the faculty (Dressel, 1981). Chairs do, however, have some positional power, and this presents an opportunity to influence the direction of the department (Hecht et al., 1999). Administrative status and the role chairs have in evaluations help to eliminate some of the ambiguity associated with being a supervisor of peers (Goldenberg, 1990). In addition, control of the resources (Lucas, 1994) means the chair can have an important role in determining what the department will accomplish or push into the background.

Although positional power has a role in departmental leadership, it cannot be a complete substitute for personal power (Hecht, et al., 1999) derived from peers' respect for and commitment to the chair. In other words, personal power is based on the individual's credibility with the faculty members. The role of the department chair in the community college setting has been compared to that of the speaker of the house (Miller, 1999)--a person who is simply first among equals in the governance of the college and of the department. The idea of shared authority contains many advantages. The institution's or department's culture, as well as morale, attitude, and work ethic, can be linked to feelings of ownership and commitment. Decisions are accepted more rapidly when faculty members have input into the decision-making process. The department chair faces many challenges that are met most appropriately using a framework of democratic leadership theory that includes involving others in the decision-making and policy development process.

The Chair as the Department Leader

A key role of the chair is that of a facilitator of change. In an academic department, change can only be accomplished with the full support of the faculty and, due to the individualist nature of college teaching and research, attaining faculty support for anything can be difficult. According to one group of researchers (Creswell, et al., 1990), the interaction between the chair and faculty members can often be frustrating. The authors note that faculty want autonomy but request assistance, demand quick decisions yet belabor issues, seek power and authority, but delegate decisions to administrators. From this description one might conclude that the relationship between the chair and faculty is analogous to parents and children where the children have almost complete independence. Because faculty members have tenure and substantial autonomy from higher levels of administration, the department can prove to be a point of resistance to institutional change (Edwards, 1999). The circumstances that this writer has found as a new leader at Atlantic Cape Community College are not much different from those which have just been described. Most of the faculty are tenured and have very specific work rules outlined by the faculty contract. Theoretically, they have to do no more than choose the five sections they wish to teach and maintain three office hours per week. Anything beyond those mandates is negotiable. If change is desired, it is up to the chair to engage and enlist faculty participation. At times the faculty can also act as an impediment to change. There are many reasons why people become change resisters (Rusch & Perry, 1999) including variations on the themes of fear and loss. In his discussion about quality organizations, Fife (2000) suggests, "change in most organizations is resisted out of fear that failure will bring retribution and rejection". Senge (1990) refers to this feeling when he writes, "resistance to change is neither capricious nor mysterious. It almost always arises from threats to traditional norms and ways of doing things. Often these norms are woven into the fabric of established power relationship". The reality is that faculty can be a force of resistance or a wonderful repository of creative energy. Which direction they take is due in large part to the leadership exhibited by the chair.

In an environment where the viability of top-down and autocratic leadership is tenuous at best, the challenges for a department chair are obvious. The chair can move no faster than allowed by the willingness of the faculty to buy in to any initiative. A chair's role might be considered analogous to that of a driver of a dog sled team (Hall & Hord, 2001) who rides the rails and calls out commands. Although that person has the title and some control of the outcome, the sled will go no faster or farther than the dogs are willing to go.

A key concept in an atmosphere of shared decision making is empowerment. The idea of empowerment comes from business and industrial efforts to improve productivity (Short & Johnston, 1994) by engaging workers in a meaningful dialogue. Reaching out and soliciting input from employees is important because alienated workers are apathetic, frustrated, and uninvolved with their jobs. On the collegiate level, the theory of employee involvement works the same way. Although faculty have a great deal of individual freedom, they are limited in their ability to effect departmental change without the help of their coworkers. The assumption is that an empowered faculty is much more willing to work in support of a departmental or institutional vision. Empowerment gives the faculty a sense of ownership of their ideas and provides a greater incentive to find solutions. One group of researchers (Blanchard, Carlos, & Randolph, 1996) assert, "people already have power through their knowledge and motivation. Empowerment is letting this power out" An associate dean at Catonsville Community College (Hines, 1992) notes that an effective leader must be knowledgeable and identify a vision for the organization, but that leader cannot stand in "glorious isolation" (p. 33) to contemplate that vision. The vision must be communicated to the other members, and they must be challenged to contribute to the articulation of the vision and to the achievement of the goals inherent in the vision. The leadership approach described by Blase and Anderson (1995) is a "power-with" model that

is inherently relational in context, represents a challenge to traditional hierarchical approaches to leadership that encourage administrators not to develop close relationships with subordinates. The 'power with' model also empowers 'subordinates' and other stakeholders to expect democratic participation as a right, rather than to view it as a privilege at the discretion of administrators. (p. 15)

The skills of the leader, therefore, require an ability to harness the talent of the department through the nurturing and understanding of the members' needs. Creating an atmosphere of trust requires an understanding that empowerment of faculty members is framed by a long-standing tradition of individual academic autonomy (Seagren, et al., 1993). A successful chair will work within that framework rather than try to overcome it.

Scott (1990) determines that an important consideration for department chairs is the involvement in human resource development and applying to faculty a model used by industry. In her view, working to better the morale of the frontline workers as a means of increasing productivity can be applied to the concerns that faculty have with working conditions, teaching, and publishing. One study (Gmelch & Miskin, 1995) identifies four supporting behaviors aimed at increasing productivity from the faculty. These include modeling productive behaviors, motivating through personal renewal, mentoring through faculty development, and networking with colleagues. Combinations of these activities can assist the chair in strengthening the department through the promotion of collegiality and group process.

The important roles that the chair and the department play in the overall functioning of the college are becoming better understood and appreciated. According to Lucas (2000), colleges must recognize the chair's importance as a focal point for change. It is at the colleges' smallest subsystem that the chair can most effectively build commitment to change by problem solving with the faculty in an atmosphere of trust. The department chair at the community college must face the challenge of becoming an agent for change in an environment that does not define power in the same way a military leader or corporate CEO might define it. Mellow (1996) notes that chairs have to "inspire the faculty to become involved in the process of transforming higher education"(p. 6).

In the college environment the chair alone cannot sustain departmental initiatives. The community college setting, with its multifaceted departmental structure, represents a challenge to the chair of an eclectic organization. Successful implementation of a change process requires leadership skill, an awareness of departmental culture, understanding of the factors associated with resistance, perseverance, and a good sense of humor. In light of the need for collegiality and the autonomous nature of college faculty, democratic leadership and a commitment to faculty empowerment are most productive for a chair of a community college academic department.


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By Ronald C. McArthur

Ronald C. McArthur is an associate professor of history and government and the department chair of Arts, Humanities, and ESL at Atlantic Cape Community College in Mays Landing, New Jersey.

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Source: Community College Review, Winter2002, Vol. 30 Issue 3, p1, 10p
Item: 9168093
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