Training, mentoring needed to support department chairs

By McKenna Miller, intern, College of Education

ward kelly college of education 2017

PULLMAN, Wash. – Despite playing a critical role in the academic success of higher education, department chairs are among the least studied and most misunderstood management position.

To correct this, Washington State University will be adding a mentor program to help support these chairs.

According to a 2016 study by the University Council for Educational Administration, 67 percent of newly appointed chairs did not receive any training once appointed and, of those who did receive training, 40 percent received less than four hours. This lack of training contributes to unnecessary stress for chairs, as well as feelings of incompetency.

The 2016 study showed that 41 percent of chairs felt competent by the ninth month, 40 percent did not feel competent until the end of their first or second year, and 19 percent took even longer to feel competent as a chair.

Kelly Ward, WSU’s vice provost for faculty development and recognition, in French Ad Building.
Kelly Ward, WSU’s vice provost for faculty development and recognition, co-leads study on support for department chairs

The study was led by Kelly Ward and Walter Gmelch. Ward is currently WSU’s vice provost for faculty development and recognition, and was previously the College of Education’s  (COE) chair for the Educational Leadership, Sport Studies, and Educational/Counseling Psychology Department. Gmelch is a former COE faculty member, current member of the college’s advisory board and professor at the University of San Francisco. “Being a chair gave me the personal experience to add to the research base about chairs,” Ward said. “As a chair, I wanted to improve my own practice. As a researcher, I want to help improve the practice of others through data driven perspectives.”

1991 vs. 2016 studies

The 2016 study compared data Gmelch gathered in 1991.

The biggest change the data reveals is that chairs (90 percent male in 1991) are now primarily held by women (55 percent). In 1991, 92.5 percent of chairs had tenure compared to 80 percent in 2016. Further, 80 percent of the chairs in 1991 were full professors compared to 59 percent today.

Added stress

Becoming a department chair comes with added stressors in the workplace, as both studies compared. For 66 percent of chairs, the top stressor in 2016 was balancing administrative and scholarly demands. Maintaining scholarly productivity was the second leading stressor for 64 percent of chairs in 2016, compared to 40 percent in 1991.

Other stressors examined include balancing work-life demands, keeping up with email, having a heavy workload, attending meetings, evaluating faculty, and the department chair job interfering with personal time.

Walter Gmelch, University of San Francisco, helps lead study on support for department chairs

“Any approach to reducing chair stress rests both with the chair’s willingness to seek creative solutions and the institution’s responsiveness to develop effective leaders,” Gmelch wrote in a follow-up article to A Retrospective View of Department Chairs: Lessons Learned. “Ultimately, institutions of higher education will continue to have a leadership crisis, if the conditions for chairing departments remain unmanageable. The future for academic leadership may appear plagued with stress, and it is also replete with creative solutions.”

Choosing to become a chair

Despite the additional stress, members choose to become chairs for the same reason as 25 years ago — to advance themselves or their departments. The second reason is due to pressure from the dean or from lack of other candidates for chair. Those motivated intrinsically are 75 percent more willing to serve a second term compared to those coerced into the position (25 percent) according to the 1991 study.

When chairs do receive training, the focus is on hard skills or irrelevant topics, instead of interpersonal and other soft skills critical in maintaining the departmental climate. Because of this, Ward said she will be implementing new leader training.

“I’m creating a mentor program, whereby existing leaders can provide mentorship to new leaders or leaders wanting the support to try new things,” Ward said.


Media Contact:

  • Brandon Chapman, communications director, College of Education, 509-335-6850,