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Expect anything
Department chairs champion faculty concerns, guide progress
Larry Goedde
Photos by Andrew Shurtleff
Building consensus within the department is very important, says Larry Goedde, chairman of the art department.

By Anne Bromley

The skeleton leered at her from the couch in her office.

This was no Halloween trick. Art professor Megan Marlatt shrieked as she stumbled into the furniture and then heaved a sigh as she picked up the phone to call Larry Goedde, her department chair.

It happened again. The skeleton used for drawing classes was out of the closet. After she’d cooled down, Marlatt could see the humor in it and shot off a memo to her colleagues, asking them to move it or “The next time I find a skeleton on my couch, I’m throwing it off the roof of Brooks Hall!”

Department Chairs:

Architecture: 4
Arts & Sciences: 27
Education: 3
Engineering: 9

Neither the Commerce School nor Nursing School is organized into departments.

It was just another day for Goedde, who has chaired the art department since 1994. He and other faculty who have taken on the job in various departments say they learn to expect the unexpected.

Like the unexpected pleasures of getting closer to their colleagues, of having the chance to understand their work better, of helping them solve problems.

Regardless of a department’s size, the chair should be there to help faculty members in any way possible, from breaking through a stumbling block in research to finding additional funds.

That’s one of the rewards. “It’s good to see people succeed,” Goedde said.
They also act as advocates and represent their departments in the bigger arena of the College or the entire university.

For many faculty who head departments these days, problems are often related to cramped, aging and outdated facilities, like the art department having two homes in Brooks and Fayerweather halls, not to mention moving the department forward and keeping faculty morale afloat through the state budget crisis.

David MillsFor Judith Shatin, who just finished six years of chairing the music department, that meant getting air-conditioning installed in Old Cabell Hall offices and replacing practice modules with new air-conditioned ones.

For David Mills, a longtime economics professor who’s now chairing the department, it’s a constant battle being housed in Rouss Hall, one of the oldest buildings on the Lawn. If faculty and students open the window in a classroom at the back of the building, they can expect to be interrupted by motorcycles revving up as they come and go from their designated parking area outside.

English professor Michael Levenson, finishing up his term as chair this year, passed along a colleague’s advice: “Just be open to the stream of accident ” — meaning, you don’t have to go looking for problems. They’ll come to you.

Department chairs receive a brief orientation to U.Va. administrative processes such as filling out forms, doing evaluations and using the Oracle software system.

Michael LevensonFormer chairs participate and “dispense bits and pieces of wisdom” from their experience, said David Gies, former chair of the Department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. He has chaired Spanish twice and led several of the small-group sessions.

“Still, they’re learning in the school of hard knocks,” said environmental sciences professor George Hornberger, associate dean for the sciences.

Science department chairs usually learn some of the requisite skills from running their laboratories, managing big budgets and staffs. Many other chairs have gained administrative experience by being directors of their department’s undergraduate or graduate studies programs. They often turn to the former chairs for guidance, as well as other administrators, services and offices.

John Miller, into his second three-year term as chairman of classics, said he is glad to have colleagues he can turn to for guidance; three of the eight faculty members in the department have served as chair.

John MillerThe college dean appoints the department chairs for three- or five-year terms. Hornberger and Karen Ryan, the other associate dean who oversees the humanities, put together department committees to discuss the best candidates before making recommendations to Arts & Sciences dean, Edward L. Ayers.

“Then it’s up to Ed to persuade the person to do it,” said Ryan, associate professor of Slavic languages and literatures, who, like Hornberger, has also chaired her department.

Added Levenson, “My colleagues and I didn’t get into this business to be administrators,” but they agree faculty members have an obligation to serve.

Hornberger said chairing a department is probably the toughest job in the University, not only because of the time involved but also because of the sacrifice that commonly means less time for scholarship or research. Chairs have to attend more meetings and frequently work longer hours. Those who run labs often give more work to postdoctoral fellows. They might have to represent their departments at functions on nights and weekends. Many relegate their professional work to summertime, but keeping up with their academic work is essential.

Several chairs pointed to predecessors who were outstanding role models because they were first and foremost top scholars or tried to lead by example.
“The person has to be a respected scholar and has to be detail-oriented,” Ryan said.

“The power of the chair is actually limited,” said Goedde who oversees 25 art and art history faculty members. You can set the agenda, he said, but professors are an independent lot – you have to enlist their support.

Job Description

Department chair:

Detail-oriented scholar/researcher who plays well with others; respected by colleagues for work ethci and academic accomplishments; people person, team leader, facilitator, teacher, ombudsperson, judge, trouble-shooter, decision-maker, visionary.

“Building consensus within the department is important. It can’t be approached like corporate management.”

Goedde also has worked on enhancing collegiality among the faculty, giving them and students more opportunities to share their work through exhibits.

Communication is key, stressed Gies. He and current chair Joel Rini credit retired professor Xavier Herrero, who came to U.Va. in 1979 as chair, with building up the Spanish department to its top five ranking from the National Research Council. But Herrero, and Gies, who came the same year, also cultivated collegiality by starting a weekly informal lunch gathering for the faculty that has endured for 23 years, Gies said.

“The department is like a family and you’re the parental figure. You have to make judicious and fair decisions,” Ryan said.

Management and personnel issues are the toughest. “The problems tend to be unique. The direct supervisor has to be the first one to handle the situation,” Hornberger said. Part coach and part counselor, the chair sometimes has to get involved in a professor’s personal life, so he or she must be discreet and tactful.

Respect for everyone in the department goes a long way, said Thomas Gallagher, who chairs the physics department. The chair has to make sure everyone works well together, he said. Physics is somewhat unusual because there are almost as many staff members (20) as there are faculty members (30). Many of the latter work in the department’s machine shop, building or maintaining the equipment used in research.

“The staff is wonderful,” Gallagher said. “They’re loyal and hard-working.”

Faculty chairs not only manage classified staff, but they also oversee faculty and their professional development. A chair goes from being a colleague on an equal level to being the one doing the evaluations for promotion and tenure, in concert with the dean’s office.

One of the rewards the chairs agreed on was that the role has given them an opportunity to influence the department’s progress: in making curricular changes, initiating or supporting new programs and, at least before the budget crunch, hiring new faculty members.

Said Levenson: “If you just sustain the present tense, you miss the chance to affect the future.”

“What I’m most interested in,” added Gallagher, “is being able to show junior faculty that there is a future here at U.Va.”


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