Only 3% of department chairs receive formal training before assuming their roles, according to Walter Gmelch, author of Department Chair Leadership Skills. What training the chairs do receive typically lasts no more than a few days and focuses almost entirely on policy and procedural information.
Yet at many institutions, department chairs are responsible for their program’s strategic direction and resource allocation. Their ability to make informed decisions regarding the financial sustainability of their programs, cost-effective delivery strategies, faculty workload, and more can define the success of the institution.
Although chairs certainly need training on faculty evaluation, course scheduling, legal compliance, and other procedural items, most institutions fail to provide the training chairs need in program and financial management.
One-day intensives teach key program management skills
The University of Toronto has created a program that empowers their nascent leaders by shifting the focus from procedures to strategy. The required one-day intensive immerses new department chairs in hypothetical decisions such as hiring strategy, fund availability for doctoral students, and program budgeting. The intensives allow new chairs an opportunity to simulate financial planning decisions before they arise.
The morning session imparts key financial management skills that chairs probably were not able to develop in their academic careers. This includes an overview of the university’s finances and insight into drivers of revenue and indirect costs in academic units.
In the afternoon session, participating chairs work collaboratively on a number of case studies. The scenario-based training allows them to put their newly acquired financial knowledge to work in small groups where they can engage with different perspectives and simulate some of the technical and financial decisions that they will routinely make in the course of their duties.
In addition to technical skills, the program teaches chairs how to think entrepreneurially and quantitatively, broadening their outlook beyond disciplinary considerations. Connecting case studies to the institution-wide budget primer not only better prepares chairs for their position, but also builds buy-in for larger university budgeting decisions.
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