Department Chairs and Leadership During the Global Pandemic

The global pandemic has been difficult for many in higher education.  

“The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the key assumptions and beliefs that serve as the foundation of higher education” (Brazeau, 2020, p.688).

Recognizing that the pandemic has impacted people very differently, Dr. Klodiana Kolomitro and I highlighted a few of the challenges the pandemic has created at a session earlier this year with the educational development community in Canada (Kolomitro and Kenny, 2021). We summarized that the pandemic has:

1) increased workload for students, administrators, educators and teaching and learning centres;

2) disproportionately impacted equity-deserving groups including Indigenous and racialized peoples, women, persons with disabilities and 2SLGBTQI+ communities;

3) increased feelings of uncertainty and emotional exhaustion;

4) caused physical, social and self-isolation and loneliness; and,

5) resulted in overall poorer mental health, wellbeing and quality of life (Aristonvnik et al., 2020; Brazeau et al., 2020; Naffi et al., 2020; Xiong et al., 2020).

Although hopeful for healing as we approach the 2021/22 academic year, the uncertainty of the fall semester continues to exacerbate many of these same issues.

The Department Chair and the Pandemic

In a recent article published in Innovative Higher Education, Gigliotti (2021) explored the impact of the pandemic on department chairs. This article highlights the critical role that department chairs hold at institutions, described as, “…agents of influence in leading the reinvention of policies, practices and patterns of behavior at the departmental level and throughout their academic discipline” (p. 430). Christensen-Hughes and Mighty (2010) further emphasized the role that these local leaders can play in either helping or hindering the decisions, cultures, behaviors, norms and practices we most aspire to see.

It won’t come as any surprise that Gigliotti (2021) found that the COVID19 global pandemic intensified leadership challenges, added complexity, and contributed to continuous emerging issues for department chairs. 

“The findings of this study underscore the important work of academic leadership, particularly the role of department chairs, in triaging immediate concerns, advocating on behalf of one’s colleagues and students, providing frequent and timely updates to facilitate an institution’s crisis response, ensuring the safety and well-being of others, and helping to restore hope when others experience a breakdown in collective sensemaking” (p.442).

Throughout this study, chairs acknowledged challenges related to pivoting to remote teaching, navigating remote meetings, and exploring methods to ensure some degree of research continuity throughout their department. They struggled with maintaining consistent and clear communication channels with senior administration, maintaining meaningful relationships and connections with colleagues, acknowledging and coping with emerging mental health issues experienced by themselves and departmental colleagues, balancing personal and professional commitments, ensuring the health and safety of students and staff, planning under constant uncertainty, ongoing budget constraints, and concerns related to ongoing pressures for renewal and reinvention.

The authors highlight the crucial role of relationships, connection and communication as departments negotiated and responded to the COVID19 pandemic:

“What we learn from the insights of the responding department chairs is a desire to connect with others— connections that are made more challenging in light of the global pandemic—and to care for others in navigating the uncertainty of the current moment. By shaping and interpreting how others react and respond to a crisis of widespread magnitude, leadership is made possible; and by recognizing both the personal and professional worries, fears, and goals of one’s faculty, staff, and student colleagues, department chairs can provide bridges of trust and goodwill.” (p. 442)

Leadership Approaches for Healing and Rebuilding Teaching and Learning

In their article, Gigliotti (2021) called explicitly for more opportunities to support departmental chairs, including providing additional support for their development as academic leaders. As we embark on healing and rebuilding our teaching and learning practices into the future, the following leadership approaches adapted from Gibbs and Knapper (2008) may provide a helpful guide and starting point for reflection for academic chairs:

  1. Establish credibility and trust: foster open communication; listen carefully and solicit ideas actively from the departmental community, especially from individuals and groups that have historically been marginalized; identify, seek and advocate for additional institutional support and resources for change; establish a network of mentors and colleagues to support on-going reflection, growth and development.
  2. Identify and address departmental strengths and challenges: actively identify departmental strengths and challenges; represent the department honestly; leverage strengths; lean into and address challenges; speak up to actions and behaviours that are harmful; focus on building and moving forward through incremental change.
  3. Articulate a clear vision and rationale for change: learn about what others internal and external to the institution are doing; seek guidance from evidence-based and culturally relevant practices; collaboratively identify and articulate a clear narrative for the future; gather evidence and feedback on change initiatives; admit mistakes, apologize and change direction as necessary.
  4. Distribute leadership: build and support a collaborative team of departmental leaders; create leadership pathways for those in formal and informal roles; surround yourself by a team that helps you address your leadership blind spots and areas for growth; ask for help; thank and give credit to others for their influence and impact.
  5. Build communities of dialogue and practice: foster debate, discussion and reflection around issues that matter; use multiple forms of engagement to involve the entire departmental community; actively create opportunities to make teaching and learning practices public.
  6. Visibly reward and recognize teaching and learning: provide leadership pathways for strong and committed educators; evaluate contributions to teaching and learning using multiple methods, lenses, and perspectives; actively identify and support individuals to be recognized for their contributions to teaching beyond the department.
  7. Involve students as partners in change: actively seek student input; involve students meaningfully in initiatives, innovations, and decision-making processes; intentionally provide space for and amplify student voices; create leadership pathways for students.

There are likely other leadership approaches you would recommend for departmental chairs as we embark on an ever-evolving and somewhat uncertain pathway for teaching and learning in higher education.

What do you think are key considerations, challenges, and recommended leadership approaches for department chairs as we begin to approach teaching and learning during the 2021/22 academic year?

References:

Aristovnik, A., Keržič, D., Ravšelj, D., Tomaževič, N., & Umek, L. (2020). Impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on life of higher education students: A global perspective. Sustainability12(20), 8438.

Brazeau, G. A., Frenzel, J. E., & Prescott, W. A. (2020). Facilitating wellbeing in a turbulent time. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education84(6).

Christensen Hughes, J., & Mighty, J. (2010). A call to action: Barriers to pedagogical innovation and how to overcome them. In J. Christensen Hughes & J. Mighty (Eds).Taking stock: Research on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (pp. 261-277). Queens School of Policy Studies.

Gibbs, G., Knapper, C., & Piccinin, S. (2008). Disciplinary and contextually appropriate approaches to leadership of teaching in research‐intensive academic departments in higher education. Higher Education Quarterly, 62(4), 416-436.

Gigliotti, R. A. (2021). The impact of COVID-19 on academic department chairs: Heightened complexity, accentuated liminality, and competing perceptions of reinvention. Innovative Higher Education, 1-16.

Kolomitro, K. and Kenny, N. (2021). Caring for our community: when will well-being be a priority.  Keynote Presentation.  Educational Developers Caucus of Canada Online Conference. https://edc.stlhe.ca/conference-2021/keynote/

Naffi et al. (2020) Disruption in and by Centres for Teaching and Learning During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Leading the Future of Higher Ed. White Paper ISBN: 978-2-9818996-5-1

Xiong, J., Lipsitz, O., Nasri, F., Lui, L. M., Gill, H., Phan, L., … & McIntyre, R. S. (2020). Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on mental health in the general population: A systematic review. Journal of affective disorders.

Author: natashakenny

Senior Director, Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, University of Calgary. Interdisciplinary academic and professional background in educational development, landscape architecture, urban planning and environmental science.

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