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Common chair responsibilities (part of a draft letter to the incoming chair)

In my recent end-of-semester debriefing session, I decided that I should try to have documentation in place for my successor as chair by early June. I write enough that I expect it will take me a dozen or so essays to cover everything. I’ve already written a draft introduction. This musing serves as the first real part of the letter and provides the tasks and responsibilities that should be common to all chairs. I expect I’ll need to write a follow-up musing at some point when I remember other responsibilities.

A significant portion of your workload involves tasks that every chair has to do, but that different chairs and departments do in different levels of depth. For example, every chair is supposed to run department meetings; I hear that few departments meet as often as we do. Here are your primary common chair responsibilities. Note that you can share some of these with your colleagues. For example, I’m happy to continue to put together the schedule of classes; I’ve done it for more than a decade now.

Fill out paperwork

You are the contact person for the department. That means that you get to do a surprising amount of paperwork (or whatever the digital equivalent of paperwork is). There are questions to which administrators want us to respond (e.g., How will Global Grinnell affect your teaching? or What is the role of oral presentation in your department?). There are things to plan (e.g., We need a faculty representative at this session for prospective students.) There are some larger documents, such as the budget, position proposals, the academic equipment request, and the ilk.

Run department meetings

As I suggested above, you are responsible for running the weekly department meetings. We’ve found that weekly meetings help build collegiality and allow us to keep on top of many different issues. We also like to keep some things, like discussion of students, out of electronic mail, and so we cover things in department meetings that others might discuss electronically. You should prepare an agenda for each meeting in advance of the meeting. I know that Henry kept a running agenda that he updated each week. I tend to write mine from scratch, copying from past agendas as appropriate.

We often start department meetings with a quick check in about the CS Table series and the CS Extra series. Ideally, we get the advertisement for the next week’s CS Extra posted during the department meeting.

I try to have us look at the budget once per month or so. I’m not sure there’s a clear benefit to looking at the budget as a department, but it helps me remember that I’m supposed to check it, and I sometimes find that many eyes help catch some problems or trends. I also think it’s useful for all members of the department to hear how we’re spending money.

This year, we’ve added a weekly report from the peer education coordinator. It’s useful to hear what things are up and what things are planned. These are usually short.

The rest of the meeting is consumed by discussions of a variety of issues that come up within the life of the department. What are our plans for a program? How should we respond to one of the many pieces of paperwork? What kinds of things do we want our student groups to be doing? What have we heard from our student groups? You’ll find that you almost always have something to occupy us.

If I recall correctly, we planned to move our department meetings to Mondays. We should revisit that question sometime this summer.

Starting this summer, the SysAdmin will no longer be a faculty member. We should consider what role the SysAdmin will play in department meetings.

Mentor faculty

You are the point person for mentoring of our younger faculty (and, I suppose, for our not-as-young faculty, too). You do not have to do all the mentoring, but you should coordinate that mentoring. We try to have at least a few class visits each semester. I tried to sit in on one day per week of one faculty member’s classes this semester; I feel like it was helpful. Our Peer Education Coordinator can also sit in on classes. But mentoring goes beyond the classroom; take the time to check in with our young faculty on how things are going and how we can best support them.

The Faculty Handbook indicates that

The Chair of the Department shall […] discuss with each member of the department during the fall semester of each year that faculty member’s teaching, scholarship, and service to the College. The object of such discussion should be the general improvement of the faculty member’s teaching, scholarship, and service to the College.

I find that our department meetings mostly work for that purpose. If we talk regularly, we consider our teaching, scholarship, and service and even mentor each other a bit. Henry and I also both tend to do informal stop in and chat sessions, rather than formal meetings. You will find your own best approach.

I’ll also note that the Faculty Handbook states that

Each faculty member should prepare a short syllabus for each course the faculty member is teaching. Copies should go to the department chair and to the students enrolled in the course.

That means that as chair, you should gather our syllabi. I realize that most of them reside on the Web, but the College now wants to have them in a single place. Our ASA should be able to help with that task.

Finally, you should read (or at least skim) the end-of-course evaluations for every member of the department. Those are available in electronic form from our ASAs.

Coordinate searches and hiring

As Chair, you get to write the proposals for new positions and then run the searches associated with those new positions if they are approved. In 2017-18, we will need to request and search for [elided from public document]. You’ve been involved in enough searches to know what is generally required. You will meet with Lakesia early in the process to learn more. Note that we may need to include an equity advocate in the process.

The Department Folder includes our past position proposals.

Review faculty members

As Chair, you get to coordinate reviews of faculty members. We have [elided from public document] reviews in 2017-18. The Dean’s office will provide you with full guidelines. Remember that we need to ask for the results of the Dean’s Survey for complete reviews and that you should meet with the SEPC early in the process. The flash drive of department materials I gave you includes some documents that the SEPC often finds helpful.

I assume we’ll split the reviews this year.

The Department Folder does not include our past faculty reviews. I consider those too confidential to pass around.

Create the schedule of courses

You’ve been part of this enough that you know the general approach. We figure out what courses we should offer. That’s gotten a bit harder as the number of majors has grown. We figure out who wants to teach each course and in what format. We attempt to arrange them into a schedule. We talk about it. We revise.

As I noted, I’ve been doing this for a decade or more, since before we were a separate department. I’m happy to continue doing so if you’d like.

Because of our growing demand, I’ve had a group of students build a tool that lets our majors express their intended set of courses for the next few years. This should help us gauge what we need to offer. Let me know if you’d like to use it.

Meet with each declaring major

You get to sign every major declaration form. Before doing so, you should make sure that their four-year plan seems reasonable. I generally won’t sign plans that include CS courses that we do not plan to offer in the semester listed. At the very least, I warn students in that situation that the plan is fictitious.

In CS, every declared major gets a t-shirt (stored in the department storage closet) and should be added to the csstudents mailing list. I’ve maintained the list myself, but you can have our ASA or me add people.

Meet with prospective students

The chair is normally the contact person for Admissions. They will ask you to meet with prospective students, to email prospective students, and so on and so forth. When Henry was here, I usually delegated the in-person meetings to him. I’m happy to serve as an email contact. Or you can do this.

Assign departmental responsibilities

We have about two dozen departmental responsibilities: Coordinating CS table, coordinating CS extras, serving as study abroad advisor, serving on various divisional committees (HHMI, Carver, General Science, Division Personnel, Facilities Management, etc.), maintaining the Web site, running the picnics, coordinating with Communications, supporting our diversity initiatives, maintaining the museum, coordinating our assessment activities, and so on and so forth. You get to help figure out who does what. If I remember correctly. only one of these positions (Division Personnel) is elected. The rest we achieve by rough consensus.

Propose and review the budget

Each fall, we are asked to prepare a budget along with a budget rationale. In mid-summer, we get our actual budget. The numbers almost always drop from what we’ve requested. You can meet with the Dean for explanations as to why.

Throughout the year, you should keep track of how we are doing on the budget. You may also check in with the Dean to let him know about expected deviations. For example, if we offer another section of a course, we often need mentors and graders for that course. Similarly, if we allow a course to over-enroll, we often add an extra mentor.

You should be able to access the budget through If you can’t, ask our ASA and she should be able to get you connected. You are permitted to allow others to view the budget directly. I’ve generally given access to all senior members of the department.

Approve transfer courses

Every once in a while, the Registrar’s office will send you a short description of a course and ask about transfer credit. I usually look for more detail about the course on the institution’s Web site. In most cases, I approve the course for general credit, but not as equivalent to any course in the department. When I have questions, I discuss it informally or formally with the other members of the department.

Attend monthly chairs meetings

Dean Latham hosts a meeting of all the department chairs on the second Monday of each month. A lot of important information gets discussed at those meetings, and you should do your best to attend.


You serve as the primary conduit of information for the department. You will receive information that you should forward to the department. You should keep in contact with various associated groups around campus, including Admissions, Communications, ITS, and the Dean’s Office. More generally, you should try to keep on top of the various things that are happening around campus.

Deal with special requests from students

Students make a wide variety of requests and ask a variety of questions. For example: Can I count this course toward the CS major? How can I complete CSC 161/207/… over the summer? Can I take these courses simultaneously? When will you next offering of this course be? How can I deal with this conflict between two courses? You get to respond to the questions. You can, of course, tell them that we will discuss questions at an upcoming department meeting, and I’d recommend that you generally do so.

Assign honors

You coordinate our discussion of honors. As you know, we’ve moved from a very specific set of criteria to a more general requirement. We’ve generally reached consensus relatively quickly, but it’s still a bit tricky.

I hear from the Registrar’s office that we are now the only department that does not have them notify students about honors. I hear from my son that there is a significant advantage to students to hear early, so that they can put it on their résumés. We should discuss that issue as a department.

Send thank-you notes to donors

Once per month, we get a list of donors. You should send a thank-you note to each one. A good note talks about how we generally use the money. I’ve written some software that makes it easy for one of our ASAs to produce the letters. Let me know if you’d like to use it.

Work with the SEPC

As you know, the SEPC provides a variety of services to the department, from serving as the student voice in hiring and reviews to coordinating the social life of the department. The Faculty Handbook says that

The Chair of the Department shall

  1. clarify for the departmental Student Educational Policy Committee its role in relation to the functioning of the department.
  1. meet regularly with the departmental Student Educational Policy Committee to obtain its impressions of the department’s programs and the performance of the department’s faculty members. Such impressions should be reported, when appropriate, to the faculty member concerned and to the Dean of the College.

I find it easiest to achieve these goals if I meet with the SEPC every week or every-other week. I tend to have lunch meetings in the Marketplace, since that’s been a time that usually works for everyone. We pay the cost of lunch for students not on a meal plan.

Rather than asking about individual faculty members, I instead have the SEPC report on every class. I think the students are more comfortable with that model, and it feels like I am asking more about classes than about people.

These days, you also get to help coordinate the SEPC’s required training from the Dean’s office. In particular, the SEPC has to take implicit bias training and may also need to take Title IX training.

Study data

We have a variety of data available to us. I discuss these data in a subsequent section. As Chair, you should try to stay on top of the data and consider how it can inform various activities in the department, particularly budgets and proposals.

Do other stuff

I’ve almost certainly missed something. I’ll let you know when I’ve figured out what I’ve missed.

As you can see, there are a wide variety of core chair responsibilities. We take them seriously. CS also adds a variety of other responsibilities, which I will address in the next section.

Version 1.0.2 of 2017-05-28.