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A draft introduction to a 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. That will require about two full days of work, spread out over the next two weeks or so. I plan to make many parts of the documentation the subjects of these daily musings [1]. This musing serves as a draft introduction; I am using it to sketch out the various things I need to write about. I plan to return to it after I’ve written the other parts [2].


Dear Successor,

Congratulations on your election as department chair. I look forward to helping support you in that role over the next three years. Given that we rotate the position, I assume that I will replace you three years from now, after which we can pass it on to the younger faculty in the department.

As you know, you are inheriting a special department in a particularly complex time. We are incredibly fortunate to have a large number of excellent students who have expressed an interest in computer science. However, given the pace at which institutions of higher education move, our resources don’t match the demand. We are a collegial department, and you will find that not only your faculty colleagues, but also many of our students, will help you shoulder the burden.

Although I am told that some department chairs find their roles easy, most department chairs report that chairing a department is complex and involves managing many moving parts. To help you in that endeavor, Karla Erickson suggested that I provide you with a summary of the various responsibilities of the chair and of current department initiatives. You will certainly learn more in the Leadership Institution, should you choose to attend, in the Chairs training, in the monthly Chairs meetings, and in casual conversations with current and former chairs. You have worked with me long enough that you know that I have difficulty being brief. Feel free to skim this document and refer back to it later. I have also prepared a one-page summary of the important issues.

The first section of this letter summarizes the tasks that normally fall to the chair of any department. As you might expect, you deal with a wide variety of paperwork (or electron work, in the digital age) in response to requests or deadlines from a variety of offices on campus. I’ve tried to cover as many of those as I can.

Our department embraces a number of activities that other departments may or may not include. These include a department Web site, a weekly seminar series (Thursday extras), a weekly discussion group, a variety of mailing lists, an honor society, and a variety of events. While the members of the department share in this labor, it falls to the chair to coordinate. In the second section of this letter, I report more on these and other department-specific responsibilities.

As I mentioned above, there are a number of activities and challenges with which we are involved in right now. These range from coping with the rise in number of majors and the associated tasks (position proposals, searches, etc.) to campus-wide initiatives like research opportunities for all, data science, and the digital liberal arts initiative. We are also undergoing a significant change in the support for our computer systems and will be running decennial review in a year or two. Each of these special responsibilities needs some treatment, and they appear in the third section of this letter [4].

President Kington has suggested that we should be more of a data-driven institution. I don’t know whether or not I agree, but I do think that it is useful to have a variety of kinds of data available, particularly when we are making requests. I will be passing along most of the data that I have gathered. However, I think it will be helpful to give you some guidance as to what kinds of data are available and how you can obtain those data.

You will not do everything yourself. (I expect that you cannot do everything yourself.) As you know, you have many people within the department who will help you: Faculty colleagues, staff, and students. But there are also people throughout the College who can make your job easier, or at least help support. In the next section, I describe some of the people I think of allies of our department. I’ll probably miss some, but it’s a good starting point. One of your important allies is the Student Educational Policy Committee.

The SEPC is also not the only student group in or related to our department. We have an active Women in Computing group. We have an ACM student chapter. We have a group of students who are coordinating outreach to the community. Many CS students are actively involved in AppDev and the VR club. A few are participating in the design of a Makerspace. And I think there are plans for a hack-a-thon club. In the next section, I provide a bit more information about each of these groups.

I’ve done my best to organize the many materials I have gathered as chair and as member of the department into a Department Folder. In this letter, I provide a short manifest for that Folder, including an explanation of the kinds of materials I have gathered..

One of the duties of the chair is to keep track of important deadlines, such as the deadlines for course changes, academic equipment requests, or summer funding. I’ve done my best to put together a table of those deadlines.

I realize that that’s a lot, so I will conclude with an executive summary.

I have likely left things out. Feel free to ask questions!


[1] I will, of course, leave out the confidential things.

[2] I have found that this approach to writing generally works well for me. I write an introduction that I know that I will eventually discard because writing the introduction helps me to get my thoughts in order. I use that introduction to help guide myself as I write the rest. Then I go back and write the introduction. I do similar things with theses (usually as part of the introduction). The preliminary thesis helps guide my writing. My writing helps me refine the thesis [3].

[3] Of course, if I do significantly refine the thesis, then I have to go back and rewrite the rest again, too.

[4] I did say that I have difficult being brief, didn’t I?


Version 1.0.1 of 2017-05-28.