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Additional issues (part of a letter to the incoming chair)

In a series of musings, I have been putting together a variety of information for the incoming department chair of CS. Since I’ve been writing the letter in the form of musings, I’ve posted one part of a letter each day. As I wrote subsequent musings, I realized that I had missed some issues in various sections. In this musing, I attempt to bring together all the issues I missed. I will seamlessly weave them into the original sections [1] as I put together the final versions [2] of the letter.

Introductory material

As you’ll be able to see in the material that follows, I have some issues with control, boundaries, and delegation. But I’ve found that if I’m not a control freak, things don’t get done to the level I’d like. Michelle says that about half the things I listed should not be faculty or chair responsibilities; do with them what you will.

General responsibilities

Advocate for your faculty

At times, external forces will try to impose themselves on the faculty in the department. For example, someone might ask an early career faculty member to serve on a committee that is unlikely to be worth his, her, or zir time. Students may press for independent studies or MAPs in semesters in which the faculty member already has too many commitments. Part of your responsibility as chair is to protect the faculty in these situations.

But advocating goes beyond that. You should also note opportunities and more. If a policy is likely to affect a faculty member, particularly an early career faculty member, you should discuss those effects with the people creating the policy. If a faculty member’s request is denied, you should work with them to get it approved (or go directly to others to discuss the issue.)

More mentoring issues

I listed some mentoring roles. You should also do your best to protect your faculty from themselves. Henry and I were fond of taking on too many commitments, from serving on extra committees to allowing our courses to over-enroll. You’ve been much better about protecting yourself than we were of protecting ourselves. You should make sure that our other faculty protect themselves, too. (And you can try to get me to protect myself.)

More budget issues

The Resources for Department Chairs page at suggests that Most departments have a fund for academic speakers. We don’t. My guess is that it never got created when we set up our department. We should add it to our next budget request. I don’t know whether or not it will be approved, but it’s worth trying.

Investigate complaints and moderate disagreements

Complaints and disagreements happen. Complaints may be about other students or about faculty. Disagreements are usually between students, but are sometimes between faculty and students. (I’ve never encountered any faculty-faculty disagreements in our department that needed intervention by the Chair or anyone else.) For example, in the past three years, I have had a student raise a complaint with our chief diversity officer that they had heard that a student had made inappropriate comments to their teammates. It then became my responsibility to investigate and then to do follow-up activities to resolve the situation. You do have people who can help with these kinds of things, including our Ombuds. However, as the example suggests, some things do end with the chair.


Our department relies upon its restricted fund and its diversity fund to support a wide variety of events. At times, you will be called upon to help build that fund. I’ve already mentioned that you send thank-you notes to donors. At times, you may also find yourself encouraging our alumni to donate. There are also times that Development and Alumni Relations will ask you to reach out to our meet with certain alums. Take the time to do so; our partnership with DAR is valuable to both us and the College.

Research opportunities for all

The new Research opportunities for all initiative adds some burdens to the chair. Most of them are short-term responsibilities that are necessary as the program comes into existence. But it also adds some long-term issues.

Your most important responsibility is to keep track of how each faculty member contributes to the initiative. When faculty members apply for a sabbatical leave, the Chair must send a note to the Dean attesting to the ways in which faculty provide research opportunities to the majors; such work is necessary in order for faculty to obtain a full-year leave.

The College has not yet worked out the ways in which we will fund equipment for research projects. I expect that whatever model we end up with, the chair will need to turn in or support requests.

Planning for second-year event

Given the success of the second-year science retreat and the broader research on the second-year experience, it is likely that we will be called upon to offer an event for second-year students each year. The even it the Chair’s responsibility, although some work should be delegated to the SEPC and to other faculty in the department.

In the first year, all departments hosted events at the same time; that model did not work well. In the second year, departments chose from a menu of available times. That worked better. I’ll note that we held a successful Thursday extra in which we discussed the CS curriculum and had students write four-year plans. We might try that as a model for the second-year event. Charlie ran the curriculum event and might run this year’s, too.

Department-specific responsibilities

Keeping track of accumulated credit

Now that we have a variety of two-credit courses as well as lab-based courses that accumulate 1.5 courses of teaching credit, some of us are alternating years with 4.5 courses and years with 5.5 courses. You will need to keep track of where each faculty member in the department stands. I’ve included that information on the department planning spreadsheet.

Exit interviews

Each member of the department conducts exit interviews with as many of their advisees as they can. We then debrief about those exit interviews some time over the summer. As Chair, you should work with the department to design the question of the year, remind faculty to conduct the interviews, and schedule the summer debriefing meeting.

Note: John and I were talking recently, and realized that it would be a good idea to add the question What are you doing next year? We know for most students, but not for all. We should record that response separately from the other exit interview data, since we try to keep the exit interview data anonymous.

Special projects

Handle changes in Linux system administration

Some time this summer, we will be hiring a new Linux System Administrator. As Chair, you will need to work with ITS to make sure that the new SysAdmin continues the level of support our teaching and research require.

Research opportunities for all

While this will become a regular task, there are also some non-repeating responsibilities that have to be done as the initiative comes to fruition. Here are some that come to mind.

The Dean’s office has been sending out a form for the department to fill out about once every six months. I anticipate at least one more form.

I expect that the forms of research will need to be incorporated into the Catalog some time during your term as chair.

As I noted earlier, the funding model for supplies for research projects is not clear. The other science departments may be able to include it in their regular supply budget, but we don’t have a substantial enough supply budget for all projects. You should work with the Dean’s office to establish what the model is or will be.

Predictive modeling of enrollments

As you know, even after the tripling of the number of majors, we are still seeing further steady increases. In making plans for the department, you should look for ways to model demand for our courses. [additional comments elided].

People of color in computing

I have received some requests that we form a group, similar to our Women-in-Computing group, that is for students of color interested in computing. As in the case of WinC, this should be student-led, but may need some faculty involvement in getting started and some faculty supervision over the long term.

I will note that even with both groups, some students will find that issues of intersectionality will make neither group quite as welcoming as they would like. I don’t have a good solution, but having both groups is a step in the right direction.


Data Buddies. The department participates in the CRA’s Data Buddies program. If we hit a certain threshold of participation, they provide us with an annual report. The reports may be useful for exploring some trends in the department.


Our Alumni. Our alumni are often willing to step up when we need help. They can be particularly useful for giving career advice and for helping with mock interviews. Many serve as externship sponsors.

Department tasks

Representative for second-year science retreat

Each department is expected to have one or more faculty representatives and some student representatives at the second-year science retreat. You will likely be asked to identify possible student representatives and to encourage students to attend.

Representative to Science Facilities committee

This year, our Division chair worked to create a new Science Facilities committee to improve communication between the departments in the Science Division and Facilities Management. It’s proven useful in giving us a clear path for communication. PM has served on that committee since its inception, and is likely to continue doing so.

Graduate school talk

We hold a Thursday extra in the middle of each fall to help our students consider whether graduate school would be right for them and to guide them through the process of applying. The younger faculty tend to lead this talk.

Summer opportunities talk

We have traditionally held a summer opportunities in CS talk at the end of each semester to help students think about the different opportunities available to them (e.g., summer research at Grinnell, REUs, Internships, Google Summer of Code). I’ve run this talk almost every year since its inception and am happy to continue to do so until I am on leave. I would also be happy to pass it on.

Summer research talk

At the start of spring semester, we hold a session in which the faculty whose research may involve CS students present their research projects briefly. In addition to the faculty in the CS department, we invite faculty in other departments who use CS students to present. The Chair usually coordinates the session, although you could also pass that responsibility on to others.

Wrapping up

All that’s left is for me to incorporate this into the other musings, tie them all together, proofread, re-format, create a separate version with the elided material inserted, and, um, send it to Jerod [3,4]. No problem!

[1] Hah!

[2] There will be a public version of the letter and a confidential version of the letter.

[3] I’ll also send a copy to Dean Latham and Associate Dean Erickson.

[4] I’ll also post the edited version for you folks to re-read [5].

[5] Or, more likely, to ignore. If I estimate correctly, it will be over twenty pages.

Version 1.0 of 2017-06-02.