Leadership in University Language Departments

Sometimes I wonder whether the time and energy we put into selecting (and then critiquing) our departmental leader might be better put to use refurbishing the "ship" they are asked to lead. 
by Ann Abbott

As my department began to transition from one Head to another, we were all invited to speak to the Dean. Specifically, we were asked three questions:
  1. What do you consider the qualities in an effective leader for our department?
  2. What are the major challenges facing your department?
  3. Who would you suggest for the position?
I carefully reflected on these questions, and I'll share my thoughts here. Yes, they were written for my specific department, but I think that many of the issues transcend our situation. I'd also love to hear your thoughts about leadership needs for Spanish programs today--and for the future. Please leave a comment to let me know what I'm missing here!

What do you consider the qualities in an effective leader for our department?

Supported and supportive

Usually people in a department think about what a Head (or Chair) is supposed to do for them. And that is important. They should support their people (tenure-track faculty, non-tenure track faculty, staff, etc.). But the Head needs to be supported, too. They need mentoring and guidance about the role of Head--for which they have not been trained. They need frequent information about where they are doing things right and where people are unhappy. Right now, that only comes at the end of the five-year period--too late! And, of course, the Head needs to truly listen to the feedback--even if it is often contradictory.

Able to delegate

In our department, we need to break the nodes of power. Our pattern is to invest this person with power--in part because our bylaws structure power that way but also in part because people are happy to let someone else do the work--and then resent their power. We need a culture of ownership over the success of the department. (And we need to have a clear understanding of what "success" looks like for a department.) Right now, people are incentivized to work for their own, individual success.

Organized--information, money, time

I have seen our Heads "entregarse" completely to the job. They want to do the right thing for the department. They want to help. They believe they can help. But then they become resentful of all the work that they do, especially because it is usually not truly appreciated by the people for whom they are working. So, I would suggest that deparment leaders need to contain the job, as much as possible. The job will always be too big. You cannot give your "self" over to the job. And no one is asking for that anyway. (I know this must be incredibly difficult to pull off! I'm not saying it's easy.)

One way to combat this could be to come together as a department and identify about three priorities for the academic year. In the absence of a well-articulated set of priorities, people feel that the leader does what she/he wants, that power is absolute. If someone goes to the Head and asks for something, and if the Head can't give them what they want, it feels personal. Instead, those kinds of decisions (at least some of them) could be clearly articulated and then revisited the following year.


We have a rules-based culture that is risk-averse. A leader needs to transcend that. Run meetings differently so that we don't always fall into the same patterns! Shake up the committees so that we don't always get the same (lack of) results! Call on different people so that the same voices are not always dominant. 

Focused on communication and celebration

In our department, many people (not all) are sizing each other up and putting each other in their place. We spend so much time and energy on that. How do we move from that to what everyone really wants: a sense of regard, esteem and recognition? Heads have tried to celebrate people's accomplishments, but people reacted very cynically. Furthermore, this sense of celebration and community is complicated by the fact that we work outside the office. But if--if!--there is a way to make people feel seen, appreciated, celebrated, then I think we could solve many things.

What are the major challenges facing your department?

Here, I am confining my comments to the undergraduate program.

Changing profession and enrollments

Our undergraduate program has no "stamp." The courses are designed for the 6.1% of language students who go on to graduate school in languages. This makes recruitment difficult. 

Changing student body

Today's students are results oriented. Proficiency oriented. Visually oriented. They compare and shop programs. We look lackluster and vague. Even when we try to sell ourselves as a secondary tool, we are not offering them the tool (proficiency) that they want.

Need for income generation

While we don't want to chase dollars at the expense of our academic integrity, we know that the fiscal situation of the univeristy is unlikely to improve. There are many, many, many ways we could use the valuable knowledge and skills we have within our department to generate income, but there is scorn towards providing value in different formats (e.g., online courses) and for different audiences (e.g., business owners).

Talent management

Our program (and the university as a whole) is very hierarchical. Thus, we find leaders who manage by title rather than talent. We are not fully taking advantage of the talents among us. This is not conscious, for the most part. Rather, the hierarchical environment renders certain talents and capabilities invisible.


These are my quick, scant notes. They can certainly be expanded and explained further. I also would like to return to this post 


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