In a March 27, 2013 article for Inside Higher Education, Lawrence Abele discussed “The Associate Professor as Chair.” Abele wrote, “It is unfortunate that any administrator would feel it necessary to impose on those still building their faculty careers to fill the role of department chair…However, once the decision is made to appoint an associate or assistant professor to that position, there are certain procedures that should be followed.” I agree with Professor Abele that full professors should be the default choice for department chairs, and that assistant professors should be appointed only in the most extreme circumstances. I also very much appreciate his list of suggestions for how a dean can work with those who are not full professors to make sure that they stay on track for promotion. This will come in very handy when I become Dean of Social Sciences and Professional Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, as several of the department chairs are associate professors.
I want to present another side of the story, however: there are at least two positive reasons for appointing associate professors as department chairs. First, an associate professor may bring energy and excitement to the role that is not otherwise possible. Abele noted, “[appointing non-full professors] suggests that the senior faculty in those departments do not care about the unit or that the dean does not have confidence in their ability to lead their colleagues.” This may be true in some circumstances, but a paucity of senior faculty available to serve as department chair can also be the result of location at the other end of the spectrum: the senior faculty care deeply about the unit and have served multiple terms as effective department chairs, and need a break from the demands of the position. That was the case when I became a department chair as an associate professor in 2007. The two full professors in my small department of ten faculty obtained much administrative success during their terms, and were very active in supporting me as I learned the ropes, but needed time to complete long-delayed scholarly projects.
A second positive of department chair service as an associate professor: the chair could discover a passion for administration and decide to make the switch to devote several years – or the bulk of her/his career – on that side of the academic house. Two friends became department chairs in their late 50s and discovered a real taste and skill set for administration, and wish that they had discovered the path earlier. As a new dean at 45 I will have 20+ years to make administrative contributions. Am I joining “The Dark Side”?!? No way!