Book by Jeffrey L. Buller
Review by Brenda L. Banks
School of Music
University of Washington

As my own department is deciding on a new department chair this year, I have found myself thinking more carefully about the department chair’s function and what qualities I appreciate in a department chair.  I was pleased to come across The Essential Department Chair, and any advisor who seeks to better understand the department chair’s complex job will find this book enlightening.

Like many individuals promoted to management positions, a new department chair has likely been singled out for the honor more because of demonstrated leadership potential or even just popularity among the faculty, rather than because of any previous management experience, which is not a common bullet item on an academic’s CV. Although we might perceive the department chair to be very powerful, as Buller makes abundantly clear, this individual is less an absolute monarch than a middle manager situated between the institution’s upper administration and the department’s faculty, staff, and students. Beginning with chapters on hiring, mentoring, and evaluating faculty, this book in effect teaches the chair how to manage faculty, without making them feel managed. It covers a range of issues from ethical and political  to practical issues such as budgeting, fundraising, course rotations, and scheduling. In a fine chapter on “Finding Your Administrative Style,” Buller argues that no one administrative style or personality type is ideally suited to the job.  Effective chairs should endeavor to understand and then apply their strengths and supplement their weaknesses by seeking out colleagues and assistants with complementary strengths and weaknesses. 

My favorite feature of the book is its detailed case studies in various aspects of leadership, including budgeting, decision-making, ethics, and politics. An example is “The Office Dilemma,” that age-old quandary when a prime office location becomes available and every person in the building can argue why he or she is most deserving of the prize. Indeed, when the chair’s constituency is a group of highly intelligent and accomplished individuals with competing agendas, then listening to their various arguments, making a decision, and enforcing it with authority is a real test of leadership. Most effectively, Buller does not end his case studies with a simple solution. Instead, he poses numerous thought-provoking questions but no answers. While I found this omission frustrating at first, it soon became clear that these case studies do not allow for easy answers, and it may be more important for chairs to think about each case study in all of its complexity and then ponder how they might resolve the problem, rather than take away a ready-made solution from the author.

As a Vice President for Academic Affairs and a former department chair himself, Buller certainly speaks authoritatively about the chair’s unique challenges, and I can confidently recommend The Essential Department Chair to advisors seeking insight into those challenges.  An advisor might even wish to recommend The Essential Department Chair to a new chair, or perhaps to an experienced chair who could use a little guidance.  My only quibble is that the book does not have an index, which would make it easier to keep it handy as a reference tool, but it is worth reading in its entirety.  Advisors should be aware of how many plates a chair typically juggles, in order to more effectively support the chair and understand advising’s place among his or her many concerns.

The Essential Department Chair: A Practical Guide to College Administration (2006). Book by Jeffrey L. Buller. Review by Brenda L. Banks. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass 299 pp.  $35.00. ISBN: 978-1-882982-99-8
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