Department chairs complain that they don’t have enough money to provide travel funds to faculty members. They often say they can’t pay student help, fund sabbaticals or buy equipment.

“Once the government was throwing money at us,” said Don Chu, a professor and former dean of the College of Professional Studies at the University of West Florida. “We could charge whatever tuition we wanted,” he added.

Those days are gone. “There’s never been more need and less resources,” Chu said. Deans and provosts should encourage chairs to use their budgets efficiently and maximize their resources, Chu said.

“If they’re happy with the resources they’re getting, they shouldn’t do anything,” Chu said. But if they are not satisfied, they can take responsibility for improving their department’s position, he said.

Chairs typically come from the faculty and return to the faculty after they serve their term, Chu said. “Most chairs are new and so they don’t know what they can do and what they can’t do,” he added. Make sure they know how they can help their departments and faculty members through efficient use of their budget dollars, optimized use of resources, and expanded revenue streams.

The majority of chairs are in their first two or three years in the position, so they don’t know what the budget specifies and they don’t know what questions to ask, Chu said. The first step for them is to ask the institution’s budget officers for a summary — on no more than two pages — of where all their department’s income comes from. They should also ask for a summary of how all the money was spent in the last year. Then they should sit down with the budget officer and ask questions until they understand the documents. “That’s something most administrators never do,” Chu said.

Next they should delve more deeply into the budgeting process. For example, if their department’s money comes from the dean of science, they should find out where it came from before that. They should also learn what factors cause the amount of money they receive to vary. Institutional priorities can have an impact on department income. Budgets at most state institutions are formula-driven, so department chairs should understand the formulas, Chu said.

Chairs should also evaluate their course schedules. Those can be a department’s greatest resource, Chu said. For example, in a department with 10 faculty members, a typical travel budget for the year might be $5,000. Combining two sections of a course could provide enough money to increase the travel budget by 50 or 100 percent, Chu said. A plane ticket can mean a lot to a faculty member, he added.

Even adding three students to a course with 30 students would maximize the course by 10 percent, Chu said.

It might be possible for some departments to trade off courses and teach them only once every other year. Or if a lot of juniors take a course that is classified at the sophomore level, consider reclassifying it, Chu said. At many institutions, that will mean an increase under the funding formula, he added.

Curriculum is also a great resource, Chu said. Chairs need to recognize needs and opportunities in their communities. For example, when he was dean, he realized that the primary industries in his area were the military and health care. Many wounded veterans who settled in the area wanted to learn to be social work counselors, so his school started a program for them.

Chairs can also cut expenses to find money for something else. For example, a chair in Chu’s school eliminated landline phones in faculty offices. That freed up enough money to buy the faculty members new computers.

If faculty members resist changes that will maximize resources, chairs can use their leadership skills to convince them. Some faculty members in one of Chu’s departments opposed schedule changes that affected their teaching schedules. The chair took them out to lunch and explained how the changes would help the department. The faculty members were convinced and agreed to the changes.

When Chu gave his chairs more responsibility for the budget, faculty members quickly realized how the system benefited them, he said. Departments began to act more responsibly, and the faculty no longer nickeled-and-dimed the dean’s office for money, he said.

E-mail Don Chu at dchu@uwf.edu.

Encourage chairs to maximize their resources

Department chairs have power when it comes to making sure their departments have the resources to be successful. Encourage them to take these steps to put their departments in a better position:

  • Make sure alumni know they can designate a department when they donate to the annual fund. Tell them how the money will be used.
  • Request two-page reports from the institution’s budget officer detailing where money coming into the department comes from and where it is spent. Chairs should ask questions about the reports until they understand them completely.
  • Consider their course schedules as a primary resource. Increasing the number of students in sections or reclassifying courses could help departments enroll students for less money.
  • Analyze opportunities for increasing enrollment while meeting community needs. For example, a large number of injured military personnel were settling near the University of West Florida. Many of them were interested in training to become social workers, so programs were created to meet their needs.

Create an environment that promotes budgeting innovation

If you want department chairs to take responsibility for maximizing the resources available to their departments, you need to give them the tools and encouragement to be effective. You can do that by:

  • Ensuring that departments can keep funds that they save by being efficient. “If every penny is swept at the end of the fiscal year, there’s no incentive to take chances,” said Don Chu, a professor and former dean of the College of Professional Studies at the University of West Florida. Make sure that buy-in for a new budgeting model exists through the highest levels of administration, he said.
  • Understanding your division’s budget. Make sure you are clear where money comes from and how it is spent so that you can support chairs as they create efficiencies for their departments.

Ask your institution’s budget officer for a two-page spreadsheet detailing where your division’s funds come from. Also request a two-page spreadsheet showing how money is spent. Ask questions until you understand the figures.

  • Encouraging your chairs to understand their budgets. They should follow the same process you followed.
  • Gaining a historical understanding of how much it costs to produce enrollment. If a certain amount of money produces a certain level of enrollment in a department, chairs might find ways to enroll the same number of students for less money. In that case, the departments should be able to keep the money they saved to invest in equipment or department initiatives.

Provide online training for your chairs

Do your department chairs need training to be more effective leaders? Sign them up for The Jossey-Bass Department Chair Leadership Institute Online Seminar Series 1: The Essentials.

Don Chu, a professor and former dean of the College of Professional Studies at the University of West Florida, will lead two of the five 90-minute seminars. Sessions will take place March through May.

To learn more or register, you may visit www.departmentchairs.org.