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Department Chair Training: Priorities, Needs, and Preferences.

There are several variables that are placing unique stress on the community college sector of the higher education industry. In addition to changing institutional missions, these colleges are offering an increasing number of bachelor's degrees and they are expected to respond more directly to labor and economic needs while also competing directly with a large number of public entities for scarce resources and public funds. Added to these challenges is an aging administrative workforce that could result in almost half of all community college presidents retiring within the next five to 10 years. An additional challenge seems to be flat enrollment, with declines in some states due to population decreases over the past 10 years (Juszkiewicz, 2017).

The confluence of the challenges facing community colleges is a need for strong administrative leadership at all levels (Butler, 2019). Training community college leaders has been a frequent topic for both scholarship and practice, and is notably present through such agencies as the Community College Chair Academy. Much of this work has focused on traditional skill development, such as planning and communication skills, and recent research has reinforced much of this conceptualization. The chair position is a logical and important place to begin leadership training and development as nearly two decades ago Gmelch (2004) estimated that 80% of all decisions made in the academy are made at the department chair level.

The reason departmental leaders make the majority of decisions is often because they are the frontline administrators who must respond directly to student and faculty needs (Shoenthal, 2020). They are the individuals who schedule classes, respond to employer needs, evaluate faculty teaching, enforce rules and regulations, and interpret institutional policy as it relates to student progress, faculty evaluation and compensation, and overall curriculum management (Albashiry, Voogt, & Pieters, 2016).

The problem addressed in the current study is that there is a legacy of literature about department chair training, yet there are few current assessments of the types of training department chairs report that they need to be effective in their roles in the future (Weaver, Ely, Dickson, & DellAntonio, 2019). Therefore, the purpose for conducting the study was to create a new inventory of contemporary training needs for current community college department chairs.

Background of the Study

The importance of the role of the department chair has been studied for decades. Several scholars place heavy emphasis on the overall importance of the department chair as a multi-faceted position whose responsibilities and qualities can assist with departmental and system-wide change initiatives. Chairs are pivotal in change initiatives by assisting in determining need, planning, creating vision, understanding cultural and political underpinnings, and lending leadership skills during times of change (Seagren, Creswell, & Wheeler, 1993; Tucker, 1992). Hecht et al. (1999) described the roles of department chairs as frontline managers, departmental spokespersons, implementers of campus policy and institutional mission, and liaisons between faculty and administration.

As liaisons, chairs act as a conduit between faculty and administration, providing a bridge "between the academic department and the college's administration" (Sirkis, 2011, p. 49) and often they "swivel between their faculty colleagues and university administration" (Gmelch, 2004, p. 75). This special relationship allows department chairs to straddle the fine line between "management" and "coworker" to help each side understand the wants and needs of the other to a mutually beneficial end (Fattig, 2013).

Seagren, Creswell, and Wheeler (1993) summarized three main factors that lead to the importance of chairing a department: contact with a multitude of stakeholders at an institution, chairs as decision makers, and management authority. Berdrow (2010) framed the importance of department chairs as both actor and agent; representing the needs of stakeholders and the institution simultaneously. Hendrickson, Lane, Harris, and Dorman (2012) discussed how "leadership from a department chair or head is critical not only to the health of his or her department but to the college or university as a whole" and continued on to say that department chairs are "essential for establishing a vision; planning strategically; allocating resources; and developing faculty potential in teaching, scholarship, research, and service" (p. 268).

As departmental leaders, chairs have many duties they are responsible for to ensure the successful functioning of their departments. Gmelch and Miskin (1993) summed up how the duties of department chairs are varied and many:
Lists specific to department chair duties range from the exhaustive 
listing of 97 activities discovered by a University of Nebraska 
research team (Creswell, et al., 1990), or the astonishing 54 varieties 
of tasks and duties cited in Allan tucker's classic book Chairing the 
Academic Department (1992), or the 40 functions forwarded in a study of 
Australian department chairs (Moses & Roe, 1990). The genesis of these 
lists can be traced back to Siever's 12 functions, expanded to 18 by 
McCarty, reduced to 15 by Hoyt, and expanded again to 27 by Smart and 
Elton (Moses & Roe, 1990). (p. 9)

These categories of responsibilities can range from funding, legal issues, management, faculty, and general administrative duties, to faculty workloads, handling of student/faculty issues, and hiring and training new faculty (Aziz et al., 2005; Gmelch & Miskin, 1993; Hecht, 2004). Aziz et al. (2005) found that department chairs can engage in "hiring and developing faculty, allocating limited resources, preparing strategic plans, and mediating conflicts" as part of their administrative duties (p. 572). Gmelch and Miskin (1993) break down chair responsibilities into four main categories: faculty developer, manager, leader, and scholar (pp. 10-11). Hecht et al. (1999) defined the areas of chair responsibilities as:
Department governance and office management; curriculum and program 
development; faculty matters; student matters; communication with 
external audiences; financial and facilities management; data 
management; and institutional support. (p. 28)

Despite the importance of the position, department chairs often find themselves underprepared for the new duties expected of them. Department chairs often begin their careers in academia and transition to leadership roles later; as such, preparation for management roles is little to none (Fattig, 2013; Gmelch, 2004; Tucker, 1992). Many studies point to a lack of proper professional development or other formal training opportunities as a main source of leadership and administrative issues (Brinkley-Etzkorn & Lane, 2019; Gardner & Ward, 2018; Hecht, 2004; Sirkis, 2011; Wolverton et al., 2005; Wolverton & Ackerman, 2006).

Although some of these shortcomings are due to specific department needs and the variability of knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs), Hecht (2004) concluded that, "... for most department chairs, the learning process has been limited to on-the-job training" and that the role of the department chair was "largely a process of self-education" (p. 28). Sirkis (2011) points out that many institutions do not offer proper professional development for younger faculty, which leads to a smaller pool of candidates for chair positions. In fact, many colleges lack programs geared toward "structuring academic leadership duties and opportunities, offering role models, or providing ongoing reinforcement and guidance..." to junior faculty (Gmelch, 2004, p. 70). Wolverton et al. (2005) recommended identifying potential individuals a year in advance that could eventually take the role of department chair in order to assist in their development.

Although some external programs do exist to provide professional development and leadership training, many can be very generic, lack specificity, and be costly (Sirkis, 2011). Some colleges do opt to have "in-house" training, much of it is done at the department level with an extremely small portion of the training being offered at the system level (Brinkley-Etzkorn & Lane, 2019). Wolverton et al. (2005) found in their study of chairs and deans at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas that specific content critical to their program's success would be "curricular needs aligned under three general headings: conceptual understanding, skills development, and reflective practice" (p. 234).

Successful internal programs can be created for potential leaders for little investment on the part of the college (Berdrow, 2010; Brinkley-Etzkorn & Lane, 2019; Gardner & Ward, 2018; Wolverton & Ackerman, 2006). While very few colleges invest the time or energy into this type of development, proper professional development and preparation for chair positions can lead to greater benefits for the department and the college including greater chair retention, greater impact on change initiatives, and development of leadership skills (Gardner & Ward, 2018; Sirkis, 2011; Smith & Stewart, 1999).

The lack of preparation for department chairs can also lead to high turnover for the position. In their study of community college chairs in Texas, Smith and Stewart (1999) found that "12 percent (seven) of 59 chairs lasted only one year and 29 (seventeen) percent lasted only two years" (p. 32). Tucker (1992) discussed surveys that show many department chairpersons "have very little administrative experience" and that the "turnover rate was 15 to 20 percent per year..." (p. 27).

To identify professional development needs, many studies looked at specific KSAs related to department chair duties (Aziz et al., 2005; Brinkley-Etzkorn & Lane, 2019; Berdrow, 2010; Woleverton et al., 2005). Generally, these competencies included skills related to technical areas such as college policy, legal concerns, budgeting, and finances as well as some leadership areas including communications with faculty, students and stakeholders, interpersonal relationships, and conflict resolution. More recent research by Brinkley-Etzkorn and Lane (2019) found that the top skills department chairs felt they lacked were related to leadership (e.g., relationships and motivation) and fiscal policy (e.g., budgets and resource allocation) (p. 581). In a study of academic chairs and deans at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, Wolverton et al. (2005) found that there was a discrepancy about what department chairs thought they needed to know versus what deans and the provost believed chair duties should cover.

Although much of the literature focuses on either university chairs or department chairs in general, few studies show the specific challenges community college chairs face. Through a search of the literature, Miller and Seagren (1997), Sirkis (2011), and Smith and Stewart (1999) discuss many of the challenges faced by community college chairs as well as address professional development issues related to that specific role. Scholars have also pointed out the need for, yet lack of, training programs specifically geared toward college department chairs. Overall, though, there is little information and research that specifically addresses community college chair needs.

The lack of specific research related to community college department heads is important for several reasons. First, with a large aging population of community college presidents, there needs to be a generation of leaders being prepared to fulfill these roles, and a logical training ground for these future senior leaders are current department chairs. Second, community colleges are under assault from a variety of stakeholders demanding accountability for their investments, meaning that departments need to be performing at a high level and need to be able to demonstrate their value. And third, chairs play perhaps the most critical role in community colleges for implementing decisions and responding to students and other stakeholders. This group of professionals need to have their own delineated, identified range of skills, programs, and understanding about how they can help their colleges provide the best possible learning environment for their learners. As such, the intent of this research is to expand on existing literature on community college department chair professional development needs and make recommendations for practice.

Research Methods

As the intention of the study was to create an updated inventory of department chair training needs, a dual approach was used for this study. First, three different focus groups were held with department chairs to hear their voices and determine, without prompting, their perceptions of what kinds of training they believe they need. The second set of data were collected through a three-round Delphi survey, drawing on the experiences and "voices" of experienced department chairs from geographically diverse institutions.

Focus Groups

The focus group data were collected using a set of prescribed initial discussion questions. The questions were based broadly on the Seagren et al. (1994) work, including prompts about current training needs and training needs as the chair began in the role. The focus group institutions were all located in the Midwest. The first focus group was located in a rural setting with an equal number of occupational and transfer-oriented programs and a commuter-student population. This focus group included six department chairs referred to as "directors." The second focus group was held at a suburban community college with a commuter-student population and a predominantly transfer-focused student population. This institution did, however, enroll a substantial number of health career-related students. This focus group included seven department chairs. The third focus group was conducted at a rural residential and commuter-student campus of a community college that was primarily transfer-oriented in its programming. This focus group included eight department chairs. All focus groups were conducted during the fall of 2019.

Delphi Survey

An expert panel of community college department chairs was selected to participate in a three-round Delphi survey to identify what they perceived to be the most critical training needs for themselves and their peers. The panel of participating chairs was generated from a national organization of higher education leaders. The list was randomly sorted and emails were sent to the identified chairs requesting their participation in the study. In total, 14 community college chairs agreed to participate in the study. Of the 14 who agreed to participate, all participants completed round one, 13 completed round two, and 11 completed the final round.

The chairs who agreed to participate in the study were emailed an open-ended prompt that read: "Please list up to five (5) areas that you believe are most important for community college chairs to receive training on. These can he early, mid, or advanced career training. No particular order is necessary."


Focus Groups

Focus Group I

As shown in Table 1, these department chairs identified 13 unique areas in which they perceived they needed training. Although there was the need to understand technical paperwork at the institution, many of the training areas focused on organizational behavior issues, such as leadership, guiding philosophy, culture development, and the personality of students. The other items they identified were unique to the chair position, and related to trying to evaluate teaching and differentiating between student and faculty perceptions. One chair said,
when I was a faculty member, I knew what was going on in my classroom. 
I've become really surprised, though, to hear what goes on in other 
classrooms. Trying to figure out the truth, though, either from the 
student or the faculty member, has been tough.

Focus Group 2

Also shown in Table 1, these department chairs talked freely about the differences between leadership and management. They noted, in particular, that although there is a need to be technically compliant on campus, faculty members are also looking to them as chairs to be leaders and role models. The chair's work expectations, for example, create expectations for others, and as a result, the chairs were interested in learning more about leadership. They also reported wanting training on a number of technical areas, such as time management, conflict mediation, dealing with difficult faculty, and communication strategies. And, unlike the first focus group, they spent a considerable amount of time discussing their own professional needs to manage their careers and whether they would ascend to new, higher level positions or return to their faculty careers.

Focus Group 3

The third focus group of eight department chairs identified 11 different topics for their own training, including such areas as protecting equity, problem management, managing the department's culture, and the technical skills necessary for accreditation and program reviews. They also identified two areas of written communication: technical writing and writing job descriptions. This group finished their discussion with a focus on creating visionary leadership, and how they can come up with a leading vision and how they can get faculty, students, and even administrators to buy into this vision. They all agreed that this was a primary area that they needed training and development on, and that it is also one of the hardest parts of their job.

Delphi Survey Data

A total of 14 department chairs agreed to participate in all three rounds of the Delphi survey, although only 12 completed the second round and 11 completed the third round. These 14 individuals generated an initial list of 66 areas for chair training in round one, but after editing for duplication, 20 training areas were identified for use in the second and third round of the survey. During the second round of rhe survey when chairs were initially asked to rate their level of agreement with the training items (1 = Strong Disagreement with the need for training on the item progressing to 5 = Strong Agreement), the items had an overall [bar.x] = 4.04. The participating chairs were provided group data and asked to re-rate each item for the third round, resulting in 32 rating changes and a lower overall mean for the items of [bar.x] = 3.97.

The strongest agreement for needed training was identified in the areas of working with or handling student concerns and issues ([bar.x] = 4.64), understanding campus policies and procedures ([bar.x] = 4.55), conflict resolution ([bar.x] = 4.45), and mentoring and coaching faculty ([bar.x] = 4.45; see Table 2). These chairs agreed least with the need for training about strategic planning ([bar.x] = 3.45), time management ([bar.x] = 3.45), and managing employees ([bar.x] = 3.27).


With the ever-increasing importance of the department chair position, community colleges need to understand current chair training needs in order to implement training systems to support these faculty. The current study worked to provide an updated inventory of training needs for community college department chairs. While many previous studies about chairs in general focus on KSAs that are needed to be successful in the position, few studies consulted chairs directly to assess perceived training needs.

Both the focus groups and the Delphi survey confirmed that many previously identified training areas are still valid; however, there has been a general shift in the importance of these skills as well as the addition of training in new and different areas. Previous research on chair training needs seemed to show an emphasis on faculty/student issues and on technical training areas such as budgeting and legal concerns. The current study shows that while technical training is still needed, training in leadership skills, that is, how to be an effective leader, has become more emphasized.

Data collected from both the Delphi survey and the focus groups suggested that technical training areas such as budgeting, strategic planning, managing employees, time management, and hiring/firing of faculty were considered lower in importance compared with leadership issues such as resolving student issues, conflict resolution, mentoring/coaching faculty, and interpersonal communication. This contrasts with previous studies that indicate a focus on technical skills training over general leadership training (Sirkis, 2011; Wolverton et al., 2005). With colleges currently under the microscope regarding student success, retention, graduation rates, and funding issues, it makes sense that chairs have been asked to take on more leadership roles to address the needs of multiple constituents. While the current study does confirm that technical areas are still considered highly important in terms of training needs, it supports other current research that indicates chairs today value leadership skills training more (see Brinkley-Etzkorn & Lane, 2019).

New areas introduced in this study such as mentoring/coaching faculty, team/department culture, and the mental health/wellness issues of faculty and students indicate an attitude shift from previous studies. With the national focus in recent years on destigmatizing mental health needs, the addition of mental health/wellness as an identified training need could indicate that chairs today are more comfortable seeking methods to help combat the pressures of the position. This could also be needed to train chairs to assist with general faculty well-being and maintaining a healthy department culture. College investment in this type of training could help prevent burnout and lead to decreased chair turnover rates.

The introduction of mentoring/coaching faculty and succession planning as a training area could indicate that chairs today have greater awareness of the need for future leaders and well-trained faculty and emphasizes this study's findings about the importance of leadership skills training needs. The focus groups specifically addressed this need by discussing how chairs are being looked to as leaders and role models. Participants also brought to attention the need to train chairs with respect to team/department culture. Focus group feedback included mentions of "setting tone for the department's culture" and "setting a culture of team," indicating that chairs today are also expected to maintain healthy workplace cultures as well as develop a deeper understanding of individual department nuances.

Surprisingly, technology training did not seem to be emphasized by either the focus groups or the Delphi survey. With such a gap between this study and previous studies and the advances in technology that have been made during that time, the lack of emphasis on technological training could indicate a few things. First, with technology use in colleges becoming standard, many chairs may already be familiar with the technology used for their day-to-day duties. Second, with technology training becoming a standard training area both formally and informally, chairs may already have sufficient training in this area. Lastly, it could be that chairs today simply do not utilize technology for their position any more than previous generations.

It seems that while many of the categories discussed in this study are similar to those of previous studies, there has been a shift in the last decade away from the emphasis on technical skills training toward that of leadership skills training. There were also new areas introduced that show a trend of college culture competency, mental health awareness, and faculty mentoring. Addressing these changes will be crucial for colleges to establish training programs aimed at developing department chairs as institutional leaders. The findings in this study also support Sirkis' (2011) work of nearly a decade ago (and Smith and Stewart (1999) from two decades ago) that show institutions have still not fully developed highly professional, efficient training packages for their current and future leaders. These findings also suggest that the chair role is increasingly professional with professional expectations and that those holding the position are thoughtfully placed into the role and might often see them as stepping stones in a career.

Implications for Practice

Findings in the current study provide a clear agenda for what senior academic leaders and those in professional societies need to consider when designing and developing training programs. First and foremost, such training programs must be relevant and relatable for academic program leaders, and these findings suggest some potential important first steps in identifying what should he included.

Training programs need to be considerate of the balance between technical training types of developmental programs and those that are more conceptual and abstract. A grasp of the technical responsibilities, such as the tasks associated with the daily running of an academic program, remain an important responsibility for program leaders. Leaders who are newer to their positions have questions about how the institution works and how policy is administered, especially in their individual programs.

Another layer of technical considerations are those management-related activities that include issues like project management, taking personnel actions, and balancing an academic budget. These types of technical training programs are less likely to be universal in nature, and although the first technical training programs noted might be more relevant for newer leaders and chairs than more seasoned professionals, they still carry a strong degree of relevance. These training areas, however, might be much more situational and appropriate for individual mentoring and less appropriate for broad dissemination.

Another type of training programs identified was more conceptual in nature and focused more on questions of leadership. These training areas incorporate strategic thinking, and senior administrators need to think about how to best invest in this type of training. Some simple workshops and training programs might help with strategic thinking, but often, these types of programs are most successful when they are immersive and experienced over an extended period of time.

There are no uniform one-size-fits-all approaches to training, and the breadth of topics identified here reflect many needs, meaning that senior campus administrators must take the time to identify what is unique to their campus and their academic leaders, and from that determination, begin the equally challenging task of identifying the most effective training methods. In addition to campus leaders, professional societies can leverage these findings by their ability to bring together chairs and leaders from multiple campuses and to focus their energies on specific training topics. These trainings might he developed and delivered by state community college organizations or broad community college professional societies, but academic discipline-oriented professional organizations can also play an important role in interpreting training needs and how these trainings are delivered.

The landscape of higher education is changing rapidly, and academic leaders must have a commitment to continuous renewal of their skills and thinking. Identifying training needs is but a first step in helping the future campus leaders think beyond their program areas and conceptualize how community colleges effectively invest in their students and communities in the future.


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Johnathon E. Paape, MEd

Academic Advisor and Adjunct Music Faculty NorthWest Arkansas Community College

Michael T. Miller, EdD

Professor of Higher Education and Community College Leadership University of Arkansas

Kenda S. Grover, EdD

Associate Professor and Coordinator of Adult and Lifelong Learning University of Arkansas

Adam A. Morris, EdD

Vice President for Academic Affairs Crowder (Community) College, Missouri
Table 1. Focus Group Identified Training Needs
College    Topics for training
College 1
           Technical paperwork kinds of things
           Technology is vitally important (hacking, accessibility);
           chairs need to understand
           the wide scope of what technology is, how it is used, and how
           important it is on
           Have to understand students, and students have changed a lot;
           it's a cultural issue,
           and one of students feeling entitled
           How we deal with student perceptions of teaching
           How do you know if teachers are doing a good job
           Determining an institutional philosophy of teaching, student
           expectation, and faculty
           Setting the tone for the department's culture
           Setting a culture of team
           Systems, both formal and informal of how the institution
           operates from an
           administrative perspective
           Management philosophy
           How to better equip students with the soft-skills needed in
           How to accurately assess instructors
College 2
           How to lead and manage a team of faculty
           Understanding the current generation of students and how they
           are best taught
           Management workflow on campus, and how strongly you must
           adhere to certain
           Time management
           How to build and work effectively with an advisory board
           Assuring that faculty are teaching the right things
           Conflict mediation
           Dealing with difficult faculty
           How to communicate effectively with faculty without having
           too many meetings
           Managing my own career
College 3
           Effectively written job descriptions
           Situational/surprise problem management
           Trying to please everyone and maintaining priorities
           Protecting equity
           Managing complaining faculty members
           Technical writing
           Shifting from "one of us" to being an outsider
           Managing departmental culture
           How to get to know faculty in the department and the
           personal/professional balance
           Technical aspects of leading program and accreditation
           Visionary leadership
Table 2. Delphi Survey Identified Training Needs
Training Need                   Round 2  Final Round 3
Student concerns/issues         4.58     4.64
Campus policies/procedures      4.58     4.55
Conflict resolution             4.58     4.45
Mentoring/coaching faculty      4.58     4.45
Hiring of faculty/staff         4.33     4.36
Leadership training             4.42     4.27
Interpersonal communication     4.17     4.18
Work-load balance               4.17     4.18
Course scheduling               4.00     4.18
Coordinating with other campus  4.00     4.09
Performance reviews             4.33     4.00
Mental health/wellness          4.00     4.00
Budgeting                       3.67     3.73
Change management               3.83     3.64
Curriculum development          3.83     3.55
Firing of faculty/staff         3.42     3.36
Accreditation                   3.58     3.55
Strategic planning              3.58     3.45
Time management                 3.58     3.45
Managing employees              3.58     3.27
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Author:Paape, Johnathon E.; Miller, Michael T.; Grover, Kenda S.; Morris, Adam A.
Publication:Community College Enterprise
Date:Mar 22, 2021
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