A New Chair Pursues Richer, Fuller, Better Results

“Perhaps sharing personal reflection of what worked best for me as a first-year chair will be beneficial.”

As I write while vacationing, I am mesmerized by a playful seagull gliding back and forth above a sandy white beach off the Atlantic Coast. The beauty of the palm trees swaying to the ocean breeze as the sun goes down intoxicates my soul. Everything before me seems to be in slow motion—the evening beach walkers take a more leisurely pace than earlier in the day and the children collect fewer shells in their pails as they focus more intently on finding that one precious treasure.

This pace supports Carl Honoré’s book In Praise of Slowness, which takes the reader on a journey to live more patiently. Performing tasks at a slower pace allows us to think deeper and can lead to richer, fuller and better results.

One of my favorite actors is the award-winning Tyne Daly. You may recognize her from the 1980s TV cop drama series Cagney and Lacey, as Maxine the social worker on Judging Amy or as Mama Rose in Broadway’s Gypsy. Her mother’s mantra was “deeper, richer, fuller, better,” which encourages us to avoid mediocrity by finding the deeper meaning, richer results, fuller ideas and better ways of knowing.

I adopted this mantra on June 1, 2007, the day I began chairing the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at Ithaca College. My goal was not to rush to decisions, but rather to let the mind wander and think things through using a slow, methodical approach—aka deep thinking. In Praise of Slowness advocates that when you give your mind a chance to slow down, some pretty good stuff can surface. How tough could that be?

On my inaugural day as department chair, I made two dreadful and embarrassing blunders even before noon. In an effort to demonstrate my playful personality and devotion to my academic discipline, I wore a T-shirt (summers are very informal on our campus) that on the front screamed “Twister! America’s Favorite Party Game!” I received many comments on the T-shirt as I introduced myself around campus.

It wasn’t until I was changing for a noon swim that I realized the back of the shirt screamed even louder: “So Let’s Get Bent!” Mortified and completely embarrassed, I wore the shirt inside-out for the remainder of the day. If you can’t laugh at yourself, everyone else will.

My second mistake was minor in comparison: I inadvertently charged a personal item to the department budget. There among the office supplies listed on the receipt that I hand delivered to the dean’s office was a women’s personal hygiene product. And to think, I had only two years and 364 days left of my term as department chair. God help us all, I thought to myself.

So what words of wisdom could I offer to others as they step into “the dark side of administration,” as I have done this past year? Perhaps sharing personal reflection of what worked best for me as a first-year chair will be beneficial.

• Hot tub moments:

Some people meditate, some pray and some march right into the fiery chaos with no need to escape the daily commotions. My finest thoughts and most innovative ideas came each evening while relaxing in a hot tub. As Honoré states, “Instead of saying ‘Don’t just sit there; do something’ we should say the opposite, ‘Don’t just do something; sit there.”

I heeded this advice most evenings by slowing down my mind and revisiting issues from a different angle which often yielded deeper, richer, fuller and better results. Aristotle believed that contemplation is the best activity that we can perform and espoused that contemplation exercises the best thing in us: our rationality. Thus an aphorism was born: no hubbub in the hot tub, just pure contemplation.

• Read the label:

There is no best-selling manual for surviving the position of the department chair. I sought out people whom I respect and they provided invaluable resources that required me to read, think deeply and ask more questions. I attended conferences, seminars and workshops, which challenged me in the realm of leadership, management and administration, and I actually read the books the experts suggested.

Once in my doctoral studies I had a professor who claimed we would be reading so much in his class that our eyes would be trained to read the labels on ketchup bottles. Once again I find myself absorbed in reading books and labels.

• It’s no longer about me:

I believe faculty are notorious for the “all about me” syndrome. After all, we control our research, teaching, service, office hours and other factors, so the “meism” is a focal part of our daily work.

As a new chair, I began to see the bigger picture: Our department was connected to many variables across our vast campus, and the pieces to MY puzzle swiftly and very willingly changed to pieces of OUR puzzle. I’ve shifted the “it’s all about me” way of thinking to “it’s all about us” with relative ease this past year.

Even the order of my filing cabinets demonstrates this. Prior to chairing the department, MY teaching, MY research and MY service files occupied the top three drawers of file cabinets. Now MY files are relegated to the bottom and OUR department files occupy all the top drawers.

Finally, although my new role as chair bestows a mythical executive status, the reality is that I am a member of the faculty and I neither own nor dominate anything or anyone. As chair, it is not MY department, it is OUR department; they are not MY faculty, they are OUR faculty; she is not MY administrative assistant, she is OURS. Finally, they are not MY students, they are OURS.

• The wheels on the bus go ‘round and round:’

I highly recommend new chairs read the book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t by Jim Collins. His research team examined and contrasted good companies with those that failed to make the leap from good to great.

One of their central findings, Level 5 Leadership, was that successful leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company.

What I found particularly helpful was the realization that great leaders didn’t step in to a new position and start making colossal changes. Rather, they began their transformation by first getting the right people on the bus and in the right seats—and the wrong people off the bus—and only then did they figure out where to drive. Brilliant!

So I invested much of my first year in spending quality time with our faculty, to figure out who likes to sit near the window or the aisle, who wants the responsibility of being near an exit door, who wants to navigate and finally, who wants to drive our bus. We might be circling the parking lot now, but eventually we’ll figure out where to go.

I suppose this is why most chairs are on a three-year term. Great vision without great people is irrelevant.

• And who might you be?

During the summer of my initiation, I purposely stopped using email and phones simply because I was committed to personalized horizontal and vertical networking. Technology has its place but it should not replace getting to know one’s colleagues on a more personal level.

Each Friday I found myself treating colleagues to lunch—from the custodian to the college attorney—and I learned more in that one hour of quality conversation then I could ever have learned from reading the faculty handbook. My knowledge base increased significantly and I felt empowered by those teaching me the ropes.

An unforeseen outcome is that one year later, I consider many of them to be my friends. They say that knowledge may be power but to learn is to empower.

Spending a few hours cruising around campus with a public safety officer was an immeasurable educational experience for me, leading to my better understanding the 18 to 21-year-olds with whom I work everyday. I now know more about our students’ drugs of choice, campus party locales, campus security, the judiciary process, the history of campus buildings and most importantly, how to better recognize students in distress.

During a quiet summer day, an officer and I visited student dorms, campus apartments, dining halls, the infirmary and even the water tower in the back forty acres, where many a student offspring has been conceived. In my opinion, no one knows student life better than campus law enforcement officers.

Final thoughts

Much to the surprise of others who have served in a similar capacity, I have very much enjoyed my first year as a department chair. Clearly I have developed a heightened personal and professional investment in Ithaca College. New relationships have materialized. A new breadth of knowledge is being pursued. New career aspirations are being enter-tained. And I am forever challenging myself to slow the mind in pursuit of deeper, richer, fuller and better results.

Dr. Margaret L. Arnold wishes to thank Ithaca College President Emerita Dr. Peggy Williams for inspiration and guidance during her first year as department chair.

Arnold, Margaret L., PhD. (2008, October). In her own words: A new chair pursues richer, fuller, better results. Women in Higher Education, 17(10), p. 29-30.

Margaret L. Arnold, PhD, associate professor and chair of the Dept. of Recreation and Leisure Studies at Ithaca College NY

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