I am excited to start in a new position this week: Faculty Program Director for the new Organizational Leadership Program at Excelsior College. As I think about my approach to this position, I can’t help but recount the many fantastic program directors I have had the privilege of working with over the years and what I’ve learned from them. I have collaborated as a colleague in different capacities – onboarding faculty, starting programs, faculty and student issues, curricular revisions, strategic planning, accreditation, assessment, search committees, and projects. Although I was probably young in their eyes, I always appreciated how valued and trusted they made me feel, which gave me a unique vantage point into their world. Here are some of the many things I’ve learned. 

First, I’ll sum up what a chair or program director’s main duties have been in the institutions I have worked for. As head of a program, much of their time is spent on tending to student needs, tending to faculty’s needs, and teaching. But, beyond this, they are expected to manage (and work within generally small) budgets, recruit new faculty and students, evaluate faculty, compile accreditation reports, engage with alumni, and work closely with marketing to promote the program. Of course, there are other tasks asked of chairs – leading search committees and councils, reporting assessment results, revising the curriculum, and supervising the resolution of student issues. In sum, there are a lot of different components they juggle simultaneously. I am reminded of systems theory here – there are many components they have to design and operate just right for a program to function as it should. Some of the best program directors I have worked with are the ones who have been able to discern and communicate what takes priority and what needs to be tabled until a certain date. 

Leveraging their Network

When it comes to recruiting faculty, marketing to students, solving problems, and promoting their program, many program directors are exceptional at leveraging their network. They know how to rally their alumni, colleagues, connections, former classmates, their faculty, and their students to help them meet their goals. They utilize social media to establish themselves and their program as experts, and they provide great industry connections for students in the process. 

They Know How To Hire

Faculty members are one of the more difficult hires. Program directors not only need to find someone who is an expert in the content they’ll be teaching and has extensive experiences to share, but they also have to find someone who is great at working with students, values teaching excellence, and is committed to quality assessment. This is a tall order because these are almost two different skill sets program directors need to look for – industry expertise and teaching expertise. 

Some of the best program directors I have worked with know the formula for how to find and screen the best faculty and adjunct fits for their department and the classes they need to fill. There are nuances specific to each hire. For example, there are certain qualities they look for in a faculty member who will be working with students in computer science as opposed to working with students in a Spanish class, for example. At the same time, program directors are looking for faculty who are experts in their field, regularly practice promoting their work, and do regular research. 

Dealing with Problems

There is no shortage of problem-solving in a program director’s everyday work. Some of the most frequent problems they have to deal with are student academic and personal issues, underperforming faculty and adjuncts, budget shortages, alumni requests, and enrollment demands. These are daily problems they must balance while maintaining collegiality. The best program directors I have worked with have a sense of ease about them when balancing these many plates, and they also know when to highlight key priorities for their department and their institutional leadership. 

Curriculum and Assessment

There is a real art to developing a curriculum, mapping to outcomes, and managing assessment. Some of the best program directors I have worked with can visualize the program in its entirety, have a deep understanding of how the pieces should fit, know how students should be assessed, and create a great program experience for students. They also know how to manage projects having to do with course design, assessment, and accreditation. 

Being a Liaison, a Leader, and a Visionary

Program directors are naturally put into the seat of leading and all the attributes that come with it. Some of the best program directors I have worked with are real visionaries – they present clear visions and goals for their departments to work towards. They can articulate how their program needs to be visually represented and they collaborate with marketing and other constituents. They constantly communicate their program key points internally and externally. 

Many are great liaisons – they know how to straddle the line between faculty, students, and administration and they know how to navigate the political waters in between. They know how to manage meetings, make decisions, and move an agenda forward. And they do all of this while balancing a budget and deadlines. 

Conclusion

While I don’t think this is a complete list, these points are the notable highlights on my mind this week. In my short life and time in academia, I have been extremely fortunate to work with so many outstanding faculty and program directors, but I have also lost too many along the way. This week, one who has been on my mind is Dr. Michele Marable, who passed away last Fall. She was especially dedicated to education and the lives of children with disabilities. But to me, she was a mentor and one of the best chairs I have ever worked with. She fully embodied all of the characteristics above with grace, consideration, candor, and humor. I can only hope I honor her as I move forward in this new position.