From the President

On Academic Leadership

Vicki L. Ruiz | May 1, 2015


Whether you’re a volunteer or a conscript, you may find that service as a department chair brings particular challenges to your skills of historical inquiry and, most certainly, of interpersonal communication. The ability to negotiate across several constituencies—the department, the school, the wider campus, even donors—requires more than a thick skin and a sense of humor (though they help); it demands a commitment to be present: that is, putting out small fires before they become big ones, staying informed about initiatives that may impact your department for good or ill, exercising judgment to know when a problem exceeds your authority, and finally, expressing daily appreciation to professional staff who form the engine of the academic enterprise and to colleagues who give the extra effort in teaching and service. During my 33-year career, I have spent 11 years as an institute director or department chair, plus another five as an academic dean. I have come to envision academic administration as an opportunity for mentorship on a grand scale, an opportunity to make the academy more humane, accessible, and, yes, more relevant. As a dean, I secured resources to build programs and to invest in students, staff, and colleagues, but on a bad day I felt like an umpire at a Little League game or the high school principal supervising the protagonists of the 1980s film The Breakfast Club.

Freighted with expectations, leadership comes with a laundry list of presumptions about your ability and identity by those below and above the administrative flowchart. For example, at times I am called upon to play the part of la madre—helping peers work through professional and personal problems, but after making a tough call, I change into la bruja—the shortsighted, penny-pinching harridan who fails to recognize the visionary aims of others. Such duality (with all its gendered/racial overlays) comes with the territory. Or as renowned choreographer of baile folklórico Rosa Guerrero once explained, “You have to learn . . . that you’re not going to be born for people to like you.”1 To reiterate, taking joy in mentorship and having a sense of humor provide balance.

In 2008, I led an interactive workshop sponsored by the Women in the Historical Profession Committee at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in which I offered exaggerated fictional scenarios of inappropriate professional behavior for colleagues to discuss. Based on the feedback I received, as well as an additional seven years of administrative seasoning, I have revised these exercises to stimulate a larger conversation within departments about shared mission and responsibility. Again, the fictional scenarios are just that: “All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” I hope these scenarios will spark discussions about the contours of academic leadership, demystifying policies and protocols as well as underscoring the importance of shared governance and collegiality.

Fictional Scenario #1

You teach at a public research university, where diversity receives much lip service, but the student body remains fairly homogenous. As chair, you are pleased that three young, talented women have joined the department as assistant professors. At the end of the spring semester, Professors North America, Western Europe, and South Asia request a meeting with you regarding the behavior of male students in their classes. They explain that over the last year these students have challenged their authority and resorted to increasingly disruptive (and childish) behavior. They also report that these undergraduates make inappropriate comments about their clothing and hairstyles. They have compared notes informally, but a new incident outside of class has prompted their action. Professor North America’s department office door has been defaced with the words: “Worst teacher ever. And ugly, too.” They have come to you for advice and action.

Define the issue or issues.

What additional information do you need to gather in order to address their concerns?

Discuss your responsibility as chair and measures you could take.

In devising any course of action, would it matter if all the professors were women of color? Also, would your actions differ if you were the chair of a department at a small liberal arts college?

Fictional Scenario #2

You are chair of a department at a small liberal arts college, and you and your colleagues are thrilled that Professor Shining Star has joined your department. She decides that rather than relocate, she will commute from her metropolitan loft two hours away. Since Star prefers to drive, she frequently cancels classes in inclement weather and never reschedules. However, she is a dynamic, charismatic teacher whom juniors and seniors adore. After two years, it becomes apparent that Professor Star has no interest in taking her turn teaching the introductory survey course on historical thought. When you approach her directly about assigning her the survey for the next term, she replies, “Frankly, first-year students are a waste of my genius” and then flatly refuses. Her attitude has soured her relations with many in the department, but you want to re-engage her. To complicate matters, Professor Tattler threatens that if you do not address Professor Star’s flagrant disregard of the Faculty Workload Policy, he will go to the dean.

Define the issue or issues.

What additional information do you need to gather? Is there an issue in this scenario that is beyond the scope of your authority?

Discuss your responsibility as chair and any measures you could take. What are the likely outcomes? Would your actions differ if you taught at a large public research university?

Fictional Scenario #3

You are department chair at a midsize research university. Professor Hip Rebel is a bona fide academic rock star with book prizes galore and a popular following for his books. He has become a valued mentor to his male graduate students and male junior colleagues, regularly hosting “gin and peanut” parties at is home. Several literary agents drop by these soirees from time to time at the behest of Professor Rebel. One junior colleague just received a lucrative advance for his first book with a major trade press—the deal negotiated by an agent he had met at one of Rebel’s gatherings. A group of women colleagues has come to your office with a complaint. They feel that the “gin and peanut” parties give their male peers an unfair advantage through their access to Rebel’s connections, and they contend that he has created an atmosphere of male cronyism and patronage. They have come to you for redress since no woman has ever received an invitation to attend. You broach the subject in a diplomatic way with Professor Rebel, who afterward portrays you as the diversity police on his national blog.

Define the issue or issues.

What additional information do you need to gather? Is there an issue in this scenario that is beyond the scope of your authority?

Discuss your responsibility as chair and any measures you could take.

These scenarios bring out in stark detail the importance of identifying the issue, investigating broadly, weighing the evidence, and then making an informed decision. Indeed, consulting widely, listening deeply, addressing conflict directly, and laying out options will serve any administrator well. Of course, chairs must recognize when a matter requires immediate attention from higher authorities, as in the case of allegations of harassment or stalking.

Given the demands of leadership, separating yourself from the job provides crucial distance one needs in order to ignore any noise of entitlement, and if I had to give only one piece of advice to an incoming chair, it would be to turn off e-mail at nine p.m. No good message is likely to come your way after that, but the flaming, ill-informed rant just might. Such a critique invariably begins with the sentiment “I am outraged/appalled by your lack of vision, competence, and/or transparency.” Projecting professionalism, even lowering one’s voice, helps drop the temperature of any conversation. For me, an even-keel approach is always a preferable response. One of the best compliments I have received on my leadership came from a former head of a humanities unit with whom I did not always enjoy an easy relationship as dean. She said, “You always listened to me, even when you did not agree, and you laid out the possible consequences of my actions.”

One may read this column as a cautionary tale, but I want to underscore that, as an administrator, I have taken great pride in the accomplishments of colleagues, students, staff, and programs. I find inspiration in the words of feminist community leader Rosie Castro, a force in San Antonio politics for over 40 years: “We have practiced a different kind of leadership, a leadership that empowers others.”2 To reiterate, defining academic leadership as mentorship requires a sustained investment in the success of others.

Vicki L. Ruiz is president of the American Historical Association.


1. Vicki L. Ruiz, “Oral History and La Mujer: The Rosa Guerrero Story,” in Women on the U.S.-Mexico Border: Responses to Change, eds. Vicki L. Ruiz and Susan Tiano (Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1987), 229.

2. Elizabeth Martínez, “Chingón Politics Die Hard: Reflections on the First Chicano Activists Reunion,” Z Magazine, April 1990, 48. Rosie Castro is a dynamic activist in the Chicano movement, both in La Raza Unida, a Chicano third party, and Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS), a respected, powerful grassroots community-development organization in San Antonio. She has become known nationally as the mother of two rising stars in the Democratic Party, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro and his twin brother, Joaquín, a US congressman from Texas.

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