Back to the lab for some department heads

Professors who step up to lead departments often head back to research or faculty jobs.

Parker Lemke

Chairing a University of Minnesota department takes acquired expertise — many years of practice in the field — and sometimes an ability to compromise personal research with the hope of bettering the entire program.

Three University researchers transitioned back into research and faculty roles after serving as department heads, positions they said made it challenging to focus on individual research and teaching but are sometimes a part of the natural progression as an academic.

“I get out of bed in the morning, happy to teach, happy to do research,” said David Kohlstedt, geology and geophysics professor and former chair of the Department of Earth Sciences. “I didn’t really get out of bed in the morning feeling, ‘I really want to be department chair today.’”

Heading a department comes with many administrative tasks, like recruiting faculty, managing department budgets and interacting with donors — responsibilities that aren’t necessarily in the career plan for some scholars when they enter academia.

“It’s not the type of thing I probably would have jumped at,” said Kohlstedt, who chaired his department from 2006 to 2011.

The duties involved in running a department often diverge from the career aspirations of many faculty members, said Lawrence Gray, a professor and former head of the School of Mathematics. But sometimes becoming a department head comes down to being the best candidate when the position opens up, he said.

“I think for most of us, once you start getting on a shortlist [of candidates], you’re still trying to put if off as much as possible,” Gray said.

Regents professor Frank Bates, who stepped down as head of the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science in June,  also never originally intended to become an administrator — but he remained one for 15 years.

He said it was important for him to hold the position long enough to cultivate relationships with donors and learn the position’s intricacies.

“If you’re turning over the headship relatively frequently, that interferes with that kind of activity,” Bates said.

Balancing administration and academia

Former department heads say the simultaneous obligations that come with holding both research and leadership positions often pulled their attention in different directions.

Kohlstedt, who studies how rocks behave at high pressures and temperatures, said his administrative responsibilities absorbed some of his personal research time.

But Kohlstedt said a talented lab manager helped keep his rock and mineral physics research group productive.

“With his kind of energy and support — and a lot of late-night hours — we managed to keep the group moving ahead very well,” he said.

Gray also said he found it difficult to focus on his research and teaching with the responsibilities that came with his position as department head.

“For me, I need uninterrupted periods of time to just kind of go into a state where I’m thinking,” Gray said. “[As head], I found it hard to focus on research.”

Bates, who studies polymer thermodynamics and dynamics, said returning this fall exclusively as a faculty member felt natural. He said former heads of his department are encouraged to continue teaching and researching.

“Going back and being a … ‘lowly faculty member’ does not represent a disruption in my principal
responsibility — which is to be an academic scholar,” Bates said.

For some former heads, stepping down from the administrative position reopens the door for pursuing studies.

Since his transition from being department head, Gray said he has solved mathematical queries and has continued a long-term project examining the mathematics of traffic flow.

“It seems like a lot of stuff has come along naturally now that I have the time to do it,” Gray said.

Leaders, faculty change

Gray has served various leadership positions in the School of Mathematics after arriving at the University as a professor in 1977, including a five-year term as the department’s head.

“To me this is very natural — to move from one thing to another, up and down,” Gray said.

Managing a department’s specialized needs often requires the same academic expertise that’s taught in its classrooms, Gray said. It takes mathematical knowledge to address program issues as the mathematics director of undergraduate studies, for instance.

“[The tasks] might relate to the teaching philosophy of a professor; they might relate to whether tests are too hard or too easy [or] how the courses relate to each other … all that requires mathematical knowledge,” he said.

When Kohlstedt chaired the Department of Earth Sciences, he said he prepared talented young people to potentially take over his position.

“I tried to make sure that each of those [candidates] had some responsibility, [such as] director of undergraduate studies,” he said, “or had some major way of demonstrating how they would deal in an administrative situation.”

As he heads toward retirement, Gray said he chats frequently with his successor, and Bates said he is also pleased with the change of leadership in his
department.

“Many people move from a department head job, become a dean … aspire for higher administration — and those are noble goals,” Bates said. “It’s also a great thing to be able to return to the faculty and work with my colleagues. This place is sort of like my family.”