The Faculty-CAO Relationship: Making it Work

Regardless of how long you served as an instructional faculty member, as the institution’s Chief Academic Officer, you are no longer part of that club. You still work with and among faculty but make no mistake: You don’t have the same relationships that you previously did. You may have served as a department head or dean and think you are used to changing interactions with faculty, but the CAO role holds a specific set of foibles.

This doesn’t mean you can’t have a collegial association with your faculty; that mutual respect and commitment is more important than ever. But your interactions, communications and overall association is different and more delicate. Keep these three things in mind as you consider your own connections with faculty.

1. Context Matters.

Your faculty were the top students in their classes. They developed innovative research that advanced their field. They’ve been steeped in their discipline for decades, and it is that expertise that keeps them at the top of their game. The same expertise means they see actions on your campus through their own disciplinary lens. Keep in mind that they generally lack knowledge of the wide range of interests and approaches you are charged to represent. It is your role to help faculty understand the larger landscape of the institution. Contextualizing your decisions allows your faculty to increase their own understanding of your campus and increases the likelihood of gaining their trust and buy-in for change.

2. The Thing About Faculty Is…

How often has hearing about something “the administration” said infuriated you? The administration is not a monolith! You and your colleagues represent diverse disciplines, with your own leadership styles, personalities, and ideas. It isn’t fair to lump you all together. The same holds for faculty. The disciplinary focus that can be frustrating also contributes to a vibrant and diverse group of faculty, most of whom regularly disagree with each other! It is trap to think the faculty have a single mindset, approach issues the same way and agree on what is best for the institution. Be aware of your tendencies to automatically think of “the faculty” as a single unit and remain open to the custom ideas and perspectives faculty bring. Your interactions with each faculty member will be richer and more productive when you approach them as individuals.

3. Mind the Gap.

Remember when you took your first assistant professor position? Reflecting on our time as faculty gives us as CAOs valuable perspectives, but don’t get stuck on how things used to be. Today’s hires are a different generation, with new mindsets, new pedagogies and new influences. Their approach to everything from cultural awareness to work life balance to technology is understandably unlike than those that came before: This is how the professoriate advances! Be not just open but welcoming to diverse approaches. Look for opportunities to acknowledge and celebrate methods that are unfamiliar, and you’ll encourage broader campus conversations and earn a reputation for appreciating innovation.

Maintaining this kind of relationship isn’t entirely your responsibility! It is up to you, though, to set clear expectations for faculty interactions and to acknowledge the inherent hierarchy of your positions. Most faculty may think they can do your job, and many certainly think they can do it better. You need to remind them you have the experience, training and expertise required to be CAO. They are experts in their field; so are you. Needing to explain your decisions and share frequent updates may test your patience, but this is the trade-off higher education pays for shared governance. Your relationships with faculty are crucial to the success of your institution’s academic endeavors and approaching them thoughtfully helps to establish a collaborative and productive environment

Dr.Heather Coltman, Provost & Senior Vice President, James Madison University

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