Challenges of the Academic Department Chair in Occupational Therapy
Pamalyn Kearney
May 2006

edited 4/13/14


The academic department chair position is often the first administrative position for faculty, and they are often unprepared for the realities of this position. This paper will explore the issues related to this position, with specific consideration of the implications for the field of occupational therapy.

The Academic Department Chair

The academic department is central to a university’s mission whether it is focused on teaching or on research/scholarship. It is within the academic department that major programs of study are located, courses offered, and research conducted. The department chair is in the position of managing both the day today workings of the academic department as well as strategic planning for the future. The activities of the department chair are numerous, diverse, complex and often at odds with each other.

Responsibilities typically include activities such as guiding department/program change within the context of the institution mission and strategic plan, budget management, scheduling courses, hiring adjunct faculty, overseeing and keeping appropriate records on faculty/staff/students/student workers, working with the admissions office, mentoring junior faculty, making recommendations for promotion and tenure, developing and abiding by appropriate policies, adhering to relevant legislation and regulations, interfacing with all students who interact with the department (both majors and nonmajors), strategic planning, assessment, supervising grants and contracts, organizing faculty, staff and student events, promoting the department on campus and balancing faculty creativity and autonomy with institutional bureaucracy (Carroll & Wolverton, 2004; Hecht, Higgerson, Gmelch & Tucker, 1999; Hoppe, 2003).

In order to accomplish these tasks, the department chair needs to be able to be skillful in communication, team building, and interdisciplinary collaboration. Tension and conflict can arise between faculty expectations and administrative goals, tradition and innovation, and between the expectations of the department and those of the institution. The department chair who is a skillful negotiator and conflict manager will be better able to navigate and succeed in this environment (Gmelch, 2004; Hecht, 2004; Hecht, et al., 1999).

In spite of the apparent complexity of the role of the department chair, attention to skills that would be helpful to meet these demands does not appear to play a major role in the chair selection process. Department chairs typically move into this academic leadership position from the ranks of faculty. The literature reviewed for this topic described no examples of department chairs who did not begin their academic careers as faculty members (Birnbaum, 2000; Filan & Seagren, 2003; Gmelch, n.d.; Hecht, et al., 1999; Hoppe, 2003; Raines & Alberg, 2003). Faculty may assume the responsibility of department chair through a variety of mechanisms. They may be elected from the faculty. In this instance, the term typically lasts for three to five years and the faculty member often serves one or two terms before the position rotates to another faculty member (Hecht, et al., 1999; Hoppe, 2003). Chairs may be appointed from current faculty by administration with or without faculty input; alternatively faculty may be recruited from outside the university and appointed with or without faculty involvement.

Department chairs vary in their perceptions of their position. Gmelch (n.d.) reports that 44% of department chairs primarily identify with faculty roles, 52% see themselves as both faculty members and administrators, and only 4% see themselves primarily as administrators. In addition, 65% of department chairs return to their faculty roles upon completion of their terms as department chairs. Self perception as well as future plans impact upon how the department chair performs his/her role as chair. Unlike other academic leaders, faculty who move into the department chair role may not be doing so because of an intrinsic desire to assume managerial or leadership responsibilities (Rowley & Sherman, 2003).

When the role of department chair is one that rotates among the faculty, the person who assumes that role often sees him/herself as temporarily assuming that responsibility so that others in the department can continue teaching and research activities (Gmelch, n.d.). In this instance, faculty may assume this responsibility not because of a desire for leadership but because it is “their turn” for the role. Chairs who see their role as a temporary one and plan to return to the faculty may have difficulty making difficult or challenging decisions that might cause animosity within the faculty (Rowley & Sherman, 2003).

Department chairs often assume the role with an inadequate understanding of the responsibilities and skills necessary for the position (Filan & Seagren, 2003; Raines & Alberg, 2003). Hecht, et al. (1999) report that as many as 60% of department chairs have no prior administrative experience. The doctoral education of faculty members generally prepares them for scholarship and expertise in the discipline rather than teaching, administration or other areas of academic life (Speck, 2003).

The challenge of being a new, inexperienced chair is further exacerbated by the lack of training available once one finds him/herself in this role. Administrative leadership and professional development programs are more often targeting individuals at the dean or vice president level than those at the level of the department chair (Filan & Seagren, 2003; Hecht, et al., 1999). While there are more department chairs than any other academic leadership position in higher education, it seems they are woefully unprepared when they initially assume the responsibilities associated with this position (Hecht, et al., 1999).

Occupational Therapy Department Chair

A search through ERIC, Pubmed, CINAHL, OT Search and Proquest Digital Dissertations reveals that there is minimal literature available that specifically addresses the issues raised above within the context of the occupational therapy department. Only two articles and two dissertations were located from 1982 – present. This may not be surprising when one considers that there are only 150 accredited and developing occupational therapy programs in the United States (ACOTE, 2006b). Regardless, it is of value to the profession of occupational therapy to have an understanding of the challenges that face occupational therapy department chairs, both those that are common to most academic departments and those that differ from more traditional disciplines.

As stated previously, the literature indicates that department chairs routinely begin their academic careers as faculty members (Birnbaum, 2000; Filan & Seagren, 2003; Gmelch, n.d.; Hecht, et al., 1999; Hoppe, 2003; Raines & Alberg, 2003). The majority of occupational therapy faculty begin their professional careers as clinicians, moving into academia after a period of time in clinical practice (P. Kramer, personal communication, April 28, 2006). In 2004-2005 there were 1077 occupational therapy faculty in the United States. Only 38.5% of these faculty members held a PhD or EdD degree. Another 6.9% held some other type of doctoral degree such as OTD, PsyD, ScD or JD (AOTA, n.d.).

These statistics have many implications for academic occupational therapy departments. While faculty are likely to have a good understanding of the details of clinical practice and patient care, they may be less prepared for the culture of academia as well as lack the skills necessary to meet research and scholarship expectations. One way in which this may impact the department chair is through increased mentoring and professional development needs of the faculty as they make the transition from clinic to classroom and research.

One study of department chairs in occupational therapy found that faculty rated department chairs as average in most leadership areas evaluated including ability to manage and direct, steadiness and reliability, willingness to take risks, ability to affect outcomes and ability to take a long term perspective on department activities (Dudek-Shriber, 1997). This same study found that many department chairs were untenured associate professors, raising concerns about the ability of occupational therapy departments to position themselves within the university mainstream and to be recognized as an academic discipline. Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education standards today require that program chairs have senior faculty status and degree status comparable to similar programs at the institution (AOTA, 1999). This standard has increased the likelihood that program directors today have a doctoral degree but, as has been described previously, this does not ensure that department chairs in occupational therapy are any more prepared than other department chairs are.

For the profession of occupational therapy, the quality of leadership in each academic department is of importance. The profession is anticipating a growing demand for therapists over the next decade (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2005), is experiencing an increase in student enrollment for the first time since 1997 (ACOTE, 2006b), and is moving toward a 2017 Centennial Vision of the profession having a firm scientific, evidence base (Christensen, 2006).

The need for clinicians to be comfortable treating clients from an evidence based perspective, for researchers to study the effectiveness of occupational therapy interventions, and for educators to prepare students to both use research and engage in the scientific process is great. Dudek-Shriber states “the leadership qualities of the directors of occupational therapy programs cannot be underestimated for their influence on the academic department and the education and scholarship within it” (1997, p. 369). As the profession actively engages in the expansion of the body of knowledge upon which the profession bases practice, this statement is no doubt as true today as it was nine years ago.

Implications for the profession of occupational therapy

The field of occupational therapy is a small one with relatively few academic programs in the United States. Yet the academic community plays a significant role in educating both current and future occupational therapists, discovering and disseminating new knowledge, and providing leadership for the profession. Effective in 2007, entry into the profession requires a master degree. This move to an entry level master degree has lead to calls for greater percentage of faculty educated at the doctoral level. The final draft of revisions to the Standards for an Accredited Master’s Level Educational Program for the Occupational Therapist (ACOTE, 2006a) specify that the program director must have a post professional doctoral degree by 2012 and the majority of full time faculty must have a doctoral degree by the same date. Paula Kramer, PhD, Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education Chair states there are several key reasons for ACOTE to consider this move.

One key consideration is the desire to improve the status of occupational therapy programs on university and college campuses by ensuring that faculty have degree levels commensurate with other faculty. The need to increase the education level of faculty to better prepare students as the minimum degree level in the profession moves to the master level was a second influence. A third key influence was the recognition that the profession does not have sufficient doctorally educated faculty members even in the 40% of programs located within Carnegie Classification Research Intensive or Extensive institutions. This raises a concern for the profession that occupational therapy programs may not be able to survive in these settings if faculty are not able to meet the expectations of institutional missions (personal communication, April 28, 2005). While these moves are intended to guide the profession in its development as an academic discipline, they do not address the focus of this paper, which is the level of preparation that the department chair has for that role. It is theorized that some occupational therapy faculty who move into academic leadership roles may have prior leadership experience in clinical or professional association roles.

These experiences, however, may not be adequate for the unique expectations and tensions that exist in academe. Professional development opportunities for department chairs do exist but not in great numbers (Filan & Seagren, 2003; Gmelch, n.d.; Hecht, et al., 1999). As a profession, the occupational therapy community may want to consider issues related to academic leadership and ways in which the professional community could work with new department chairs and interested faculty in order to provide development and mentorship. This could be accomplished through workshops and trainings, research to both identify and address needs, mentoring relationships, inclusion of relevant content in post professional occupational doctoral programs, and other strategies. Through their interactions with students, faculty, clinicians, the public and other stakeholders, department chairs have a great deal of influence over the direction and growth of the profession. Assisting these individuals to be successful in their position would enable these leaders to become stronger and more effective.


Academic department chairs are often unprepared for the complexity and diversity of the roles and responsibilities of the position. While there is literature that identifies the needs and issues facing department chairs in general, there is minimal literature that explores these issues for the field of occupational therapy. This raises questions regarding the level of preparedness that department chairs in occupational therapy have, regarding effectiveness in those roles, and regarding the responsibility of and benefit to the professional organization to provide support to these academic department chairs. In a field such as occupational therapy which has relatively few department chairs but is also striving for growth as an academic discipline, further study of the unique needs of occupational therapy department chairs and development of leadership development opportunities may have long term benefits for the profession.


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