Academic departments vary in organizational hierarchy, leadership

The College has 24 academic departments, each with its own unique structure and goals, coordinated by rotating department chairs. While each department must complete several major functions, such as determining course offerings, making budgets, hiring new faculty and evaluating non-tenured faculty, they prioritize their own department-specific goals as well. “The nice thing about Williams is that it is a faculty-run institution,” said Tom Smith ’88, chair and professor of chemistry. “That means that, ultimately, the faculty (with the help of the trustees) make the decisions about how things run.” Large departments like political science, economics or mathematics and statistics form subcommittees for everything from colloquia to research to alumni relations, while smaller departments like astronomy or anthropology and sociology tend to only have the manpower to meet their bureaucratic requirements.

Department chairs

At the head of each department is a department chair. These faculty members are appointed and do not have a specified term length, although many departments do have de facto standards. The department chairs coordinate the department’s bureaucratic activities, communicate with the dean of the faculty and the dean of the College and meet with the larger administrative bodies, such as the Science Executive Committee for Div. III departments.

While department chairs do have some administrative authority, as Peter Montiel, chair and professor of economics, explained, “Nobody wants to be chair. People try to put it off as long as they can, but eventually everyone has to take their turn and we’ve been fortunate that people take the job seriously and they try to do a good job.”

Mostly, the job is that of a coordinator between the department’s administrative assistants, faculty and administrative bodies. “My primary duty is to do what the administrative assistant says,” Stewart Johnson, professor and chair of mathematics and statistics said. “I think the unsung heroes of this campus are the administrative assistants.”

Due to the rotating and appointed nature of the position, many department heads do not have the experience or the ability to commit to ambitions outside of housekeeping. “Some chairs have agendas, and some set tones. I’m at the limit of my competence if things don’t descend into chaos,” John Limon, professor and chair of English said. “Every chair of a large department complains about how much paperwork and sheer trivia she [or he] has to do and fantasizes about having someone else do it. But then you see that everything relates to everything else in ways that only you and the administrative assistant can understand, and you go back to doing your job.”

Nevertheless, roles for department chairs do vary depending on the needs of their department. “The laboratory programs are a big part of the physical science departments,” Smith said. “This requires a lot of oversight in terms of laboratory instructors, technicians, safety, etc. We also have research students working with faculty in the laboratory. In the summer, we run a huge summer research program that is funded both from external grants … and internal moneys dedicated to this purpose. The chair helps organize all of this and makes requests for the associated funding.”

Since the physical education and athletics department is not strictly an academic department, its chair’s role is unique. “I lead our working groups on defining and refining the mission of our department within the context of the larger college mission,” Lisa Melendy, chair of physical education and athletics and director of athletics, said. “In athletics we also have a level of responsibility for a wide variety of safety standards unlike many departments on campus. We have a very public face and therefore need to pay attention to more external audiences.”

Many chairs also find roles in advising. “If one of my faculty members has a problem with some other college office that is not being resolved smoothly, I may intervene,” Sam Crane, professor and chair of political science, said. “Similarly, if a student in the department is having an especially difficult problem in a class, a problem that has not been easily resolved by the faculty member involved, I may get involved there.”

Smaller departments allow for more involvement between department chairs and majors as Ronadh Cox, professor and chair of geosciences, explained. “In addition to keeping tabs on the budget, the course packet and evaluation of junior faculty, I spend a lot of time advising majors on coursework and careers,” she said. “It’s the advising that I find most interesting and significant.”

Department structure

Due to the small sizes of most academic departments at the College, there are usually no hierarchical divisions outside of the division between senior and junior faculty and decisions are almost always reached by consensus. Volunteer subcommittees and rotating positions usually perform department functions and chores. “The department has no hierarchy beyond the chair being the ‘director who directs.’ All of our major decisions are reached by consensus after long discussions,” Antonia Foias, professor and chair of anthropology and sociology, explained. “We like to have complete agreement as we are a small department with only four anthropologists and four sociologists. We are one of a few joined departments at the College, and want to involve everyone in our decisions about the organization and future of the department.”

Some departments even have student involvement in major duties, including geosciences, which involves students in hiring and outreach programs.

Only a few large departments, such as political science, engage in voting. While they do not always reach a consensus, these departments still attempt to maintain a similar collegial atmosphere. “Each individual faculty member has an equal vote,” Crane said. “We encourage junior faculty to participate fully and vote freely.”

Overall, department chairs are satisfied with the collegiality and efficiency of their departments, even in joined departments. “The German-and-Russian coupling is a wedding of convenience, really: It would be highly inefficient for each half to function as a single department. So to my mind, it makes sense,” Janneke van de Stadt, chair of German and Russian and associate professor of Russian, said.

Since collegiality is one of the greatest strengths of academic departments at the College, one of the greatest difficulties they face is turnover in faculty. “The biggest challenge for us is maintaining the quality of the department by recruiting the best people we can,” Montiel said. “I have friends who are at places where it is not nearly as collegial and it creates conflict within and across departments, and that’s just not present here. [The College is] a place that works well and is a place where people enjoy coming to work.”

Department goals

While most academic departments are able to go about their day-to-day duties without issue, a few see possible areas for further growth or restructuring. The chemistry and biology departments, for instance, will be looking into the possibility of a separate biochemistry department or major instead of just the biochemistry and molecular biology program that overlaps the chemistry and biology departments.

The mathematics and statistics department is also looking into splitting statistics into its own department in the near future. “We already have 10 percent of the students [at the College] or so majoring in math, so I’d like to see us stabilize at some comfortable place,” Johnson explained. “It may be that statistics will form their own department and we would be the only undergraduate institution in our peer group that would have a department of statistics and probably the only one with a major in statistics.”

Ultimately, departments facilitate the work of their faculty and provide the best possible coursework for students. “One of our main goals is to train our majors for whatever they will do after Williams, whether it’s graduate school or the work force,” Karen Kwitter, astronomy department chair, explained. “My hope is that learning astronomy has inspired them a little and taught them a lot about thinking critically and solving problems.”

“Regarding faculty in the department, my goal is to create a supportive and collegial atmosphere in which we have the freedom to teach about our evolving interests and pursue an active research agenda,” Eiko Maruko Siniawer, chair and professor of history, said.

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