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Leading the Mathematical Sciences Department: A Resource for Chairs

Tina H. Straley, Marcia P. Sward, and Jon W. Scott, editors
Mathematical Association of America
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
MAA Notes 64
[Reviewed by
John D. Fulton
, on

Leading the Mathematical Sciences Department: A Resource for Chairs is a priceless document for those who are chairs or for those who expect or aspire to be a mathematical sciences department chair. As a former academic administrator, I would question the judgment of a chair, chair-to-be, or chair aspirant who did not carefully read and reread this text. To the contrary, I expect that the text will be read and frequently reread.

The organization of the text material into a collection of short "white papers" on collegiate academic matters and vignettes reflecting real academic problems and opportunities confronting mathematical sciences department chairs makes it readily accessible for many visits by the reader. I predict that the reader also will visit often the document's appendices that take the form of a carefully selected bibliography; a collection of important, available resources; the "Introduction" from the CUPM Curriculum Guide 2004; and the 2003 Departmental Guidelines document. The citing of internet links to documents wherever possible is particularly praiseworthy.

From "The Wisdom of Practice" section to the Case Study vignettes to the Current Issues in Mathematical Sciences section to the Appendices, the book fairly brims with relevant material. What might the experience of chairing a mathematical sciences department be like? While the chair almost certainly will not experience all that is presented in the text and may well experience totally different problems and opportunities than those presented, a careful reading of the text will impart an accurate insight to the total experience of being a chair.

I found my head nodding assent to the chair job description presented in the "Wisdom of Practice," to the outlook for the academic community presented by two university presidents, and to views by a provost and a dean as well. In particular, I wholeheartedly agree with Brit Kirwan that "...the larger social context within which we (Sic: collegiate academicians) operate is fundamentally different from the one we grew up in (...) and that this context is not likely to change any time soon." While "The good news is that that the body politic sees much of what we do as vital to our nation's continued well-being," the relative abundance of resources made available to higher education in the post-Sputnik era is not likely to return. It did not return during the affluent decade of the nineties and almost certainly will not return during the austere budget years of the early 21st century.

If I have one bit of advice for a department chair, it would be to give particular attention to the sections that discuss legal issues. Sadly, ours is an increasingly litigious society, and the academic world is no haven from lawsuits. University lawyers and personnel professionals have much valuable information to impart to every academic administrator. It would be good to establish good working relationships with these professionals.

The vignettes contained in the case studies are appropriately broad in scope, get quickly to the point, and accurately describe many of the problems and special opportunities confronting department chairs. I particularly appreciate that the case studies are left without solutions and that the reader is challenged to present solutions. I always have thought that the inherent nature and the education of the mathematical scientist make her/him a natural candidate for academic leadership. Not only is the mathematical sciences discipline central to virtually every discipline in the college or university, but the mathematical scientist also is an excellent problem solver. I expect that every mathematical scientist who reads the vignettes in the case studies, as a natural problem solver, will apply himself/herself to reflect on solutions sought for the problems. In fact, I believe that most will view them as opportunities if confronted as a department chair.

The short "white papers" in the "Current Issues" section have been written by people whom I have long respected and admired. More to the point, the papers contain succinct, sound advice that should be heeded by every department chair in the mathematical sciences.

As a retired visiting professor, I share an office with a colleague who, like me, was for many years an academic administrator. He jokingly advised that if one is considering being a department chair, the best advice is "Don't do it!!" But, in truth, both of us really totally agree with the paragraph that ends the "Advice from Experienced Chairs" section at the beginning of the text. Indeed, "It's a Great Job!" and this book is a precious resource that will uniquely prepare a candidate for that great experience and aid in sustaining the chair during her/his tenure as chair.

 John D. Fulton is a visiting professor at Clemson University.

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