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Administration of Postsecondary Music Departments [1]
C.M. Sunday © 2012

Endnotes | Bibliography | Internet Resources
Transcript of interview with Dr. Garry Owens

Originally an embellishment on traditional curricula, schools of music have become multidimensional disciplines requiring managerial skills similar to those needed in bureaucracies like businesses and government. Universities are now big businesses, intertwined with more or less six levels of authority: federal, state and local government, the multi-campus academic administration, the university or college itself, different colleges within the university, and the lowest operating unit, the department (Clark, 1983). [2] As of 1994, there were around 80,000 department chairs, of which 1,745 were in postsecondary music departments (Lucas, 1994).

The development of school administration parallels "scientific management," which was developed during the early 20th century by Frederick Taylor, Henri Favor, and others. Early undergraduate degrees in music were sometimes entitled "Instrumental Music Supervisors' Program." A successful teaching career and a masters was the usual prelude to administrative responsibility. An administrative job in music often has a bewildering range of responsibilities beyond the usual administrator's duty because of public performances, unusual assortments of (often very costly) equipment, and the unique needs associated with music programs, divisible into areas of curriculum, personnel, and space, equipment, and fiscal operations.

The role of the music department chair is far broader—more ambiguous—than it previously was. This role requires that the chair be both a champion of his or her discipline and a liaison between the administration and the faculty. This role conflict is ambiguous and contributes to stress levels in departmental leadership (Brown, 2001), complicated by the uncertainty or deceivingly informal nature of faculty committees, issues on academic freedom, and budgetary pressures. Ambiguity also characterizes the hierarchical placement of the academic chair in collective bargaining—an issue which has been resolved inconsistently.

A music executive is expected to be a competent musician and teacher, as well as administrator. Competencies of a successful music administrator include a certain amount of unselfishness (they must defer their own interests in order to guide colleagues), the ability to delegate responsibilities, vision and flexibility, efficiency, inner drive, mental and emotional maturity, verbal/written/spoken facility, broad interests, above-average intelligence, and the ability to work with diverse personalities. One of the concerns in this position is managing faculty who may find it difficult to submit themselves to the discipline of a collegiate setting, since they have spent most of their adult lives in the professional music world (Brown, 2001). Stability is particularly important, and the lack of serious personal flaws such as laziness, undependability, conceit, pessimism, temper, obsessive behavior, lack of objectivity, oversensitivity to criticism, timidity, dishonesty, lack of objectivity, and moral or mental instability.

Preparation for this job really means polishing the abilities of those individuals who have already attained high levels of maturity, which are not accessible merely by diplomas. Normally the choice is made from current faculty members who are known entities. The power in the position is not power "over" but power to influence, a chance to shape dialog by setting tone and content. Since influence is more intangible, a great measure of the chair's effectiveness depends on personal qualities rather than any inherent power in the position itself. Since six to eight years is the longest usual tenure in these positions, they are usually "tours of duty" rather than career jobs.

From being minor figures, department chairs are now part of institution-wide leadership structures, and deal with a broader range of issues, such as assessments, computers, diversity, distance learning, union contracts, employment regulations, and maintaining good relationships with support staff. The music department chair is a first line supervisor, and may be compared to a foreman in an hierarchical business venture. Like the foreman, the chair comes up from the labor pool (the faculty) and is a liaison between upper management and workers (the faculty).

In the past, a department chair was often primarily chosen on the basis of having a distinguished scholarly reputation and a high level of teaching and/or research excellence; the job was often more of a figurehead or symbolic in nature, and required little in the way of administrative skills. Currently, two-thirds of department chairs are hired from faculty, and have no management skills. Lack of institutional vision can become a detriment to the greater community. Even today in the Chronicle of Higher Education ads for department chairs, the job listings most often mention requirements of a national reputation in a discipline and the likelihood of developing innate loyalty to the institution, rather than administrative skills, background, or training. Dr. Garry Owens, music department chair at the time of this writing, at Texas Tech University, verified this phenomena in his very first remarks to the author during our interview: most administrators have no administrative training. According to Filan (1999), 70% of surveyed department chairs received no formalized training, with many chairs acknowledging this lack of training and expressing their needs for more advanced, formal training.

NASM, the National Association of Schools of Music, is a governing institution for music curriculum in higher education; it is composed of chairs and deans of NASM-accredited programs, and seeks to professionalize music administration. Nevertheless, more has been written about department chairs, in general, than about the concerns of department chairs of music schools, and the literature in this specific areas is relatively sparse, causing researchers in this area to rely on outdated materials. The literature regarding department chairs in general has significantly advanced, however.


The seminal book in the general area of department chairs is a 1981 publication by the American Council on Education by Allan Tucker, Chairing the Academic Department: Leadership Among Peers. This was a comprehensive text which was revised once before the author's death in 1992, and a third edition appeared in that year. In the 1990's a number of new volumes appeared, indicting that publishers were seeing the area as marketable. [3] Since the publication of Tucker's work, the responsibilities of department chairs have continued to undergo metamorphosis.

With one-third of the professorate in America retiring in 2010, chairs need to perceive themselves and other chairs as colleagues rather than rivals, with moral and legal responsibilities toward minorities. Current realities require new patterns of behavior; chairs must advocate not only for their own faculty, but respect the interests of other departments and of the university as a whole. Chairs set protocol: if a chair tends to dismiss the comments of a new female faculty, for example, this licenses other faculty to behave similarly. [4]

Currently, the average music department head is a 50 year old male, tenured professor with a doctorate in performance or music education, appointed to a 12 month position, with around a 7.5 year seniority. In our interview, Dr. Owens indicated that he really never dreamed that he would be doing administrative work, but was originally asked by his department in Flint, Michigan, to take on administrative work. All he ever wanted to do was to conduct and teach kids, which is why he got into music education. Educators generally chose this job because of a love of their discipline and a desire to promote their discipline to the coming generation; love of teaching, in other words.

Demographic changes have redefined the roles of department chairs. What once were mostly all-male student bodies are now characterized by a broad range of ages and colors, at least half of which are women. Postsecondary education once constituted a process of initiation into the ruling elite, but has developed into a lifetime learning environment and social good to which everyone has a right. In 1900, 30% of the U.S. population sought postsecondary education; by 1990, 50%. In 1950, 260% of postsecondary students were women; in 1990, more than 500%.

Current emphasis is on continuing education and lifetime learning, and thus in music departments, decisions have to be made regarding the management of non-traditional students, many of whom are avocational musicians, not necessarily preparing for careers in music. These students present budgetary concerns, since accommodating them necessarily changes the character of the curriculum. And they should be accommodated not merely based on the money they bring into the department, but artistically; the concern is that more flexible standards might weaken a department and dissipate effectiveness, based on financial exigencies. However, one perspective sees that non-majors present special opportunities to enhance the professional quality of teaching. Curriculum changes that attract a diverse student body are of great interest to chairs and faculty. This was one of Dr. Owens' primary interests/concerns. Curriculum tasks include scheduling courses, revising course titles and descriptions, and reviewing related matters (Brown, 2001).

Dr. Owens broke down his responsibilities to around 20% teaching, 55% administration, and the remaining, fund raising. His administrative duties are, in fact, much broader than that indicated in the one-page job description found in the faculty handbook, and have a much wider scope in the community outside the school of music. This broader environment often draws on music departments as talent pools for community orchestras, church music programs, and community theater and opera, and the chair may sponsor and house community programs for children, such as Suzuki programs, and also sponsor and house summer programs for young musicians in the community, youth orchestras, etc. All of this must be managed or delegated to others by the department chair. Dr. Owens was strong on delegating: "You hire good people and let them do their job, and don't try to do their jobs for them."


Responsibilities of the music department chair are both large and small, the small being in some ways just as significant, and calling for the "Mayor Daley" rule of governance, i.e., the recognition that what people want is their sidewalks free of snow and their garbage picked up. Nearly everything in the music department may end up coming to Dr. Owens' attention, directly or indirectly, even including parking issues. And all of this is done while maintaining, in the case of most chairs, a presence in the classroom. Dr. Owens currently teaches one class per term, supervises student teachers, and reads dissertations. Further, particularly in smaller, more collegial institutions, a chair must have some personal knowledge of the intimate concerns of faculty; their birthdays, their children's names, etc.

One of Dr. Owens' primary responsibilities, he said, is all faculty issues such as tenure and promotion, and annual review. Reviews occur in the third and finally, the sixth year, of every new faculty. Other chairs may have to deal with problems like how to handle an alcoholic staff member, or deal with a faculty member who won't retire. In dealing with faculty, the chair must be aware of the notion of two organizational identities: cosmopolitan and local (Merton, 1957). Cosmopolitan are those with higher outer reference group orientation and professional identification in the larger world outside their universities (more international connections, for example); locals have a keener loyalty to their employing universities and wish to, or are likely to, remain at their particular institutions. Naturally, there is controversy related to these categorizations, and tension does often exist between the need for expertise and loyalty; some empirical studies suggest the existence of mixed identities and some typologies include subgroups. Dr. Owens is very keen on recruiting faculty and students, both nationally and internationally, and is proud of the Tech music faculty, among which are some very exceptional individuals, both among those who have been at Tech for a long time, and the newer staff.

Above all, chairs must maintain effective working relationships with support staff, who generally know, after many years service, where, how and from whom, decisions actually come, and all the administrative details without which a department will fall into disarray and disunity. If support staff do not trust and feel appreciated by the chair, serious problems can occur; the staff can simply destroy the effectiveness of the chair by doing nothing, or by requiring his/her supervision on every detail, thus bogging down the whole operation to a standstill. Everyone knows, or should know, the importance of clerical and support staff, and act accordingly.

In the area of qualitative research, work has been done involving a study by NASM, using three-fourths of the accredited music programs. A paradigm was discovered respecting music department chairs, wherein eight separate characterological types were found from a survey of 48 questions using multidimensional scaling (MDS)(Miller, p. 72). These eight types include:
  1. Dead on the Job: low role orientation. Little interest in students, university, professional standards, or colleagues. 2.9%

  2. Scholarly Recluse: high regard for scholarship to the exclusion of institutional considerations. 5%

  3. Administrator on the Make: little regard for standards, but orientated to outer reference group. 7.3%

  4. Company Man: hoping to rise through the ranks. 2.5%

  5. Professional in Residence: classic cosmopolitan orientation; keen interest in matters on a national basis. 33%

  6. Isolated Idealist: idealized identity, somewhat dysfunctional; high orientation to profession and organization with no high reference orientation. One chair out of 314.

  7. Theory X Professional Administrator: major concern is how organization is functioning. 6%

  8. Virtuoso: balanced perspective among all elements (teaching, research, colleagues, students, the university). Over 41%
A demographic table (Miller, p. 55) indicates, as mentioned above, that most chairs are male, professors or associate professors with doctoral degrees in performance or music education, and tenured. With respect to gender, the 1993 figures are male, 88.20% and female, 11.80%. Brown's study (2001) revealed a slight increase in female chairs, with males currently at 84.60% Characteristics recommended for music department chairs (Jennerich, 1981) include:
Character/Integrity
Leadership Ability
Interpersonal Skills
Ability to communicate effectively
Decision making ability
Organizational ability
Planning skills
Professional competence
Evaluating faculty
Program/course innovation and development
Budgetary skills
Ability to recruit new faculty
Fund raising ability

Other informal surveys have been done, the results of which are lists of department chairs' most recurrent problems (Miller, p. 81), and advice to first time chairs (Miller, p. 89). The top ten of the later include:
  1. Integrate the department with the university
  2. Recognize the inevitability of conflict (take the heat and not take things personally)
  3. Solicit input from faculty on important issues (seek consensus)
  4. Have courage to make decisions in the best interest of the music program
  5. Work for faculty development
  6. Take time to evaluate the existing situation before acting
  7. Identify strengths and weaknesses and act upon them
  8. Be honest and open
  9. Work hard (do your homework, be prepared)
  10. Be positive, don't get discouraged
Regarding specific duties of the music department chair, sets of similar tasks were organized in several ways by various researchers:

Samuel Jones (1959) arranged duties into ten broad categories:
  1. Curriculum
  2. Finances
  3. Philosophy
  4. Plant
  5. Equipment and Supplies
  6. Personnel Relations
  7. Records and Reports
  8. Scheduling
  9. School Officers
  10. Students


Mintzberg (1973) saw ten roles divided into three areas:
  1. Three Interpersonal Roles: Figurehead, Leader, and Liaison;
  2. Three Informational Roles: Monitor, Disseminator, Spokesman;
  3. Four Decisional Roles: Entrepreneur, Disturbance Handler, Resource Allocator, and Negotiator


Tucker (1981) in his important seminal work, saw eight categories:
  1. Department Governance
  2. Instruction
  3. Faculty Affairs
  4. Student Affairs
  5. External Communication
  6. Budget and Resources
  7. Office Management
  8. Professional Development


Regarding preparation of music department chairs, Robert House recommends in "The Professional Preparation of Music Administrators" (1982) five possible methods:
  1. Informal, on-the-job learning, by reading, studying, and attempting small assignments at first:
  2. Supplemental training such as summer workshops specifically for music administrators (Westminster Choir College, Eastman School of Music), or four- or five-day clinics (NASM meetings);
  3. Graduate courses designed for potential and current music administrators;
  4. Full-fledged doctoral programs in music administration; and
  5. Special schools, say, six month courses, which combine all of the above features.


As of this writing, there are currently no diplomas offered, anywhere, that certify individuals in this field, and despite various recommendations from higher education professionals, doctoral programs in music are not providing any coursework in this area. In 1973, Robert House wrote that the usual on-the-job training would probably prevail in most cases and that in the current context the "natural selection" of professional leadership actually works well enough at most schools, though more weight needs to be given to administrative expertise, rather than seniority and popularity. In the current context, musical eminence seems still to be the determining factor in job searches for music department chairs, even though the actual work in this position quite often has relatively little to do with the discipline of music itself. Musicianship, teaching skills and compatibility with the music faculty must be in place, but administrative ability should be a primary consideration.

According to Jennerich (1981), just because a music professional has a high skill level in their discipline, there is no reason to infer that they may have the skills necessary for administrative work without undergoing any training. Furthermore, the exceptionally demanding workload in these positions is expected to increase into the twenty-first century (Brown, 2001) with responsibilities continuing to expand in previously unexpected areas, such as sexual harassment issues, budgetary concerns of a high level of complication, personnel issues, and accountability.

* * *


The impetus to mass education is a notion born during the early beginnings of U.S. history—and at varying rates of speed, this notion of mass education is spreading throughout all the countries of the earth, and can be envisioned or pictorialized in terms of the photograph taken of our planet from the window of one of our first rickety spaceships. All of our notions of space and time have changed, inspired by the internet, email, and a technological upheaval not quite like anything in our past. The new music department chair must negotiate between tradition and innovation, walking a tightrope between serving their department, representing the administration, and developing perceptions of the larger environment. As education has shifted from being a privilege to a necessity, the U.S. moves towards mass education—an experiment unique to humanity, with global significance.






1. This document was initially presented for informal review to half a dozen professionally oriented listservs, including ASTA list (American String Teachers Association), OrchestraList, and a few others noted for their high activity and professional membership. Thanks in particular to Kellie Brown, who so generously sent me a pdf file of her recent Ed.D. dissertation (Brown, 2001).

2. The usual structure of power is represented by: Chair — Dean — Provost — Vice President — President — Chancellor — Board of Regents and/or legislature.

3. See: Cresswell, J.W. (1990). The academic chairperson's handbook; Hickson M. and Stacks, D.W. (1993). Effective communication for academic chairs; Gmelch, W.H. and Miskin, V.D. (1993). Leadership skills for department chairs; Lucas, A. (1994). Strengthening leadership: A team-building guide for chairs in colleges and universities; Green, M.F. and McDade, S. (1992). Investing in higher education: A handbook of leadership development; Higgerson, M.L. and Rehwaldt, S.S. (1993). Complexities of higher education administration; Higgerson, M.L. (1996). Communication skills for department chairs; Charitable, P. (1996). Policy perspectives; Bennett, J.B. (1998). Collegial professionalism.

4. See Essays by Bernice Sandler.




Bisdorf, D. L. (1961). A study of administrative problems affecting the development of instrumental ensembles in selected small colleges. (Doctoral Dissertation, Michigan State University, 1961). Dissertation Abstracts International, (22)12.

Brookhart, E. (1988). Music in American Higher Education: Annotated Bibliography (Bibliographies in American Music, No 10). Warren, MI: Harmony Park Press.

Brown, K. D. (2001). The administrative preparation of music department chairs in NASM accredited programs. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, East Tennessee State University, Johnson City.

Clark, B.R. (1983). The Higher Education System: Academic Organization in Cross-National Perspective (Campus No 368). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Cowden, R. L. (1984). What makes a good music administrator. Music Educators Journal, 70(6), 46-47.

Dickinson, E. (1915). Music and higher education. NY: Scribners.

Filan, G. L. (1999). The need for leadership training: The evolution of the chair academy. In R. Gillet-Karam (Ed.), Preparing Department Chairs for their Leadership Roles (pp. 47-55). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Goodman, A. H. (1975). Music administration in higher learning. Provo, Utah: Press Publishing.

Hecht, I. W. D., Higgerson, M.L., Gmelch, W. H., & Tucker, A. (1999). The Department Chair As Academic Leader: (American Council on Education Oryx Press Series on Higher Education). Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press.

Hodgson, Walter H. (1951). Problems of music administration in colleges. Education 72(1): 12-18.

House, R. W. (1973). Administration in music education. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

House, R. W. (1982). The professional preparation of music administrators. In R. Colwell (Ed.), Symposium in music education: A festschrift for Charles Leonhard. (pp. 277-289). Urbana: University of Illinois.

Jennerich, E. J. (1981). Competencies for department chairpersons: Myths and realities, Liberal Education, 67(1), 46-65.

Jones, S. T. (1960). The development of desirable administrative practices for departments of music in institutions of higher education. (Doctoral Dissertation, New York University, 1959). Dissertation Abstracts International, (20)10.

Law, G. C. (1963). Music administration during transitional turmoil. Music Educators Journal. 21, 40-44, 52-55, 66-68.

Lucas, A. F. (1994). Strengthening Departmental Leadership : A Team-Building Guide for Chairs in Colleges and Universities. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Merton, R. K. (1957). Social theory and social structure. Glencow, IL: Free Press.

Miller, R. E. (1993). Institutionalizing Music: The Administration of Music Programs in Higher Education. Springfield, IL: Charles Thomas Publisher.

Mintzberg, H. (1973). The nature of managerial work. New York: Harper and Row.

Monk, D. C. (1980). Power, politics, and the music executive. Proceedings of the 55th Annual Meeting of the National Association of Schools of Music 68: 143-151.

National Association of Schools of Music (1999). NASM 1999-2000 Handbook. Reston, VA: Author.

National Association of Schools of Music, Monographs on music in higher education (1973). Trotter, M., The administrators's role in the reorientation and utilization of faculty; Bonelli, E., The role of the music administrator. Washington, DC.

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Wiesner, G. R. (1967). Preparation for music administration in higher education. Music Educators Journal. 54, 65-67.





American Council on Education

Conflict Management in Higher Education Report

Department Chairs Handbook, University of Wisconsin Stevens Point

ERIC Clearinghouse On Higher Education

Faculty Development: The Role of the Chair in Developing Tenure (pdf file)

Gmelch, W. H., & Miskin, V. D. (1993):
Building Leadership Capacity for Institutional Reform (pdf file)
Understanding the Challenges of Department Chairs (pdf file)

Green, M.F. (Ed.): Roles, Responsibilities, Resources, and Rewards for Department Chairs

National Association of Schools of Music

Responsibilities of Department Chairs: Legal Issues (pdf file)



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