VoxEU Column Education

Do we need highly cited departmental chairs?

Much of human knowledge is produced in the world’s university departments, yet little is known about how these hundreds of thousands of departments are best organised and led. This column explores the association between the personal research output of a department head and the department’s subsequent performance. Results suggest that if a department wants to improve its reputation in the world, then the chair should be a highly cited researcher.

The advancement of scientific knowledge is the primary responsibility of approximately 300,000 academic departments housed in more than 20,000 universities worldwide, yet little is known about the factors that determine the productivity of those departments. chairs – or ‘Heads of Department’ – play a central role in the academic departments that make up universities. They manage daily operations, hire faculty and professional staff, and work closely with senior university administrators, most of whom were themselves once departmental heads. But, because faculty often view the position as a poisoned chalice, these chairpersons can be reluctant leaders, who are selected through moral persuasion and a rotation system that sometimes depends as much on a scholar’s age as aptitude for the job (Clotfelter and Rothschild 1993, Ehrenberg 1999).

In what we believe is the first study of its kind, we examine the statistical links between the characteristics of incoming chairs and the later scientific productivity of their departments.

The importance of management and leadership

The role of academic departments (and the chairs who manage them) is particularly critical in research universities that tend to be decentralised with devolved powers going to departments. The importance of their function is highlighted in a new study that assesses the effect of management practices on the performance of universities. McCormack, Propper, and Smith (2013) examine management procedures in 112 UK universities using the measure of management quality tool developed by Bloom and Van Reenen (2007). McCormack and colleagues (2013) find that the quality of management practices can be directly linked to better performance in both research and teaching. Of particular relevance to our study is their finding that it is management practised at the level of academic departments – not by the centralised human resources – which matters most to research and teaching performance.

Our study focuses on leadership in the field of Economics. It is related to earlier longitudinal research that identified a relationship between the research productivity of a university president (over a lifetime) and the research performance of their institution (later decades) (Goodall 2006, 2009a,b). The presidents’ study – one that argued for the idea of ‘expert leaders’ – found that presidents with higher levels of lifetime citations were associated with universities that went on to perform the best.

It is not unusual for senior administrators to select chairs who have either undergone a decline in research productivity or made fewer research-specific investments over their careers (McDowell, Singell, and Stater 2009, 2011). Our study suggests that this may be a mistake.

Department chairs in economics

Data are collected on 169 chairpersons in 58 US economics departments over a fifteen-year period between 1995 and 2010. The dependent variable is the change in departmental research output after the chair has been appointed, which is a measure of the relative improvement in departmental productivity. Specifically, departmental research success is calculated as the share of total US weighted Economics publications over a three year moving average. We use publications data collected annually (over the years 1995 through 2010) from 11 of the most selective economics journals (American Economic Review, Econometrica, Economic Journal, Economica, International Economic Review, Journal of Economic Theory, Journal of Monetary Economics, Journal of Political Economy, Quarterly Journal of Economics, Review of Economics and Statistics, and the Review of Economic Studies).

Our independent variables comprise of information about the chairs and their institutions. We include measures for the chair’s research output in terms of citations and publications, which is our key explanatory variable. Further information included in the regressions are gender, whether chairs were foreign-born, their total experience measured as years since PhD, the years spent at each university, the number of institutions in which he or she had worked, and chairs’ fields (e.g. macro, labour, etc.).

Controls for the nature of each institution are also incorporated. These measure the department’s research output at the start of the chair’s term, the size of each department, and the wealth of each university. We are careful to assign only publications that go to economics departments and exclude authors not affiliated with a US institution.

More-cited chairs are associated with better departmental performance

We provide the first longitudinal evidence consistent with the hypothesis that the characteristics of an incoming chairperson have an influence upon the subsequent research production of the department. A natural hypothesis is that what matters is a department head’s own publishing productivity. However, we find that it is not the quantity of papers published by a Chair that matters but instead the extent to which the chair’s work has been recognized through cited references to his or her research. Our result can be seen in Figure 1. Departmental performance, shown on the x-axis, is maximized when a chair has approximately 9,100 citations. This finding remains robust when we include into the regression equations our full set of control variables.

Figure 1. The change in research output of US university departments as a function of the incoming department chair’s citations

Notes: Only 10 of 169 Chairpersons had lifetime citations above the turning point of 9100 citations.
This curve is based on Column 1 in Table 4.

It is important to emphasise caution in causal interpretation. Nevertheless, in this important area, in which real-life decisions have necessarily to be taken every day by Deans around the world, and about which so little formal evidence exists, the patterns found in this analysis may be of practical interest and may act to spur further research.

Why might a chair’s cited work matter to performance?

What might be the mechanism through which chairs influence the research output of academic departments? And how does this interact with citations to their own research? Academics who have had successful research careers may behave differently when they become department chairs. As suggested above, our result is consistent, at a different level of aggregation, with a study of university presidents (Goodall 2009a,b). McCormack, Propper, and Smith (2013) show that departments in UK universities which are better managed demonstrate better performance in both research and teaching. Their finding holds across all types of universities, and they note that it is practices at the department level (not within centralised human resources) that seem to matter most. Importantly they conclude, as we do, that the results are not driven by differences in resources.

McCormack and colleagues identify the key areas as recruitment, retention, and promotion. In interviews with university presidents it has been found that scholar-leaders may find it easier to recruit and retain other top scholars (Goodall 2009a,b). It was argued there that this may be because of reputational factors, or because a head who is a cited scholar signals to potential recruits that he or she understands how to create the right incentives and work environment for other research-focused academics (Andrews and Farris 1967, Goodall 2009a,b). Arguably, a leader who is focused on research will understand how to create the right conditions for other researchers. Also, they may be better able to motivate faculty and communicate a central research strategy.

Azoulay, Zivin, and Manso (2011) compare output from researchers at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) with those funded through the National Institute of Health (NIH). While they do not focus on leadership in these groups, they do call attention to management practices that are associated with high-impact papers. Azoulay and colleagues find that HHMI tolerates early failure, is prepared to reward long-term success, and gives researchers a great deal of autonomy; by contrast, recipients of funding from the NIH are exposed to shorter review cycles and expected to produce outputs that are predefined, and early failure is tolerated less. The authors show that HHMI investigators produce more novel and more highly cited papers than the comparison group funded by NIH (Azoulay, Zivin, and Manso 2011). Given the department chairs’ result, it would be interesting to know whether the decision-makers in the Howards Hughes Institute were themselves more cited researchers than their peers in the National Institute of Health.


Our study shows that a longitudinal predictor of a department’s future research success is the cumulative number of citations to the incoming chair’s own research (that is, the chair’s research done prior to his or her appointment as head of department). This result appears to be a robust one. It holds after controlling for a number of factors, including institutional variables such as income and federal grants, and chairs’ other characteristics, such as gender, work experience, and publications. Although this study’s statistical findings will have first to be scrutinized and replicated, they may eventually have practical implications. The findings suggest that, especially where all else is equal among contenders for the position of department chair, universities might wish to examine whether the processes by which chairs are selected in the institution yield candidates whose research is highly cited. The issue of why it is that cited work appears to be an important signal cannot be answered by our study. It deserves to be addressed, with qualitative and quantitative methods, in future research.


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McDowell J, L D Singell, and M Stater, (2009), “Congratulations or condolences? The role of human capital in the cultivation of a university administrator”, Economics of Education Review, 28 (2), 258–267.

McDowell J, L D Singell, and M Stater, (2011), “On (and off) the hot seat: An analysis of entry into and out of university administration”, Industrial and Labour Relations Review, 64 (5), 889-909.

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