Tuesday, July 25, 2017


When Nobody Steps Up

My friend Christine Nowik posted a great question on Twitter this week.  Linking to a piece about department chairs who have stayed too long, she noted that in many departments there’s nobody willing to step up if the current chair steps down.  In some cases, chairs stick around less out of eagerness for the position than out of a lack of alternatives.  What to do when that happens?

I’ve seen this happen several times over the years.  It’s particularly common in small departments, where the personalities involved are few and long-entrenched.  Let’s say you have a department of three full-timers.  One has been the chair for a very long time, with middling performance in the role.  One of the others is nearing retirement and couldn’t be dragged by wild horses to do the job, and the other is a dedicated clock-puncher.  Budgets make a new hire a non-option for the near future.

In that situation, the de-facto-chair-for-life may be the least bad option.  You won’t get greatness, but the basic tasks will get done.  With either of the other two options the basic tasks probably won’t get done, at least not reliably.

Sometimes, the best option in a case like that is either a merger with another department, or a threatened merger with another department.  I’ve seen people who swore up and down never to step up change their minds when threatened with what they saw as a forced takeover.  The threatened loss of autonomy can be enough to overcome a distaste for administrative tasks.

Depending on context, it can also make sense to reconfigure the role.  Larger departments have had success with splitting the role between two people.  The key there is in a clear delineation of duties.  Having “co-chairs” as pure equals simply doesn’t work; you introduce a whole new level of ambiguity, and people learn to play the two off against each other.  But if one co-chair deals with, say, the full-time faculty and department meetings, and the other is the go-to person for the adjuncts, that can work.  

In some cases, unwillingness to step up can be a symptom of a larger organizational dysfunction.  In my own career, I’ve declined to apply for positions when the people to whom I’d have to report didn’t meet my sense of acceptability.  It can be a barometer.

But it’s frequently more a combination of the general academic distrust of “going over to the dark side” combined with individual personal priorities.  Personally, I don’t mind when people step up to chair roles with an eye towards eventually moving into deanships.  Those folks have something to prove, and therefore an incentive to do a really good job.  That’s a good thing, even if there’s a cultural taboo against admitting it.  

I’ve heard of colleges moving away from department chairs altogether, on the theory that faculty are hired to teach, and the skill set for management overlaps only slightly with the skill set for teaching.  I get the logic, and there can be specific local circumstances in which it makes sense.  But as a long-term strategy, I’d be concerned about losing the talent development pipeline.  Chair positions are often a toe in the water of administration; they operate as de facto audition periods on both sides.  I’ve seen chairs who thought the position looked great decide quickly that accepting it was a tragic mistake; I’ve seen others discover previously untapped talent for management.  The in-between status of chairs allows for a relatively low-risk exploratory period; if it doesn’t work out, returning to the faculty isn’t that hard.  That’s much less true for full-time administrative roles.

I’m pretty confident that Nowik and I aren’t the only people ever to have seen this.  Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a reasonably elegant solution to the problem of nobody wanting to step up?

We recalled a faculty member from retirement for half the chair's job and assigned the other half to a senior faculty member who was willing to deal with curriculum and scheduling, but not with space and recruitment.

One thing that did NOT work was imposed on us much earlier—not being allowed to hire any junior faculty until we had hired a senior faculty member to be chair. We were only given enough resources for a junior hire, so essentially we had a 4-5 year hiring freeze, at a time when me most needed to grow the faculty. We would have been much better off growing our own chair from a junior hire—it would not have taken any longer and would have let the department keep up with the student enrollment. (Shortly after we managed finally to hire a chair, the great recession started and we couldn't hire needed junior faculty for other reasons—we've been playing catch-up ever since.)
I feel a bit of a disconnect concerning what Dean Dad means by "chair" and "dean", whereas I know what they mean at a university like the one where GSwoPumps does the entire research and teaching thing. I assume we all know the structure where a university is made up of colleges, each with a Dean and various sub-Deans, and the colleges consist of departments run by a chair and (if big enough) various sub-chairs plus program directors that handle major grant-supported research programs. A chair in the latter case can handle more than 40 faculty, which is about the scope of a Dean (sometimes an associate Dean) at a large CC like mine and Dean Reed's. Our divisions are essentially departments within the single college that is run by a provost or dean of instruction. Administratively, our deans handle the smallest unit of budgetary and personnel management. Our chairs teach part time and do not manage budgets and are only advisory on adjunct hiring decisions. Those sub units are never so small that there are only 3 faculty (at least not at a large CC like the one where I work).

That said, we definitely use the chair role as a place to groom (including travel to conferences or accreditation meetings or things like the Chair Academy) and develop experience so there will be a pool of internal candidates for the next opening at the dean level so we don't have to go outside simply because there are no suitable internal candidates at all. Those people are still in the classroom at least half time, but know what is going on at the next level up. We also follow the practice of splitting the supervisory role of the Dean for a large department like ours, much as Dean Reed described, and much like the do at large university departments that have as many as three: a chair and an undergrad chair (for the undergrad majors and service courses) and a grad chair (supervising grad student adjuncts and research assistants and the PhD program).

And, yes, we have had times when it was a challenge to get someone to step up when someone insisted on steping down. That was really a matter of time, because all of the not-retiring-soon candidates had less than a decade of experience and we had NOT done a good job of getting younger faculty into the chair positions until it was almost too late for all the reasons you list, but mostly status-quo laziness. The senior people were doing a great job.
I stepped up into a chair-equivalent role last year. I think I was asked mostly because I taught across the different specialisation in our department and so had a reasonable picture of what was going on. I'd been reading a little about university administration before then, and so was interested in seeing if admin would be a good fit for me. It seems to be working out so far or, at least, they haven't got rid of me yet.

But I probably wasn't the most obvious choice - I'm relatively junior (I'm not in the North American system so tenure, tenure-track doesn't apply in the same way, but chairs are usually a level or more above where I am currently); I'm part time and not interested in going to full time; there was a more senior male colleague who was making a show of being willing to step up in an act of self-sacrifice for the team.

Our dean made this time to speak with a number of staff about who they felt would be a good chair, to talk with me about what the role entailed and what support I would have so that I was willing to take the risk, and simply look beyond the obvious candidates.

This is such a timely post for me. (Thank you!) At my college, rather than a merger, my department divided in two with nobody willing to chair the newly created department because of a lack of equity in course release, among other factors.

The alternative presented to us was that the administration would step in as 'chair' and assign each of us tasks that we wouldn't be able to refuse. Tired of the drama and wanting to move forward more positively for future negotiations, I decided to offer myself to my colleagues as chair, despite not having tenure. This condition was accepted by the administration, and my colleagues supported me, some more reluctantly than others. They wanted to keep fighting for more course release hours even though the union did everything it could to support us.

I'm now a couple of weeks away from starting this new position and am hoping for the best -- that the administration will see our good will, that our new department can work together as a team, and that I can handle my new responsibilities along with my teaching.
At my college, department chairs are not faculty because it is considered a managerial role. Our CBA prohibits faculty from being in a position in which they supervise others. Since I'm relatively new here, I'm not sure what all of the implications of chairs not being members of the faculty are. It will be interesting to see how that works with our next contract negotiation (the current CBA is up at the end of 2018). The last one was quite nasty.
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