Thursday, September 30, 2021

Being the Chair

If you have Netflix and interested in the academic world, I recommend The Chair, a six-episode dramatic series starring Sandra Oh as a new English department chair at a "lower tier ivy league university". The series takes many artistic liberties and compresses much in a short time period but gets much about academics right such as the tension between faculty and the administration with the chair caught in the middle, the need to create majors that attract students, faculty past their prime teaching the same courses in the same way for decades, faculty who get themselves in a hole and keep digging, alumni donors controlling academic decisions, pressure to build a diverse faculty, faculty feeling under appreciated and getting outside offers, and a wonderful exposition of how the field has changed over the past thirty years given to someone who had dropped out before finishing their PhD to take on a different career.

When I served as department chair at Georgia Tech, I dealt with most if not all of these issues above, though not at the same time. I had some challenges that today's English department doesn't face: how to handle enrollments that more than doubled while barely able to hire more faculty than were departing, not that I would trade in a second for the existential crisis that English departments are going through. 

When I left Georgia Tech after seven years, I had outlasted every other current chair in the Colleges of Computing, Science and Engineering. Not sure what this says about me or about Georgia Tech.

Being chair is the most challenging job in academia. The faculty technically report to you but you aren't their boss in any traditional sense--they came to academia because of the freedom to work on what they want and they won't give it up. It's virtually impossible to fire anyone with tenure. The joke goes that a chair needs two umbrellas, one to block stuff coming from the administration going to the faculty and the other to block the stuff from the faculty from going to the administration. Since I left it has gotten much uglier in the University System of Georgia which has no mask or vaccine mandates and glad I'm not the chair to deal with that.

This all sounds like I'm discouraging of becoming a department chair and it certainly isn't a job for anyone but it can be a very rewarding job. You can help shape the future of the department by the faculty you hire and the vision you set and create an environment that helps your faculty and students succeed. 

1 comment:

  1. I thought the show threatened to be interesting but wasn't.

    1) The issue of cancel culture and a prof saying the wrong thing could be interesting. They give an example where the prof is OBVIOUSLY in the right and the students look like IDIOTS. This was not interesting.

    2) English depts need to modernize- but how to you avoid playing to the masses? (CS may have a similar problem- should we give a course on
    how to pass the microsoft certifiation exam? how to do well on a code interview?) They brought this up but presented SUCH a gap between the old fogey profs and the new fangled way of doing things (tweets!) that the debate was not interesting.