Monday, June 3, 2013

Today's Early Thirsty. Anita Sedative (Get It?) Is Trying to Divine Chairperson-ship.

I am an associate proffie at Mundane State and living the sweet life of the tenured and neglected. I teach courses in my little corner of the discipline, publish at a respectable clip, and shoulder my share of service obligations. I'm not the brightest star in the scholarly sky, but you can spot me if you squint.

Despite my own mundanity, however, I've learned that there's a groundswell of support to anoint me the next chair of the department. Quite a lot of politicking and jockeying normally happens when it comes time to elect our chair, but the Dean's machinations and a few organized blocs of voters normally determine the outcome. One of their emissaries has hinted that the job could be mine if I want it.

Do I?

I've been at MMU since 2005, and I've labored under two chairs here. Let's call the first Chaz the Chairlatan. Chaz is a savvy careerist, one who gunned for a life on the administrative side of the line since Day One. He used his four years as our feckless leader to cozy up to the Powers That Be, and now he's crossed over to the Dark Side of academic affairs. He didn't leave the department in ruins, exactly, though he always served as an agent of our inept Dean. They're part of a little club of cronies that is nearing retirement and/or departure for greener pastures, so Chaz had no qualms about doing the Dean's dirty work. He navigated rough waters pretty well, with all the confidence of a rat ready to abandon ship.

Chaz's successor is Charlie the Chairtaker, who is heading into his final year. His election was a grim business: he became our chair primarily because the flunky the Dean planned to install with the help of his cronies fell short of tenure just prior to the election. Charlie more or less claimed the chair by default as the only electable option left standing. That being said, I'd say he's done right by the department. He's been an earnest advocate for the faculty, students, and staff, attentive and responsive, fair and evenhanded. As you might imagine, being decent has taken its toll. The Dean and the faculty have used him as a human shield; when things go wrong, Charlie generally takes the blame, and with good grace. He's not spineless, nor does he have the victim mentality described back in Hiram's post. He is, from what I've seen and heard, just thick-skinned, patient, and calculating: he'll take a bullet for the Dean and trade the favor in for something the department needs later on, or he'll bail out a prodigal proffie and cajole her into taking up a summer study so a student can graduate on time. His secretary (from whom I've gleaned the juiciest behind-the-scenes gossip) thinks he walks on water, though she worries about him. He used to be cheerful and outgoing, but now he keeps to himself. He's been on the job for three years, but it looks like it's aged him ten.

I know that chairs as a species have a pretty poor reputation, and I hope what I've picked up reading here and watching Chaz and Charlie would help me avoid some of the worst administrative sins. So here's my question:

Q: Are there better ways to be chair out there? Or are the upward and downward fates of Chaz and Charlie the ones I should look forward to if I vie for the job?

 - Anita Sedative


  1. I can't answer your question, but I did love the "you can spot me if you squint" bit....

    1. Me, three, and also "with all the confidence of a rat ready to abandon ship".

  2. During my years of teaching and as a grad student, the department heads were either like Chaz or such spineless creampuffs that make Charlie look like Dirty Harry.

    My last DH was like Chaz. He would do anything to get noticed by the senior administration but he was also made of teflon. Anything he did wrong he managed to blame on someone else. He treated people like his personal chattels and one was expected to die for his personal advancement if necessary. If one had the misfortune of being marked for such a fate, he made sure not to be grateful as the DH believed his subordinates owed him such sacrifices.

    The creampuffs were usually close to retirement and wanted no hassle whatsoever. If there were complaints about a staff member, that state of calm and harmony would be maintained by throwing that person to the wolves. But those same creampuffs were concerned about their legacy and that their creampuffery should count for something, no matter how small. So, they would do something to achieve that, sometimes by underhanded means, and then skedaddle to collect their pension cheques when it was done.

    Unfortunately, I don't remember any chair or department head who had any backbone or integrity.

  3. When a brand new dean hailing from the Humanities side of campus tried to insist than I be kicked out of my graduate studies in Big Quantitative Rodentology despite being

    (1) less than a year from (finally!) finishing,
    (2) funded by a grant and not the department, and
    (3) making adequate progress in the opinion of the funding agency

    my chair responded of that time responded by

    (1) stalling
    (2) telling me "It always takes a few years to train a new dean, so don't worry but do hurry", and
    (3) rebooking me as a staff scientist after the dean put hir foot down (That cost departmental money to pay my benefits.)

    Part of the job is defending your people.

    1. While I was teaching, I remember my last department head frequently telling me that he always backed his staff. The only catch was that he didn't defend me whenever there was a dispute. I supposed I was to interpret that as meaning that he didn't regard me as "staff".

      Unfortunately, taking my case to the last dean I had wasn't much better. He was only interested in putting oil on the water and never hesitated to back the department heads, no matter how they conducted themselves. He automatically accepted everything that my DH said about me as being true and made sure he never gave me a fair hearing.

  4. I don't have any advice, but your post reminded me of Richard Russo's novel Straight Man.

  5. Given the economic climate in higher ed over the last few years, I'd say Charlie is probably about as good as most departments are going to get. Bar the rare academic with a gift for charming faculty, administrators, and donors (a key to charming administrators, and also a handy stick to hold over their heads), *and* a well-calibrated moral compass, someone with the compass, and enough people skills to defend hir faculty (and manage them as necessary) while still maintaining a reasonable working relationship with upper administration is not to be sneezed at.

    But, as you say, maintaining that position can take a toll. The best chairs I've had in my 20+ years in the academy have all described themselves as "reluctant." This is way outside my experience (actual or likely, though I suspect that, in a different era, I'm the sort of person who would likely have rotated through the chair-ship at one or more points in my career, done my best in something like the Charlie mode, and released it to someone else with a sigh of relief), but I think I'd be asking myself not only "can I do this?" but "how long can I do this?" and "is there somebody -- or are there several somebodies -- decent to serve as my successor(s)?" Also, how do you feel about the Dean-level people you'd be working with, now or after departures/retirements? Given the scenario you describe (they wanted a flunky; they got Charlie, who perhaps has more backbone than they expected), I'd be cautious, especially since I gather you're female, and gender dynamics may come into play. On the other hand, perhaps they're hoping a woman will be easier to push around than a man, and you know that you, too, have a backbone. If so, perhaps you do, if only to have a voice in the changes that are apparently coming to an institution to which it sounds like you're pretty committed?

    P.S. It sounds to me like you also already have another major qualification for the job: you know that secretaries are the best sources of information (and often invaluable aids in getting things done).

  6. First, Anita Sedative is a truly great moniker.

    Second, you wrote: "I've learned that there's a groundswell of support to anoint me the next chair of the department. . . . One of their emissaries has hinted that the job could be mine if I want it."

    Chances are, other associate profs are hearing this too, and from the same people -- who don't want their own names to come up for this thankless job. That's what happened to me and a few of my hiring cohort. Each of us was flattered until we later compared notes and realized that we'd all been approached the same year.

    Third, Charlie sounds like a brick, and if you can have the help of his secretary, you'll hit the ground running with her institutional knowledge. Maybe that will help you keep your sanity.

    My contemporary who did volunteer for the election has done a terrific job, is nobody's lackey, and has not noticeably lost vitality or hir soul to the position. Our politics may be more benign than yours, but we do have some petty factions in the department that the chair has to mediate.

    Part of the solution may be to not allow the position to take more time than absolutely necessary. Our current chair made it clear that hir duties would not infringe on family time and has lived up to that plan.

  7. I had a blast when I served as Chair of the physics department. This might surprise you, since for crying out loud, this is the physics department: these people make computer scientists look normal.

    Being Chair provided superb opportunities to get in some excellent SHOUTING. It also opened up delicious opportunities for REVENGE. For someone with tenure, those can be priceless incentives!

    Oh, all right. In fact, I did surprisingly little shouting. I may have cracked that joke so many times that I terrified everyone so much, they all let me do what I wanted. And don't worry, no one GOT IT who didn't richly deserve it.

    I likewise extracted very little revenge. I did, however, manage to give the class-from-hell (80 ed-school undergraduates) to the grossly incompetent former-chair-from-hell, who had previously given it to me. I said, "I know that you can teach this class better than anyone else in the department can," and I did so in complete sincerity, since it was true. THAT was priceless!

    I hope that you realize that the management styles of the two characters you describe are not the only two ways to do the job. It helped me enormously to have a wonderful department secretary. She really ran the department: I just signed stuff. I also had a Dean who wasn't too bad: so help me, he reminded me of Craig Ferguson. If he'd whipped out puppets at a weekly Chairs' meeting, I wouldn't have batted an eye. It also helped that he had a strong research background, and was still active in research.

    I like to think that I ruled benevolently, and generously, at least as much as budgets allowed. When the financial crisis hit, I told the superb secretary, "We must be decent, and if they don't give us the budget to be decent, we must be fair." I had to make some decisions I wish I hadn't had to make, such as laying off nearly all the part-time instructors, but none of them went into positions of complete unemployment. Indeed, it's now hard to hire them back, since I helped place them at the local community college, where several of them are now full-time.

    I didn't get much of a break in teaching, since I teach courses that only I can teach that make money for the department. My research wasn't too badly damaged, but then, as an observational astronomer, most of that goes on at night. Whenever I couldn't avoid an 8 a.m. meeting, it would be quick and to the point, since having been up all night, I'd be in no mood for nonsense. When did I get time for sleep? I didn't.

    One thing I quickly had to learn to do that I hadn't previously been good at was to build up a tolerance for being yelled at from multiple directions simultaneously. What made this much easier was the realization that over 80% of what you're being yelled at really isn't so important. Anything to do with scholarships or other financial aid for students merits immediate attention. Most other things, such as stroking faculty egos or taking complaints from students that our instructors were driving them too hard, not really. My fear of student complaints about me completely vanished, since I was now the one to whom they had to complain. Again, that was priceless.

    If I had to do it, I'd do it again. Indeed, I was recently almost conscripted into it again, but fate was merciful in the 11th hour. You might wonder, why? I'm one of those weirdos who believes what they told us in Cub Scouts, that if we don't provide our own leadership, someone will do it for us. I served in the U.S. Navy mainly because all the other men in my family served. I know, that's been unusual since the '60s: Jean Twenge discussed this in her book, "Generation Me."

    We recently had a Provost who tried to break up our College of Science and Mathematics, as well as our College of Arts and Humanities. He didn't, because he was surprised by the outcry from the faculty and the donors. Again, if we don't provide our own leadership, someone will be all too glad do it for us.


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