Thursday, November 03, 2005


Term Limits for Department Chairs

Although I’m usually suspicious of easy populist ideas like term limits, I’ll admit recently flirting with the concept of term limits for department chairs.

At my college, chairs are appointed by the dean to year-long terms, infinitely renewable. As with Congress, what this means is that if you survive the first two years or so, it’s pretty much yours forever. We have some chairs who have held their posts for over twenty years, outlasting multiple deans. The culture of the college has come to accept this, so we’ve reached the point that replacing a chair who doesn’t want to be replaced is considered shockingly high-handed.

The dangers posed by a twenty-year chair are many. Whatever blind spot a given chair has will inevitably make itself felt, repeatedly, over that much time. Other members of the department will not bother to pursue leadership opportunities, on the theory that there’s not likely to be much point. Personal quirks will get written into the organizational DNA of the department. And most departments, unlike most colleges, are small enough that medium-sized fish can dominate them fairly easily.

The arguments against term limits are real: you’d lose the successful as well as the unsuccessful; you’d have to rotate in some people who really, truly don’t want the job; management talent is relatively thin anyway; and a lame-duck chair has little incentive to perform well. All true, but none as compelling as the need to dispense with chairs-for-life.

How are chairs chosen at your school? Does it work?

It sounds like your chairs come from the department? We have to do a national search. And we're in our THIRD year searching for a chair.
We've a unionized faculty and the chair's position is quite limited in comparison to other institutions where a department head can set raises for his/her faculty, assign teaching loads, etc. Here, all that administrative work is officially done by the dean (who's not in the bargaining unit).

We elect our chairs by votes within the department and overseen by a committee drawn from the department and the faculty. They serve for a three year term, normally. In our most recent contract, we've also won a sabbatical credit and an increased stipend for chair service. Our department's never had a problem in finding a good chair, basically because we all vote as the secretary tells us to since, in the end, it's who the secretary will work with most effectively that's the concern.
I think chairs are appointed by the dean with input from the department at XU. They serve 3 year terms. I don't know if there are actually term limits, but being a research university, no one wants to be chair for more than, say, 6 years. Of course, that means that if a chair wants to step down and there's no one suitable for the job, the deans have to strongarm someone into doing it. I'm just dying to know who will replace our chair next year.
Chairs MUST be limited to 2/3year terms, because if you don't they and the department have no interest in training others to follow on and in sharing the work.

The reason you have a thin bench is that the chairs have no reason to train their colleagues for the position (if, for no other reason, that they will have to serve under someone else). The reason to share responsibility is that you don't have enough staff that one person can do it themselves.
Seven years and out. It works. Chairs who really want to administer go on to become deans, here or elsewhere. The rest go back to teaching.
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