Thursday, August 09, 2007


Ask the Administrator: Nobody Wants to Chair!

A savvy correspondent writes:

My department at a small private liberal arts
college has a dramatic generational split, with three senior faculty
who have been around for twenty years or more, and three junior
faculty who have been tenured in the last three years. We're currently
in the middle of an argument about who will have to be Chair next
year, when the current Chair's term runs out.

The problem is that the senior faculty have a personal feud that has
gone on long enough that none of the junior people have any idea how
it started. It's sufficiently bad that they do not speak directly to
one another if it can be avoided, and five years ago, the current
Chair was hired in an external search, to bring a little stability to
the process. The agreed term was six years as chair, which expires
next year, and somebody else will need to take the job after that.

All of the senior faculty have been Chair in the past, with varying
degrees of success, and none of them can be made Chair without one or
more of the others causing a problem. There have apparently been
threats to quit if the job goes to the "wrong" person.

All of the junior faculty have good reasons why they shouldn't have to
take the job, primarily because of the damage that would be done to
their research careers, which are in an early but highly productive
stage. Tenure, promotion, and merit pay decisions are very heavily
research-driven, and being Chair would dramatically reduce the ability
of any of the junior people to do research. Plus, there's the danger
of being drawn into the senior faculty squabbles-- in addition to all
the usual academic duties, the Chair is often forced to act as a sort
of referee in new outbreaks of old arguments.

The situation seems to have reached an impasse, but a new Chair needs
to be found, and the Dean is pressing for an answer. If you were the
Dean, what would you do? Smack the senior people around and tell them
to stop acting like children? Smack the junior people around and order
one of them to take the job? Bribe one of the junior people with extra
money or release time (the Chair currently gets a 40% reduction in
teaching load, which is not enough to be worth the hassle for the
junior faculty).? Appoint someone from another department as Acting
Chair for a few years?

Thanks in advance for any help you and your readers can provide.

Oooh, I like this one. (And the answer, as you'll see, is 'none of the above.')

This wouldn't happen in exactly this way at my cc, since here, chairs are appointed by deans. In practice, of course, that only happens when a vacancy occurs for natural causes, since removing a chair is considered an abuse of power. The logic eludes me, but there it is.

Back in the day, when confronted with a situation like this, someone would say “Turn back! It's a trap!”

Since you apparently go by an election system, I'd take a subtle tack. A good-hearted but naïve dean would try to resolve the situation by sparing the department the difficult choice by making it himself. It would solve the immediate problem, but the new chair would be instantly despised by all as the dean's lackey, and other departments would notice that they could possibly finagle more release time (there would be a sudden epidemic of reluctance to serve, which could only be palliated by increased release time and other perks) by creating crises. Once you fall into crisis management mode, you're prey to all manner of savvy predators. Reward bickering, and you'll get more of it. No, thanks.

Instead, I'd press the department into a corner. Either you pick a chair by the deadline, or I fold you into another department. If nobody is willing to step up, then clearly the department has ceased to function as a department, and it needs to be reorganized. Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha! (Meanwhile, by reorganizing, I save most of the cost of release time for one chair, even after giving the 'receiving' chair a compensatory bump. A dean's office win-win!)

That way, the department has to decide which is more important: its feuds or its autonomy. I'm okay either way. What I won't do is make myself the common enemy. Been there, done that. In a nutshell, my message would be: You can come to any answer you want, but you can't change the subject.

Admittedly, this approach presses the innocent into a tight cage with the guilty. But such is the nature of department life.

Early in my admin career, I probably would have fallen into the trap of trying to recruit somebody. But sometimes you have to force the issue. If the kids can't play nicely in the sandbox, I won't hover over them; I'll just take away the sandbox. If they know that, and know that I'm not bluffing, then they have a choice to make.

As I've mentioned before in the context of victim bullies, tenured faculty sometimes use intransigence as a way to escape both supervision and responsibility. Much of the time, my hands are tied, and they get away with it. In this case, though, no. Step up or step off.

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

Dean Dad:

There is a major downside to the "change or die" departmental scenario: that you've made a smaller dysfunctional department into a larger, more complex and even more dysfunctional department, where the ever-sullen 3, now even more embittered, can now recruit new allies into their never-ending fued. The opportunities for mayhem have just expanded.

It is, to be blunt, an administrative "dead-skunk" scenario. To some extent, I'm a fan of bribery, uhm, er, "faculty inducements."

1. Make one of the "baby profs" acting department head if no one wants to do it. This is a miserable position, because EVERYONE knows it's a temporary fix, particularly the 3 senior sharks. It's virtue is the poor slob who's head has "plausible deniability." Negotiate a major research leave at the end of their temporary term (1 semester at full pay), so they can get back on research track.

2. Given how unhappy the 3 dyspeptic senior colleagues are, perhaps, one could be encouraged (with the suitable fiscal and/or professional perks) to retire. Another might be moved into low-level, non-harm causing, administrative position (there are slots--these open and close depending on the intensity of a given "as*hole removal" crisis). Director of curriculum and program development has a certain virtue, in that, if the person involved is still somewhat functional, they may have some creative ideas that can be played with down the line. That, then, leaves you with one unhappy camper in the small department. They can continue to pout and spout, but they've now put on a clown suit. They are, if they continue to be a PITA (Pain in the a**), marginal to the larger business of the department.

3. You now have a line or two to go poach--er, HIRE another outside person to become chair, this time as part of a larger "rebuild the department" agenda. With the 2 faculty lines freed that should give you the money to hire an outstanding senior person and a baby prof.

4. Of course, my heroic assumption is there are the funds to do this. But given the high degree of dysfunction, the rehabilitation of a department should take precedence on any dean's agenda. Poorly functioning departments are a drain on a college's resources. Taking the financial hit up front can save you hundreds of thousands of dollars later.
Assumption 4 is the killer. In the contexts in which I've worked, that one is so far from true as to render the others moot.

If you have the money to make the problem go away, and you don't mind creating perverse incentives, bully for you. I've never been in that situation.
Another option is to place the department in receivership, and bring in a chair from another department. It might be a bit expensive to "induce" someone into this role, but my campus has some experienced senior faculty (e.g., former deans) around who have been willing to take on these temporary duties, and often the fear of receivership is enough to focus a department's mind.
As a non-academic, I'm having a bit of trouble seeing the problem.

If senior person A gets to be chair, senior person B has threatened to leave; why do you, as dean, care? Wouldn't everyone's life be easier if one or more of the feuding faculty left and found something more productive to do, like write a blog?

Sam raises a good point. It wasn't clear to me from the post if the feuding faculty were productive or not. But assuming that they're not impossible to replace it doesn't really matter.

One of them gets the job worst case scenario two others quit and now you have two open lines to hire new, less bitter, less expensive professors. What's the downside?

I think it's more likely that NO ONE will quit but I'll take the post at face value.
I think worst case scenario is not that you make Senior Person A chair and Seniors B and C quit; it's that Senior A becomes chair and Seniors B and C stay around being even more obstructionist than they are currently.
It has been my experience that when Old Farts (OFs) threaten to leave, they never do! I’ve called a few on their bluff and they back down so quickly they almost trip over themselves getting out the door. (BTW, I’m in a non-tenure, right-to-work environment)

At any rate, the Dean is in a difficult position. Typically we find an “up-and-comer” to take the helm. They burn up in a few short years and move on to a better place. Therefore, status quo is maintained. I like the idea of holding the OFs accountable for their own neighborhood. If they can’t stop the childish behavior, the department’s viability is placed into question, so fold it into a department with a strong chair that won’t accept such behavior. The OFs should get the picture at that point. If that won’t work, transfer the productive Young Turks to a leader that can help them mature and grow while leaving the OFs with little more than an office, a desk, a phone and computer. If they want to travel, write grants. As we like to say, “Separate them from the love and affection of the institution.”

All of this is taking some things as “given” as we used to say in Economics. It has to be a given that the Dean is capable of making the move; the union or faculty senate will allow it; a strong chair will accept the malcontent department; the department isn’t a favorite of the Prez or a sacred cow to someone influential.
Something along these lines happened to another department in our school. One of my colleagues stepped in as chair for the year and refused to coddle the prima donnas at all. The easy schedules they were accustomed to awarding each other, the other perks? All put aside by my wise and firm senior colleague who told them that he wasn't there to cater to their whims, but to run the department and its programs.

The next year they got their act together sufficiently to elect a chair from within their ranks.
Machiavelli suggested that as a method to pacify a conquered population. Appoint a governor that while competent is so brutal that they inspire nothing but hatred and fear in the population. Wait a while and than come in, act surprised at their excess, and have them put to death. It’s a win/win. The conquered people like you for saving them from the brutal governor. The brutal and competent governor is dead and you don’t have to worry about them being a threat to you position.

It probably wouldn’t be that effective in this situation. It’s fairly transparent. It also makes it hard for a group of creative people to produce. Remember, the Old Farts in this situation aren’t bad profs (so far as we know) they just don’t play well together. Finally it’ll reflect badly on this dean’s ability to select good managers and resolve messy situations with a minimum of fuss.

Is bracing them with the reality of the situation completely impossible? Get them all in a room, tell them they need to pick a chair and ask for write in ballots. Let the two front runners have a run off election? Might screw one of the younger professors that way but it looks like NO ONE in the department wants to deal with the responsibilities of self governance.
In addition to trying to find an outside chair from the current faculty in related disciplines (I know of a case in which a senior economist, formerly econ department chair, served as interim chair of the department of modern languages, so maybe not even a related discipline), there may be some recent retirees who'd be willing to come back in a part-time capacity. Particularly if one could find a highly respected recent retiree, the entire problem might be postponable for a year or so.
Joe -- The reason a dean appoints a chair from outside a disfunctional department isn't usually some Machiavellian scheme to unite the department against the outsider, but to ensure that the department's business gets done. I don't see how refusing to wade into the internal politics and instead appointing a competent external chair can reflect badly on a dean's ability to select good managers, but it certainly reflects poorly on the department: so much so that a department at risk of being placed in receivership usually figures out how to avoid it. It is rare that a department doesn't emerge within a year or two -- perhaps not with its problems entirely resolved, but at least with a renewed sense of perspective and a restored ability to govern itself.
Can I suggest that somebody needs to sit down with the junior people -- who are tenured, as I understand -- and ask them why their research careers are more important than those of the senior people. Or more important than a well-functioning workplace. Now maybe someone has to figure out how to make it worth their while -- additional research moneys, course release, whatever -- but when *do* they intend to step up to the plate? Getting so invested in the possible damage to your career when you do a part of your job you were hired to do seems a little screwy to me. Not to mention unacceptably individualist.

Can I suggest that somebody needs to sit down with the junior people -- who are tenured, as I understand -- and ask them why their research careers are more important than those of the senior people. Or more important than a well-functioning workplace. Now maybe someone has to figure out how to make it worth their while -- additional research moneys, course release, whatever -- but when *do* they intend to step up to the plate? Getting so invested in the possible damage to your career when you do a part of your job you were hired to do seems a little screwy to me. Not to mention unacceptably individualist.

TR -- I take exception to that.

My job isn't to make departments' lives more comfortable. It's to help the college as a whole function. If one department becomes parasitic on the college as a whole, then I need to bring it back into line.

The line about the 'common enemy' reflects the very real experience of giving malingerers an excuse, however contrived, to change the subject. They're very, very good at that. By removing variables from the equation, I make it harder for them to do that.

Agree or disagree with my methods, but I'd rather you didn't impugn my motives. I don't do that to you.
Tell your Senior People a few things.

1st of all, make it a mandatory part of their review, evaluation process that they take on the Chair position every so often throughout their career at the college, and that bonuses and pay will be based on that. (hit them where it counts - in the pocket book)

2nd, tell them, that either they decide among the 3 of them who will do it - or they recommend a junior colleague or YOU will decide and they might not like the choice you make.

3rd, if any of them do threaten to quit to your face - pull them in your office and YOU threaten to fire them on the spot if they resort to that tactic again. ( We had a manager in our department do this to a co-worker, because everytime something was being asked of him that he didn't want to do, he'd have a temper tantrum and refuse to do it. One day, the senior manager pulled him into his office for a long talk and said "look, I'm the boss, you're the worker and if I ask you to do something, you do it or you can quit today (or I'll fire you). " That was the end of those episodes. (The manager meant it too, he had already gone to HR about it and gotten permission to get rid of the guy - who was a very talented individual, but had an attitude problem. We don't have those problems anymore.)

4th, I agree with Sam and Joe, it's time maybe you did get rid of a couple of your professors who are talented but have poor attitudes. It would definately make your life better. But you don't have to have a big blow out, confrontational fight with them, if you really thing 1 or 2 will leave, depending on who get's the chair - make that person that chair and watch them leave. You are acting like your frustrated, but how much more miserable can you make those professor's lives by assigning someone to chair they can't stand. Then they'll be miserable! And, maybe they'll quit, or more likely, they'll just keep trying to sabotage things, which will give you a good reason to evaluate them poorly and get rid of them yourself. Then you can promot some juinor colleagues who have better attitudes and are willing to work together more.
HI Dear
It is clear.This topic is discussion of the departmental.This discussion depends on chair.Chair is the highest position of department................
Chair Hire

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