Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Ask the Administrator: Should I Run for Chair?

A new correspondent writes:

I am a rather new full time faculty member at a community college. I have not been here long enough to qualify to run for chairperson of my department. My dean has expressed to me that he wants me to run for this position. I love teaching and really don't feel that this is the direction I want to take right now. Further, most of my department is off contract currently and I feel that if I were elected chair, this would serve to divide the department.

Would it be wiser to to run for chair rather than refuse?

Part of me thinks that “I have not been here long enough to qualify” pretty much answers the question. Why run if you’re forbidden to win?

But assuming that the phrase is meant figuratively, I’d still advise not running.

A couple of weeks ago IHE published a piece on staffing trends in higher education in the US in which it noted that tenure-track faculty positions have declined by nine percent, and academic management positions (deans and higher) had declined by twenty percent over the last decade. The so-called “administrative bloat” wasn’t actually administrative; it was concentrated in IT, with some support in Financial Aid and student services. On the academic side, the full-time administrative ranks have declined. In practice, that tends to mean an increased number of opportunities (or burdens, depending on your preference) for the faculty who remain to pick up a course release or two by filling in some of the gaps. In the coming years, I’d expect no shortage of opportunities to step up on the administrative side without actually crossing over.

My hunch is that your dean was doing a hamhanded job of complimenting you. Some perfectly wonderful professors make awful department chairs, because the skill sets involved are so different. Chairs typically need to be even-tempered and good at finding imperfect-but-workable solutions. Some people have that profile and some don’t. I’m guessing that you do, and that your dean has noticed. Since your dean mentioned it, I’m also guessing that some of the eligible local candidates don’t have that profile. So it goes.

(One of the many banes of my existence is the department with nobody willing to chair. Since creating a brand-new full-time position for a new chair just isn’t the local reality, there’s no elegant way around this. That’s one reason why newer folk who seem grounded sometimes get recruited a little earlier than would be optimal.)

The good news is that your talents will still be there in a few years. Better, at that point you may be a more palatable choice politically within the department than you would be now, thereby making relative success more likely. Since many of the duties pretty much rely on people’s willingness to take you seriously, it’s better if you don’t come in under a perceived cloud. If you’re happy in your current role and want to solidify your standing in that role, I don’t see a downside.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think? Should he bide time or go for it?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Bide your time. If you are relatively new, I'm guessing you are not tenured yet. Use your time to get your publications out, polish up a manuscript, present at conferences, etc. Even if that's all under control, spend the time now on your teaching & making a denser campus network for yourself.

Under the best of circumstances, being a dept chair is kind of like herding cats; worse, if your colleagues resent the timing or fact of your appointment.
One factor to consider is the consequence of telling your Dean "No". I assume that you have a good relationship with the Dean, and so it might not be a problem. But I would consider how your negative decision would affect your relationship with the Dean as a part of your calculation.
The terms "rather new" and "qualify to run" are pretty vague, probably to protect anonymity. There is a big difference between the end of your first year and one year away from the tenure decision (even if that is only a 1 year difference rather than 5 years) because most tenure decisions are pretty clear by then even if the faculty remain nervous. Right DD? Further, chairs are not elected at my CC, as big as it is, where the issue is more "accept offer" than "run".

I would suggest that your correspondent consider the very real possibility that ze was originally hired to become chair in the near future. Do you know where your "line" came from?

That said, our CC gets such people into various minor leadership roles where they learn about the entire college and its processes to groom people for a job that has lots of responsibility (especially for budgets) but little authority. Does your correspondent know what a "chair" does at hir CC? Ours do all of the scheduling, including interviewing and hiring adjuncts, but has essentially no role at all in hiring or evaluating the tenure track faculty.

My advice is to know what you are getting into, and what support you will have in the first year on that job.
I am speaking from experience. Quite a few years ago I stepped into a administration position for what was supposed to be an "interim" position. The person who was a department chair left unexpectantly in mid year, and I thought that "interim" really did mean one semester. I was in that position for three years, and looking back it was the worst mistake of my academic career. Everyone had different ideas of what I should be doing and there was no job description. Worst of all, my teaching suffered (I got three hours of "release" time, which was a joke, because I wasn't being released from anything) and thus my students suffered.

I have seen my college do this again and again to other faculty members and we are burning out some really great teachers (at a community college, where in theory, teaching is supposed to be number one priority.) Our current academic dean is trying to remedy the situation, but it may too late for some faculty members.

My advice: have a job description and a time period. Know what you are getting into....It is true -- colleges are pushing newer and newer faculty members into positions they are not ready for.
1) If you don't have tenure yet (new full-time, right?) then only do things which get you tenure.

2) I have never heard of "being chair" helping someone get tenure.
Advising this person not to run is smart advice, Dean Dad, just from the incredible insecurity articulated in the first two sentences of this person’s statement.

Leaders need to have a dynamic vision and force of personality to make a positive difference in this world. Be mindful of what type of leaders we create, lest we end up with nothing more than pointy-headed, mealy-mouthed, pencil pushers, who everyone likes because they don’t rock the boat.

And regarding the PunditusMaximus reply, why does it appear that tenure is such an important part of these conversations?
Because it's good to have tenure?

Tenure is a big deal because until you have it, you have no job security. They can let you go at the end of any of your annual review cycles without any consequences. Right now, the job market is piss poor (getting a new job after washing out somewhere would be difficult if not impossible) so you need to have that job security in your back pocket before doing anything that could piss off your colleagues. Good chairs inevitably piss off their colleagues.

The decision to grant you tenure is determined by a committee of senior faculty in your department, college, and school. It is based on your academic research, teaching, and service to the school - the weight of each is determined by your location and your school's mission but the bottom line is that a pretenure faculty member needs to be spending all their time trying to get tenure by polishing their skills in teaching and research and trying not to get in trouble by participating in service (because in all contexts, service is the thing that counts the least, it is a time suck beyond all imagination and it is potentially politically charged). If you get your colleagues really mad, even if your teaching and research is great they will accuse you of being uncollegial and depending on the school, this might kill your chances of getting tenure. Imagine spending 12 years training for a job that 1 in 100 applicants get, doing that job for a couple of years (after moving across the country away from your family and friends and buying a house) and then being unable to continue in it because Dr. Bigshot decides you are the devil and much be exorcized from the university.

New faculty don't need the distraction of complex political battles, the crushing minutiae of planning course schedules and room arrangements or the emotional and mental challenges of managing (often unionized) office staff or technicians (which lucky chairs have). By the time a faculty member has been somewhere for 7 or so years, they know the system, they have some contacts outside the department and can get favors from administrators and staff that they’ve worked with. Presumably, they have tenure and are not easy to get rid of because another faculty member gets mad.

This person should take the advice of doing small admin jobs for their dean or department chair and use those as a learning experience. They can play the newbie card, "I am SOOOOO honored that you asked me to do this - I mean really what a compliment - but I really want to develop my expertise a little bit more before I take on this challenge. Is there a smaller project I can start with to show you my interest in taking on more some time in the future? Wow - I'm so impressed you would even consider asking me!" etc. etc.
Just to add to what Ivory said (which, yes, all of that), tenure is important because at most institutions, tenure is linked with promotion. Taking on the role of department chair puts you in a *supervisory* role, but it is *not* a promotion. (Similarly, getting a job as a dean isn't a promotion. It's just a different job from professor.)

In other words, an untenured chair would be responsible for managing people who actually outrank him or her, who are his/her higher-ups, not just in terms of seniority but in terms of position/pay grade/etc. It is *very difficult* - if not impossible - to be a "leader," as Adam says, when you don't actually have the clout to make anyone do anything, nor the relationships to cajole people into doing anything. Basically, you'd be setting yourself up to have colleagues who hate you and/or to do a terrible job.
Re: Ivory and Dr. Crazy

Thanks for the replies. This portion of Ivory's comment is amazing: "Tenure is a big deal because until you have it, you have no job security. They can let you go at the end of any of your annual review cycles without any consequences."

The overwhelming majority of people live in a world without job security, and are hired, promoted, and fired based on performance. Yes, there are instances when people are let go for political reasons, but that's just a part of life.

I'm trying to understand, and appreciate two things:
1. Why a high percentage of the discussion on this blog, regardless of the information and questions posed by Dean Dad, seems to end up with advice about tenure; and,
2. Why is appears that teachers think they should be entitled to more job security than everybody else.
Adam, this is a higher education blog, and tenure is a major issue in higher education and higher education administration. Dean Dad has proclaimed his rejection of the tenure model. It comes up on this blog partly because a lot of Dean Dad's readers think he's wrong about that.

Now, do teachers need "more job security than other people"? No. They don't. However, if the trade-off is not having the security of tenure, there would be an expectation of increased compensation elsewhere. Basically, tenure has been an incentive that institutions have used to give people who could very easily have moved into MUCH more lucrative careers to decide to use their talents to teach at universities and colleges. (Let's note: for more than half of the instructors at universities, that incentive has been a big fat lie.) Choosing this career path means that you're unlikely ever to get more than a 3% raise annually - and many years you'll go without raises and maybe even get furloughs or pay cuts. People who choose this path don't get to pick where they live, and getting a job often means moving thousands of miles away from any family, friends, or support network they might have - mostly at their own cost. People who become professors have, in spite of the odds, chosen a field where if you are let go prior to tenure or are given a negative tenure decision, it is not unlikely for that to be career-ending. Also, there is little mobility for those who seek to move elsewhere based on their merits - and what mobility there is would require you to move across the country again - not just to the school down the road. Obviously some of this is better or worse depending on field, but I think I'm painting a pretty accurate picture.

The vast majority of people do not attend school beyond the B.A. for 6-8 years (field depending), pick up and move across the country with no support networks to take a job in that field, take a salary *lower* than most in "industry" (most people in academia will never make 6 figures - I know of recently hired people who started somewhere in the low 40s, which is what my mom without a college degree makes in selling insurance), particularly given level of education, and entered a career with little to no mobility.

Now, you might say, "who ever would do that? what idiots!" However, the reality is that for those of us who have done it, tenure factored into that decision. So, if the order of the day is tenure - and at most colleges and universities in the United States it is, at least for some proportion of positions - then of course tenure would have to factor into any decision about whether or not to take on an administrative role where the people you're supervising ultimately have the power to fire you. It's really not that hard to understand.
Adam, it may help to think of the tenure decision as an up-or-out promotion system- In the army for example, if a captain is not selected for promotion to major by a certain point in his career he's not permitted to remain in the Army. Expecting him to dynamically lead the group of people who will make the decision on whether to promote him is perhaps not realistic.
It is pretty clear that Adam has no idea at all about the structure of the higher education enterprise. To name just one example that DD has also never examined, consider the FACT that many university presidents insist on being hired with tenure and a very high "base" salary so they can fall back on that when they get fired or quit.

But I also question the entire vision of a "dynamic leader" as a department chair at a CC. That is not the job of the department chairs at my CC, and mine is larger than most. Individual faculty are as likely as the chair to bring forth and take leadership of an innovation in the classroom. More likely, actually, in my experience. It is the chair's job to help facilitate what faculty or research groups come up with, not generate ideas for research or teaching innovation. Department chairs do not win the Nobel Prize.

Similarly, the chair (and the department as a whole) plays no, none, zero, nada role in tenure decisions at my CC. My chair never sat in my classroom, for example, but the Dean visits every year and the President visited the year of my tenure decision. This world is very different from a 4-year college or university. Publications? Anonymous @4:09AM is not talking about a CC.

I know exactly what Ivory is talking about as regards the situation at a 4-year college, where hiring and tenure are handled quite differently and are based on very different criteria. Nonetheless, the advice about possible risks is sound because this person will be less likely to offer independent advice to the Dean that will likely make the tenure decision.

But the job at a CC is still like herding cats. Probably harder, with some release time as the only reward.
Tenure is like a civil service position: You can still be fired, but it has to be "for cause."

Faculty members obsess about tenure because if you don't get it, you no longer qualify for a full-time teaching load (at most places) and you lose your voice and vote in departmental decisions (at most places). Not getting tenure for a tenure-track faculty member is like getting fired, thus it is important.

The person who asked about becoming department chair despite a lack of seniority mentioned being at a community college. In that case, a publication record hardly matters. Concentrate on your teaching, learning the ropes, and networking with colleagues. Don't let anyone guilt you into being chair before you feel ready to do it. And if you don't have a knack for dealing with occasionally difficult people and finding minimax solutions for problems that never have perfect solutions, avoid the job of chair forever.
"Why is appears that teachers think they should be entitled to more job security than everybody else."

In response to Adam, because the integrity of the educational system requires it. Though I agree with Dr. Crazy 100%, ultimately to my mind the only real justification for tenure is that teachers - those with expertise in specific disciplines - need to be able to control the curriculum. As history - and my personal experience - demonstrate, politicians, journalists, administrators - all those with political axes to grind - will frequently attempt to interfere with and/or determine what gets taught - always to the detriment of the students. Curriculum should not be subject to short-term political gain.
Anon 3:19 - I'm entirely in agreement with your rationale here, too. I just didn't think that Adam was interested in the philosophical and ethical reasons for why conversations in higher ed turn to tenure. I suspect he's heard those and thinks that they're a bunch of hooey and that proffies who seek tenure are looking for a free ride.
I hear all of you, and though I continue to have strong reservations about the tenure structure, I have learned much from your responses, and from it, will get off my anti-tenure soap box for the moment. Though all reasoned arguments, the one that gave me pause was "Anonymous" sharing the need for tenure protection from politicians wielding the political axe. I think we can all find common ground that the overt political ping pong game is going to get worse before it gets better during these rough economic times, which is not good for anyone.
Tenure is overdetermined; there are a lot of good reasons for it. I just wanted to thank Adam for accepting that even if he doesn't find some of the arguments for it persuasive, he accepts that tenure is well-supported even by some of them.

As for why tenure is important to the worker on the ground, well, imagine that there is only one job opening for your specialty in your city, but that you only really get good at it after a couple of years. Job security would be a win-win, giving you an opportunity to actually take on the work, and allowing you to get good enough to serve your institution well without fearing political pressure. Yes, most workers face summary dismissal, though not nearly all of them. And those workers (correctly) spend enormous time and energy on internal politics which could be spent elsewhere.

The overwhelming majority of people live in a world without job security, and are hired, promoted, and fired based on performance. Most at will employees gain skills in their job that translate into greater expertise or form relationships that make them more effective over time. Faculty rarely do either of these things in a way that is meaningful to industry. So, the longer they stay at the uni, the less chance they have of getting a job elsewhere. We could just discard faculty after they had taught for 15 or 20 years (much the same way we discard engineers in their 40s and 50s) but the tenure system is supposed to reward people for sacrificing their 20s and 30s in the name of providing education to the next generation and for doing research into things that no industry would touch because of the lack of immediate application or commercial value. I've seen computer companies put 50 year old engineers out to pasture with a nice severance or early retirement so there's private industry examples of this - perhaps fewer now that we've become used to corporations behaving like sociopaths.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?