Wednesday, January 08, 2014


When Nobody Steps Up

What do you do when nobody wants to be the department chair?

Higher ed has its quirks.  Among them is a widespread allergy to any sort of internal ladder-climbing.  It’s one of the few industries in which it’s considered weird to want a promotion.  

It’s easy enough to come up with reasons that people don’t want to move up.  Chair positions are often thankless -- actually, that can be extended to many positions within academic administration -- since they often involve much more responsibility than authority.  The compensation is often far short of the work involved.  Many faculty -- to their credit -- love teaching so much that they don’t want to move away from it.  And the skill set involved in management is different enough from the skill set involved in teaching that some people who are quite good at one task may struggle badly with the other.

But sometimes that means that chairs (or other leaders) get chosen by default.  That can easily lead to disappointing results.

Chairs by default are particularly common for standing committees.  I’ve seen plenty of committee chairs elected in absentia, since nobody who actually showed up was willing to do it.  

I’ve worked at enough colleges, and spoken with enough people from other ones, to be confident that this is not a quirk of my own institution.  It’s widespread.  I’d almost call it normal.

And that’s a real problem.  Decisions are made by those who show up.  If dedicated academics excuse themselves from the discussions in which decisions are made, those decisions will still get made; they’ll just get made by everyone else.  Sometimes that’s fine, but sometimes it really isn’t.

Some campuses have longstanding go-to people who rapidly become the default chairs for everything.  (Picture the Tracy Flick character from “Election,” but older.)  These people are valuable and commendable, but whenever the same small set of characters pops up repeatedly, others are discouraged from trying to break in.  Other campuses or committees or departments set up informal rotation systems.  I understand the impulse -- it reminds me of the “we have no king!” speech from Monty Python and the Holy Grail -- but it pretty much guarantees that the group’s leadership will forever be in the high-effort, low-payoff part of the learning curve.  Seeing great efforts for small results, the others will feel confirmed in their judgment that the task is a fool’s errand, and before long you have a self-reinforcing culture of dodging responsibility.

Worse, some of the folks who are the quickest to duck responsibility are also the quickest to throw rocks when someone who stepped up did something that wasn’t to their liking.  Again, bystanders see the dynamic and choose -- rationally, if unfortunately -- to steer clear.

The shame of it is that thoughtful and informed leadership has never been more important.  As a sector, we’re in a scary and dangerous transitional period.  This is not the time for intelligent, thoughtful, concerned people to look away.  

I’ve tried to address it locally by setting a climate of relative sanity.  It doesn’t always work, but when the water isn’t constantly choppy, it’s easier to convince people to put toes in.  In my observation, the best administrators are often the ones who started out with no interest in administration.  They entered the profession for the right reasons, and remember what brought them here.  They aren’t generally the first to step forward, but when the climate is right, they can flourish and help those around them flourish, too.  

Wise and worldly readers, what do you do in your company, department, committee, or whatever, when nobody is willing to step up?  

"Wise and worldly readers, what do you do in your company, department, committee, or whatever, when nobody is willing to step up? "

Never happened in my company, there was always intense competition to step up. Our incentives were better aligned than yours.

Very insightful post.
You have either missed, or decided not to mention, another aspect of this. On campuses with a relatively small number of minority faculty, the effort to have diversity in the membership of committees (and, following on, in who chairs committees) means that a very small number of people can rapidly become very over-extended...
I am also pretty sure, from my time in the private sector, that the pay difference for stepping up was huge. People had the same reaction to being in the hot seat, but the prospect of being seen as valuable to those above you and the really lucrative raises for management helped.
For once, I'm with Edmund Dantes. The corporate world is usually very good at aligning work incentives with corporate profits. Fortunately for them, that's self-reinforcing. The company earns more money, so they can spread the money to the workers.

In higher ed, our bottom line isn't more profits. So if we do well, we don't necessarily have more money to share. In fact, sometimes if we "do well", people can lose their jobs or not get replacement positions in their department.

I think the best strategy is to create incentives so that the rational decision-maker (who is the one you want in these positions) will choose to be in them. Maybe not monetary incentives, but incentives nonetheless. The expected value of stepping up needs (which is [expected benefits]-[expected costs]) to be positive. When you create still water, you're decreasing the potential costs.

For many people, including myself, the benefit of doing the work comes from an internal need to do good things. A sense of professional identity also can motivate people. To the extent that you can create a larger effect in those areas, you can draw people in. (And the people you want.) Awards & recognition are also nice, but can also become trite if overused.

Money & release time also speak, of course. Though they can get abused very easily.
I don't really understand why so many approach department chair as a rotating function. It would seem to me that professionalizing the role would make some sense. Why not have people in the role who want to be there? It would allow department chairs to be expected to (a) have the training and skills to serve in the role; (b) offer vision and leadership to a department; (c) some sense of job stability and remuneration commensurate with the job. I was hired from outside into my roles as degree coordinator and School Director, and I think that makes the most sense when no one in the unit has the necessary skills.

There have to be checks and balances, and a true sharing of power with the faculty and chair. But I have seen this model work better than the rotating chair model, which seems much more about luck.
We address it by a seriously large salary bump (as in, 50K/year more) and a course reduction and no doubt some other benes.
Same problem in K-12. I am actually serving as chair of two committees and chair of my department. A couple of my colleagues are similarly placed. None of us are in it for the glory and there's no extra pay (except for dept. chair though that's minimal). We all pretty much believe that "we (the faculty) are the school" and if we want to affect its trajectory, we have to step up. Too often people complain bitterly about this or that directive, but when given the opportunity to affect future directives, they refuse. Our school encourages dept. chairs to pit forward names of dept. members for important roles, especially for newbies, which gives them important insights into the way the school works. In turn, having new people in leadership roles gives the school fresh perspectives that can create positive change. I've seen this happen quite a bit over the last few years. I find it beneficial to the institution.
When you use a socialist management model (step up because it's for the common good, ignore your own interests) you shouldn't be surprised when you get a socialist result, ably documented above.

The conceit seems to be that, because academics are so enlightened and well educated, and because they are all right-thinking liberals anyway, socialism ought to work. Filthy lucre is thought to be beneath their notice. The evidence suggests that the professoriate is just as human as the rest of us. Anonymous @ 9:21 is exactly correct.

Sound leadership has never been more important, more valuable, more worth paying big bucks for. Unfortunately, too many places are paying big bucks and getting little to no leadership in return.

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