Tuesday, July 25, 2017


When Nobody Steps Up

My friend Christine Nowik posted a great question on Twitter this week.  Linking to a piece about department chairs who have stayed too long, she noted that in many departments there’s nobody willing to step up if the current chair steps down.  In some cases, chairs stick around less out of eagerness for the position than out of a lack of alternatives.  What to do when that happens?

I’ve seen this happen several times over the years.  It’s particularly common in small departments, where the personalities involved are few and long-entrenched.  Let’s say you have a department of three full-timers.  One has been the chair for a very long time, with middling performance in the role.  One of the others is nearing retirement and couldn’t be dragged by wild horses to do the job, and the other is a dedicated clock-puncher.  Budgets make a new hire a non-option for the near future.

In that situation, the de-facto-chair-for-life may be the least bad option.  You won’t get greatness, but the basic tasks will get done.  With either of the other two options the basic tasks probably won’t get done, at least not reliably.

Sometimes, the best option in a case like that is either a merger with another department, or a threatened merger with another department.  I’ve seen people who swore up and down never to step up change their minds when threatened with what they saw as a forced takeover.  The threatened loss of autonomy can be enough to overcome a distaste for administrative tasks.

Depending on context, it can also make sense to reconfigure the role.  Larger departments have had success with splitting the role between two people.  The key there is in a clear delineation of duties.  Having “co-chairs” as pure equals simply doesn’t work; you introduce a whole new level of ambiguity, and people learn to play the two off against each other.  But if one co-chair deals with, say, the full-time faculty and department meetings, and the other is the go-to person for the adjuncts, that can work.  

In some cases, unwillingness to step up can be a symptom of a larger organizational dysfunction.  In my own career, I’ve declined to apply for positions when the people to whom I’d have to report didn’t meet my sense of acceptability.  It can be a barometer.

But it’s frequently more a combination of the general academic distrust of “going over to the dark side” combined with individual personal priorities.  Personally, I don’t mind when people step up to chair roles with an eye towards eventually moving into deanships.  Those folks have something to prove, and therefore an incentive to do a really good job.  That’s a good thing, even if there’s a cultural taboo against admitting it.  

I’ve heard of colleges moving away from department chairs altogether, on the theory that faculty are hired to teach, and the skill set for management overlaps only slightly with the skill set for teaching.  I get the logic, and there can be specific local circumstances in which it makes sense.  But as a long-term strategy, I’d be concerned about losing the talent development pipeline.  Chair positions are often a toe in the water of administration; they operate as de facto audition periods on both sides.  I’ve seen chairs who thought the position looked great decide quickly that accepting it was a tragic mistake; I’ve seen others discover previously untapped talent for management.  The in-between status of chairs allows for a relatively low-risk exploratory period; if it doesn’t work out, returning to the faculty isn’t that hard.  That’s much less true for full-time administrative roles.

I’m pretty confident that Nowik and I aren’t the only people ever to have seen this.  Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a reasonably elegant solution to the problem of nobody wanting to step up?

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