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?