Friday, May 11, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Knowing When to Quit

A longtime correspondent, himself a department chair, writes:

when does a chair know that they have overstayed their welcome?

A damn fine question.

Knowing when it's time to walk away is tough. Some colleges have either official or unofficial term limits for chairs – a system I strongly advocate – so the system makes the decision for you. (I also strongly advocate term limits for members of Boards of Trustees, but that's another post.) Sometimes a chair loses re-election or gets replaced by the dean, so other people make the decision for you. And sometimes health or some other personal issue creates a sort of force majeure that make the decision a no-brainer.

More common in my experience, though, is the chair who won't leave the position vertically.

At my college, chairs are initially appointed by deans, and are effectively impossible to dislodge. Some have been in office since the 1980's. They're technically on annual appointments, which strikes me as an asinine system; if somebody has been reappointed 23 times, the burden of proof to avoid a 24th is pretty much unattainable. So they stick around forever. (Most of my chairs were inherited from previous deans.) I'd rather move to, say, three-year terms, on the theory that longer terms can lead to more meaningful reviews. (That's the same principle behind the lower re-election rate for the Senate, as opposed to the House.)

All of that said, how does an individual chair know when it's time to move on?

My quick and dirty answer is: when you're only maintaining.

We all have strengths, passions, and goals; we all also have weaknesses, blind spots, and bad habits. In my observation, most chair careers follow a predictable arc:

  1. The exciting and scary high-risk, high-reward early stage in which she makes some rookie mistakes, but also brings new and interesting things to the table. (The first two years, usually.)

  2. The high-functioning stage. She has learned the ropes well enough to avoid the rookie mistakes, has gained some confidence, and is following through on her strengths.

  3. The long, slow decline. She has added what she is going to add, and now spends most of her time playing defense and fighting change. Her blind spots are starting to become evident in the department. This can go on pretty much forever.

(Exceptions include those who crash and burn in the first year or two, and those who move from stage 2 into deanships or other administrative roles.)

If you aren't still reshaping the department, if you're just 'holding the line' against what you perceive as inexorable decline, then it's time to go. As I've written before, you don't win on defense.

Admittedly, it isn't always as simple as that. If the only possible successors are train wrecks waiting to happen, there may be an argument for sticking around long enough to try to develop one or more of your potential successors into someone capable. Delegate, train, develop, with an eye toward moving on as soon as there's someone capable in the wings. (We usually use 'coordinator' positions for that sort of thing, but any kind of administrative responsibility that involves complexity and extended time will do. My intro to administrative work involved chairing a self-study.) But don't let that drag out too long.

There are other ways of thinking about this. Some chairs believe strongly in the “well-oiled machine” model, by which they mean that success is defined by getting the department where they want it and then preserving it that way indefinitely. I consider this hopelessly na├»ve. Organizational entropy is real, and anybody who tries to stand athwart history yelling “stop!” is doomed to failure. If you perceive the department as being right where you want it, that's another way of saying you've run out of ideas. Once that happens, decline is just a matter of time.

(Candidly, I apply this same logic to my blog. Probably twice a week I seriously consider just calling it a wrap and walking away. This is especially pronounced during creative slumps, when I'm acutely aware of a certain predictability and repetitiousness in my stuff. Honestly, the main reason I keep going is that it keeps me sane. But when it gets to the point where even I don't care what I write, then it'll be time to quit.)

Good luck with your decision.

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