Thursday, August 09, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Nobody Wants to Chair!

A savvy correspondent writes:

My department at a small private liberal arts
college has a dramatic generational split, with three senior faculty
who have been around for twenty years or more, and three junior
faculty who have been tenured in the last three years. We're currently
in the middle of an argument about who will have to be Chair next
year, when the current Chair's term runs out.

The problem is that the senior faculty have a personal feud that has
gone on long enough that none of the junior people have any idea how
it started. It's sufficiently bad that they do not speak directly to
one another if it can be avoided, and five years ago, the current
Chair was hired in an external search, to bring a little stability to
the process. The agreed term was six years as chair, which expires
next year, and somebody else will need to take the job after that.

All of the senior faculty have been Chair in the past, with varying
degrees of success, and none of them can be made Chair without one or
more of the others causing a problem. There have apparently been
threats to quit if the job goes to the "wrong" person.

All of the junior faculty have good reasons why they shouldn't have to
take the job, primarily because of the damage that would be done to
their research careers, which are in an early but highly productive
stage. Tenure, promotion, and merit pay decisions are very heavily
research-driven, and being Chair would dramatically reduce the ability
of any of the junior people to do research. Plus, there's the danger
of being drawn into the senior faculty squabbles-- in addition to all
the usual academic duties, the Chair is often forced to act as a sort
of referee in new outbreaks of old arguments.

The situation seems to have reached an impasse, but a new Chair needs
to be found, and the Dean is pressing for an answer. If you were the
Dean, what would you do? Smack the senior people around and tell them
to stop acting like children? Smack the junior people around and order
one of them to take the job? Bribe one of the junior people with extra
money or release time (the Chair currently gets a 40% reduction in
teaching load, which is not enough to be worth the hassle for the
junior faculty).? Appoint someone from another department as Acting
Chair for a few years?

Thanks in advance for any help you and your readers can provide.

Oooh, I like this one. (And the answer, as you'll see, is 'none of the above.')

This wouldn't happen in exactly this way at my cc, since here, chairs are appointed by deans. In practice, of course, that only happens when a vacancy occurs for natural causes, since removing a chair is considered an abuse of power. The logic eludes me, but there it is.

Back in the day, when confronted with a situation like this, someone would say “Turn back! It's a trap!”

Since you apparently go by an election system, I'd take a subtle tack. A good-hearted but naïve dean would try to resolve the situation by sparing the department the difficult choice by making it himself. It would solve the immediate problem, but the new chair would be instantly despised by all as the dean's lackey, and other departments would notice that they could possibly finagle more release time (there would be a sudden epidemic of reluctance to serve, which could only be palliated by increased release time and other perks) by creating crises. Once you fall into crisis management mode, you're prey to all manner of savvy predators. Reward bickering, and you'll get more of it. No, thanks.

Instead, I'd press the department into a corner. Either you pick a chair by the deadline, or I fold you into another department. If nobody is willing to step up, then clearly the department has ceased to function as a department, and it needs to be reorganized. Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha! (Meanwhile, by reorganizing, I save most of the cost of release time for one chair, even after giving the 'receiving' chair a compensatory bump. A dean's office win-win!)

That way, the department has to decide which is more important: its feuds or its autonomy. I'm okay either way. What I won't do is make myself the common enemy. Been there, done that. In a nutshell, my message would be: You can come to any answer you want, but you can't change the subject.

Admittedly, this approach presses the innocent into a tight cage with the guilty. But such is the nature of department life.

Early in my admin career, I probably would have fallen into the trap of trying to recruit somebody. But sometimes you have to force the issue. If the kids can't play nicely in the sandbox, I won't hover over them; I'll just take away the sandbox. If they know that, and know that I'm not bluffing, then they have a choice to make.

As I've mentioned before in the context of victim bullies, tenured faculty sometimes use intransigence as a way to escape both supervision and responsibility. Much of the time, my hands are tied, and they get away with it. In this case, though, no. Step up or step off.

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?

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