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?