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Tales From the Dark Side: Reflections of a Former Chairperson

By John Daley

I’m no demographer, but if you’ve ever wondered, “What was the departmental chair thinking?” it is safe for me to guess that you belong to a solid majority.  Having recently resigned from the chairmanship of my department, I now address that question in hopes that my Thought & Action readers might get a glimpse of things from a low level administrator’s perspective.  And while I assume no universality for that perspective, I can assure you that many other chairs I have met during my recent tour of duty, whatever their disciplines, agree with me to some extent on most counts even if they won’t -- or can't -- admit as much to their own deans or faculties.

Because the problems I encountered were largely systemic, the reader will find no ad hominem criticisms. Like me, my direct superiors saw themselves as problem solvers dedicated to the support of our faculty, so our disagreements were more often over tactics than underlying philosophies.  Always getting it right just isn’t in the cards anyway; imperfection abounds at every level of administration because decision making, be it by presidents, provosts, deans, or chairs, is a crap shoot.  Only a timely decision can produce favorable results, but timely decisions are seldom based on complete information.  In the end, doing one’s best must suffice.

In this article, I share ten observations made from the chair’s office, in hopes that you, my NEA colleagues, might better understand the joys and frustrations of that job.  While prospective chairs will be especially interested, faculty with no such plans also can gain a better understanding of the administrator with whom they deal most frequently.  Instead of making you more nervous, that awareness may even allay some suspicions.  At least, it should.  Like a David Letterman "top ten" list, mine should be taken in as positive a spirit as possible.

1. Chairs Are Insulators

A departmental chairperson tries to keep the worst forms of administrative excess and dysfunction from rolling downhill to the point at which they interfere with faculty teaching, scholarship, and service obligations.  While everyone is likely to disagree with at least one decision that a chair makes, be it over assignments, release time, funding, tenure and promotion decisions, or whatever, the chair cannot be successful unless the faculty is successful, and be assured that he/she knows it.  Good faith is, therefore, the foundation of success.  This is not to say that no mean-spirited chairpersons exist; only that they’re likely to be marginalized by faculty and rejected like so many transplanted livers before they can do much damage—even if the dean doesn’t fire them first.  Ethics aside, we chairs simply don’t have enough time in the week to sit around dreaming up ways to cheat our faculty out of things they deserve.  Nor, thanks to the contract between our administration and local Kansas National Education Association affiliate, would we have the requisite authority in any case.

2. Chairs Spend More Time in their Offices than Leaders Should

 Remember that your chair is paid extra money to perform support functions that you don’t have time for, or simply don’t want to do.  We volunteered for that.  The problem is that the intensity and frequency of reporting increased markedly after most of us volunteered.  More thesis-sized strategic plans, program reviews, and accreditation reports—in two cases, when program directors were on sabbatical or release time—meant less time for me to get out of the office and set an example as a scholar and teacher.  The increase in delegation of off-campus liaison work to program directors also indicated organizational dysfunction.  The bottom line is: Chairs spend lots of time in their offices because they’re stuck there, not because they’re hiding out.

3. The Chair’s Responsibilities Have Become Unduly Corporate

Not only is the chairperson spending too much time in the office, but he or she is spending an increasing percentage of that time doing things that used to be done at the college level and higher.  The burgeoning expectation that Deans now expect their chairs to take the initiative in fundraising, student recruitment, and assessment-heavy reporting (even at small regional universities like mine); a development that has made us de facto full-time administrators, even though we are officially listed as half-time administrators who teach with two lecture courses, advise plus theses and direct individual investigations in our fields.  When I took the job in 2002, my research suffered as expected, but I still had enough time for course revision, thesis advising, and individual readings with my graduate students.  By 2007, I hadn’t enough time for the latter, either.  It was a plot fit for Kafka; the act of reporting had become more important than what I was reporting about.

4. Other Administrators Hire Chairs but Chairs Serve Faculty

A local adage holds that the duration of a chair’s tenure equals the time it takes to walk from one’s department to the provost’s office.  But even though my dean and provost could have prevailed on the president to fire me at any time, and I was officially part of a chain of command, my chief responsibility—official or not—was to meet the needs of faculty upon whose performance the success of any edict from above ultimately depended.  Yes, the tendency toward full-time chairmanship even in smaller departments is further evidence of higher education’s corporatization, but the sort of diverse, decentralized, self-directed, disinterested scholarly investigation that takes place within an academic department yet has few parallels in corporate America.  In a properly functioning department, the chain of command often works backward: Faculty members, who already know what to do, tell the chair what they need to better accomplish their tasks, and the chair must secure the necessary assets go out and get these necessities.  No policy from above, no matter how reasonable, can be enforced if the chair has not supported the faculty in this way first addressed these needs.

5. Not Everyone Values Academic Freedom as much as Faculty

In my department, where two thirds of the undergraduates are in teacher education, faculty members must use rubrics and remediation plans, and address state standards.  The guidance comes from the state, is interpreted by our College of Education, and applied to specific disciplines, most of them in our College of Arts and Sciences, by chairs and program directors.  The dean enforces that application.  While the faculty whose courses address state standards are encouraged to participate in the formulation of the pertinent rubrics, the rule is one rubric per standard.  Different professors teaching the same standard-related course must, therefore, use the same rubric.  Thus far, we have been lucky in three respects:  First, we have few upper-division courses taught by multiple instructors.  Second, student command of our state standards is usually assessed in upper-division courses.  Third, current guidance allows us to couch the rubrics in broad enough terms so that, aside from deciding whether we want to use one in the first place, we have all the latitude we need.  Nevertheless, the camel’s nose is under the tent flap.  Many chairs in my discipline, like many faculty members, see rubrics as manifestations of an ongoing, pernicious shift toward de-professionalization that could intensify without warning.

6. The Higher the Priority, the Greater the Micromanagement

It is no surprise that the practices of individual faculty and departments are most often called into question at the university level on matters relating to outcomes-based assessment.  Growing as it has out of a nationwide push for accountability, any failure to satisfy accreditors who in turn take fire from the federal government can be disastrous.  While full-scale faculty participation in the formulation of assessment plans is understandably required because no two academic disciplines are alike, veto power is held by those outside of one’s department and discipline.  Department-level attempts to secure more control over their own assessment plans by getting involved at the earliest possible moment are predicated on wishful thinking.  No matter how soon you start such a program, higher echelons will interfere once they become interested enough.  A department’s “ownership” of an assessment plan ends as soon as the university’s assessment specialist “suggests” a revision

7. Chairs Eagerly Anticipate Retirement

To be sure, lower salaries and higher job satisfaction rates for many non-administrators that I know have something to do with this gross generalization.  That said, most chairpersons take the job so that they can make more money and retire sooner.  I have yet to meet a historian who became a chairperson because outcomes-based assessment was on his or her bucket list.  I found The almost total absence of spare-time academic discussions among chairs that I know was particularly alarming.  For the most part, faculty discussed pet research projects whereas chairs discussed their 401Ks.  That so many intelligent, capable people cannot wait to retire is no doubt the most glaring indication I’ve had that a dire systemic problem akin to what golfers sometimes call “paralysis by analysis” is not getting fixed.

8. A Chair had Better Know the Language

Over the course of my chairmanship, I got better at knowing when to have my hand on my wallet, and the appearance of certain terms often provided a whiff of what was coming.  Sometimes these were familiar old jargon words or neologisms that paraded their specialized meanings in similar fashion.  More often, though, the bureaucratic foreshadowing came packaged in words that normal people use, but whose real meanings had become encrypted.  With due apology to Ambrose Bierce's ghost, I’ve included a few examples below, along with working definitions and/or explanatory notes.

accountability:  A term favored by those who delegate as much responsibility and as little authority as possible.
anecdotal:  Wrongfully equated with “apocryphal” or “dubious” by reviewers in search of fully quantifiable, statistical evidence of student or program success.
closing the loop:  Spending so much time demonstrating to the reviewing authorities that you’re doing your job that you don’t have enough time left to actually do your job.
flexibility:  A word used most often by those who would like you to be flexible so that they don’t have to be.
input:  Advice solicited by people who are never obligated to follow it.
proof:  Often used by devotees of outcomes-based assessment to describe statistical inference.
strategic planning:  Something you spend a lot of time on whenever you don’t have any money.
loose cannons:  Faculty colleagues who speak their minds.  Note:  The chair has to expect, and even welcome, criticisms both of (1) the higher echelon policies that he/she is contracted to enforce and (2) his/her own decisions.  History professors, unlike the soldiers I once commanded, are paid in part to have opinions, express them, and impeach competing ones.  So, if you ever interview for a chair’s position, don’t be cowed by mention of loose cannons.  Just be thankful if your department has no spiked ones.

9. Realize that Formulas Rarely Work

Any departmental chair can tell you that, despite all of those format-specific reports, decision making is usually a seat-of-the-pants affair.  At least once a month a new and strange problem demands a newly invented response, and trying to anticipate these with some sort of idiot-proof, one-size-fits-all policy will consistently leave the would-be problem solver one step behind.  No effective chair waits passively for a problem to clarify or resolve itself once it has surfaced.  Little problems become big problems that way.  Being mentally prepared for unpredictable emergencies and producing practical solutions, though difficult at times, is the most rewarding part of any administrative assignment.  More to the point of this article, that sort of troubleshooting is likely a much larger part of your chair’s professional routine than your own.

10. When You’re the One Prolonging the Meetings, It’s Time to Give Someone Else a Chance

To maintain a satisfactory degree of sanity, we must believe in what we are doing, at least usually.  In a harshly bureaucratic sense, objection equals obstruction and excessive obstruction causes paralysis just as surely as the excessive analysis bemoaned above.  It is the natural state of an academic community to be saturated with skeptics, as it should be.  While healthy skepticism luckily survives at my institution, that institution, like so many others, has become more corporatized.  Program reviews focus almost entirely on individual test scores and student evaluations have become little more than customer satisfaction surveys.  Groupthink has taken hold to the extent that even the most reasoned and justifiable criticisms at the department level often make meetings longer without any accompanying positive effect.  The implicit message—that we have either to shut up and follow the latest “best practices” or risk an adverse review—has rendered honest discourse impractical and downright unhealthy in many of the situations where we used to deem it essential.

The good news is that even problems as pervasive as these are solvable if we’ve sufficient will and patience to solve them.  I expect that my chairing experience will help toward this end as I rejoin the full-time faculty and become active once again in our local KNEA chapter.  The Dark Side, it turns out, wasn’t all that dark.  Though the administrative perspective was sometimes markedly different than that of the faculty, I never found it to be an exact ideological opposite.  Indeed, most major issues are major precisely because they affect all organizational levels, and often in the same way.  We usually experienced the same joys and frustrations, a few of which are noted above.  So, too, did we share the same formula for success:  Maintain situational awareness.  Address issues well before they become emergencies.  Act on them decisively, and in concert with as many similarly well-informed colleagues as possible.  And always beware that last-minute involvement resulting from panic is too little, too late.

John Daley is an associate professor at Pittsburg State University in southeastern Kansas, where he specializes in military and nineteenth century American history. A former recipient of PSU's Outstanding Faculty Award (1999) and department chairperson (2002-2010), he is an active member of the local Kansas NEA chapter and serves on the PSU/KNEA grievance committee.