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Academic Chair

The Question of Chairs

The question of chairs is one of the most difficult items on the university agenda. In 800 years it has never been addressed head-on, we just keep electing chairs and hoping for the best. Most of the time the chair is chosen from among those who have not already done their duty for the department regardless of whether they are really capable of doing the job correctly. Half the time we get someone who survives the ordeal and evacuates the office ASAP. The rest of the time we get people who are flexible enough to learn an entirely new career, utterly different from being a professor. Below are some of the qualities that a good chair should possess and should be considered by both volunteers and those who will elect them. How these people are treated legally and financially is a question that may, or may not, ever be answered to everyone’s satisfaction.

What we do know is that all chairs in their first year feel like they have no idea what they are doing; in the second year they feel barely adequate; and, in the third, feel mildly competent. At the end of their first term they must decide whether to return to the idyllic life of a happy-go-lucky professor, or stay on and use their hard-earned expertise for the benefit of their people. For sure, on so many occasions, trudging home at the end of a long day they say to themselves, “They don’t pay me enough for this job.”

1. They must feel OK about themselves so that they spread confidence and joy among the faculty and paying customers. The academic environment should be a happy place where the adventure of learning is celebrated. Chairs cannot get wrapped up in the “power and glory” of their exalted position and become too self-important. Rather, they must see themselves, not as the top of the food chain, but as the base on which the entire departmental operation rests.  Most importantly, they must see themselves as the responsible adult in charge of the playground. They answer to people above them and below them, and occupy a strange and unusual position in the grand scheme—they are not faculty and they are not administration. They are chairs, and, unless you have been one, you have no idea what that means. Strangely, being elected chair is not a promotion.

2. They must be hard workers because the job is 24/7. When they were professors they came to school two or three days a week. Now that they are chairs a five-day schedule is not uncommon, but is often difficult to accept. They must be prepared to cover the office during most of the summer and intersession because the business does not stop. The responsibilities and concerns are never ending. The academic game has a 52-week season. The walk-ins, email, snail-mail, and voice-mail do not stop at the end of final exams. Like a parent, chairs are on call at all times. It is important that the students and faculty of their department should feel the chair is accessible and responsive. The chair needs to be well organized because they will handle 19 different tasks every day they are in the office. A well-maintained calendar is a must. Get used to feeling that you didn’t get to everything that needed your attention today. “Tomorrow is another day.”

3. They must have strong empathy skills for they will be doing a lot of listening. They are the therapist, judge, advocate, rabbi, and parent of the department. Professional training in counseling skills is a big plus. On days when they are in school people will continually flow in and out of their office with personal, emotional, financial, and academic problems that they must be prepared to witness. They are problem solvers and they do that by listening, assessing, taking the correct line of action, offering correct information, and, occasionally, providing a piece of advice that helps their visitors solve their own problem.

4. They must be fiscally responsible. The budget of their department represents real money that must be spent wisely and carefully. The ability to use accounting software is a big plus. They need to prepare a realistic budget and keep accurate records of their expenditures so that the money lasts until the end of the school year. They consult with their executive committee about the philosophy of departmental spending priorities, but are, in effect, the entire accounts payable department. They hold the keys to the cash register.

5. They are the big cheese when it comes to hiring and firing. They should never make a faculty search a personal crusade. They should manage the process from a safe distance, but allow their faculty to choose the proper candidate with whom they will all live and work for decades. Perhaps more importantly, they are responsible for picking adjunct instructors who will excite and challenge the students in all the right ways. When they put someone in front of a class, that person must have the maturity and personality to be a good teacher and the “chops” to deliver the goods. Chairs indoctrinate and train new faculty and then monitor their progress on a regular basis. The chair is the teacher of teachers. They are the frontline support system, something faculty really need in the early years of their careers. New teachers need to be encouraged to ask as many questions as are necessary to keep them informed and functioning properly. Take nothing for granted.

6. Scheduling is one of the chair’s most important duties. If they are good at 3-dimensional Tic-Tac-Toe they may be ready for this job. They must develop a master list of all the courses their department offers and when they should be offered. They then match these semester-by-semester offerings to the available faculty, times, and rooms available. The tough part comes when you have to be cognizant of all the pre- and co-requisites as well as the potential conflicts of required courses for particular major sequences. They also want to be kind to their faculty so that their schedules are comfortably compact, especially their adjuncts. Personal and professional scheduling needs of individual faculty members must be brought to bear. It is always harder than it looks, especially when something needs to be added or changed.

7. If they have any prior experience as a building superintendent then they have one leg up on this job. Knowledge of electrical, plumbing, carpentry, and computers will stand them in good stead since they are responsible for provision and maintenance of their infrastructure. Keys, door locks, light fixtures, water fountains, heating, pest control, window problems, trash removal, chalk, paper, and the like will fill their days. They need to be sure their department has tools, duct tape, and WD-40 on hand at all times—they’ll need them. They have to make sure there are enough trash baskets and garbage pails inside and outside all classrooms. Cleanliness is a high priority.

8. They need to be able to manage people so that cooperation is the byword of the day, not intimidation. The secret of a well-run department is to delegate responsibility so that every faculty member feels they have a hand in running the place. The chair must keep open lines of communication so that everyone knows what needs to be known and does not feel like there are departmental secrets. The chair must remember that it is not their department since there was no coronation. If they try to do it all themselves they will burn out way too fast. They need to be able to say these words on a regular basis: “I need your help.”

9. They need to be bureaucrats in the best sense of the word. They must realize that there are people all over the college, and even the university, whose help they will need from time to time. A college is a cooperative effort and the chair needs to feel like a team player. They need to get out of their office and go visit all the people who will make their life easier. The more people they know personally, the better they can serve the needs of the department. They should develop cordial relationships with every one from security guards and physical plant workers to denizens of the administration building. While it is true that there are rules and regulations that must govern every civilized society, there are people, both “high and low”, who can grease your wheels. If they know you, they will be part of your solution, not part of your problem.

10. The chair needs to be self-protective because the demands of the job, if left uncontrolled, can swallow them whole in very short order. In truth, the job is always too big for any one individual and even the best of chairs only gets a B+ in the best of semesters. It is important for them to remember that they have a life and a career that must not be abandoned as they serve the never-ending needs of their department. They need to guard their precious time so that they can still be an effective professor (yes, they do teach at least one course a semester). They must also reserve time for their own scholarly and creative activities so that they don’t lose their identities and remain more than just a paper pusher and perpetual committee member.

11. Patient, persistent, and polite––qualities that are critical for a chair. As the advocate for their students and faculty they are the one most aware of the needs of their department. These needs should be prioritized and a plan must be put in place to have these needs met in a timely fashion. Unfortunately, the clock of the bureaucracy moves much more slowly than that of the chair. The chair lives with these necessities on a daily basis while the administration often turns a blind eye to these problems so as to avoid being overwhelmed by the vast neediness of the entire school. If the chair is persistent and brings these problems to the attention of the administration with certain regularity some of them will eventually receive the proper solution. The chair must be pushy but polite. The squeaky wheel does get the most oil, especially if the demands are reasonable and serve the best interests of the department.

Being chair means that they also serve on the Faculty Council and the Faculty Senate, the departmental executive committee, the divisional P&B, as well as a potentially endless number of other committees. If the school finds out you’re a good, everyone will want a piece of you. Chairs must learn to say NO when appropriate for the preservation of their mental and physical health. If they are sick or incapacitated the department is headless and the school has lost a valuable asset.

Some Advice to Potential Chairs

If you willingly accept this position you will pay dearly in time, energy, and money. Your only proper compensation will be the joy of helping people and knowing that you ran a good ship. On a day-to-day basis, if you didn’t bankrupt the budget, no one got hurt, and the place didn’t burn to the ground, it was a good day. In the long run, if you turn out a reasonable number of graduates of whom you can be proud, and you promoted and tenured your deserving faculty, you can be satisfied that all your considerable investment was worth the effort. You will be the chief facilitator of the educational process, but, if you expect to be richly praised and rewarded, you will be setting yourself up for much disappointment.

In so many ways, you can leave a lasting mark on the history of your department and on the college. If people can fondly remember the good old days when you were chair, you did your job. RIP

Stephen Jablonsky
Chair of Music, CCNY
February 29, 2008