• November 1, 2014

Getting the Chair

Why is it when a community-college faculty member ascends to a position of departmental leadership, hallway scuttlebutt takes on morbid overtones: "Did you hear about Susan? They say she's getting the chair."

No doubt that has much to do with the nature of the position. Having been a department head at two different colleges, I can confirm there are certainly moments when you feel as though you've committed a crime -- and many other moments when you would like to.

But the dark whispers and death-row jargon have more to do with how the typical faculty member at a two-year college perceives the department-head position. In my experience, although a few faculty members aspire to the position, most would rather be dead than take the job.

I've heard that sentiment expressed repeatedly in my 19 years at community colleges, especially during the years I was a department head: "Who would want that job?" "I don't understand how you do it." "Being department chair is the worst job in the college." Unfortunately, that means many faculty members who would be well-qualified to serve in that post, and might actually be good at it, have no interest.

As interim academic dean, I recently oversaw the long-overdue breakup of a large, unwieldy, multidisciplinary department into two pieces, which meant I then had to find someone to lead the new unit. Even with several highly experienced professors in the mix, no one wanted the job. (We finally prevailed upon one of them, but only with the promise that the appointment would be temporary.)

While I don't blame any of those faculty members personally, the situation left me scratching my head. At a time when strong leadership at community colleges is most vital -- with student demand growing, budgets tightening, and external calls for accountability at their highest -- such reluctance on the part of so many good people, though understandable, is nonetheless troubling.

What's so bad about the job, anyway?

Personally, of all the things I've done in higher education, serving as chairman remains one of my favorites. It's a position in which one person really can make a great deal of difference, by supporting faculty projects, promoting academic excellence, hiring the best possible people, and helping deserving students.

Still, the job definitely has its drawbacks.

To begin with, at many colleges, it really doesn't pay that well in relation to the hours it requires. Although a department head usually has a 12-month contract, that often just translates into a standard 10-month teaching contract prorated for an additional two months. In other words, a faculty member could probably make about as much money, and have a lot more free time, simply by teaching a few summer courses.

Another downside is that you don't have as much freedom as a regular faculty member -- freedom to come and go from the department as you please, to work from home, to pursue research and writing interests. A large part of the job is simply being in the office from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., at the beck and call of anyone who might stop by.

Time that isn't spent putting out fires -- student complaints, faculty complaints, bookstore issues -- is occupied by the position's primary duties: scheduling, staffing, budgeting, and evaluating faculty members.

And then, of course, there are the meetings. Lots and lots of meetings.

But what most people seem to like least about the job is that it puts you in an awkward position -- directly between the faculty and the administration.

Don't be fooled by the organizational chart, which shows straight lines flowing vertically from "academic dean" down to "department head" and then to "faculty." In reality, the vertical line from "academic dean should be drawn to an inverted triangle, with "department head" at the bottom.

Despite the negatives, I still maintain that a good department head makes an invaluable contribution to the institution, and that more faculty members ought to consider taking on the responsibility. It's not a bad job, so long as you come to grips with certain realities.

The first is a clear understanding of your role. Initially, when I became a department head, I thought my job was to keep the faculty, the administration, and the students happy. I soon learned that was impossible. Through a great deal of trial and error, I figured out that the chair's job is actually to keep the faculty happy without ticking off the administration or the students too much.

Presidents, provosts, vice presidents, and even deans are required to take a larger view of matters; they are administrators first and faculty members second, if at all. But a department chair is first and foremost a faculty member -- albeit the lead faculty member in the department -- and only secondarily an administrator.

Of course there will be times when faculty expectations will be unreasonable, or when an individual faculty member will be in the wrong. A wise leader will recognize those situations and take the best interests of the college and the department into account. But initially, at least, the chair's position should be to side with faculty members.

Will that stance make you unpopular with your superiors? It certainly could, if your manner is abrasive or your rhetoric belligerent. But I've found that, generally speaking, if you maintain an attitude of firm yet civil collegiality, and if you show yourself not to be inflexible when the facts do come down against you and the faculty member you're supporting, then administrators will come to respect your position. More important, you will earn the respect and trust of faculty members in your department.

Or most of them, anyway. Because the second harsh reality of department leadership is that some people will not like you, no matter what you do. Certain faculty members will regard you as an administrator, and therefore, the enemy -- even if it's apparent that you are consistently a strong advocate for faculty members. A few might be jealous of your position, thinking they could do a better job; heck, some of them might even have applied for your job. And one or two might simply dislike you, for no reason you can discern.

However, you will find that a majority of faculty members in your department will be receptive to your leadership and generally forgiving of your faults, partly because they're nice people, but also because they are relieved that you are in charge instead of them. And you will win over most of the rest if you remember that your first job is to keep them happy without alienating too many students or administrators.

Being a department head isn't really a death sentence. At worst, it's life with the possibility of parole.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English and director of the Writers Institute at the Lawrenceville campus of Georgia Perimeter College. He writes occasionally for our community-college column.

If you would like to write for our regular column on faculty and administrative careers at two-year colleges, or have a topic to propose -- on any aspect of finding jobs at two-year colleges, getting promoted, or doing the jobs -- we would like to hear from you. Send your ideas to careers@chronicle.com.

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