Friday, April 12, 2013

Sit On It, Potsie!

Yes, an old Happy Days reference to start a post about department chairs.  I searched my blog to see if I have written much about department chairmen (all of mine have been male), and only found references to such folks, rather than a post dedicated to the topic.  As this year marks my 20th in the profession, I guess it is about time.  I am inspired to do so today by this post at Forbes on Cowardly Leadership

My pre-Carleton total number of chairs is six: one at UVM, three at TTU, and two at McG.*To be clear, not all of my previous chairs have been lousy (2/3's), and not all of the lousy ones have been cowards.  Or, thanks to Game of Thrones, craven.  While I am most critical, as you will see below, only the last one at McG really affected me directly.  The dysfunctions of the rest largely hit other people and the departments at large. 
* It sounds like sucking up, but I am big fan of the Director of NPSIA.  Does all the stuff right--consulting, listening, etc. 

The first chair seemed quite good but turned out to be part of an institution-wide cabal that diverted merit money to a narrow few, leading to huge disparities in what people were making despite similar time in rank and similar academic achievements.  I guess that counts for Forbes's Cowardice #1: Engage in Backstabbing.  Definitely hits rule #10: Not Authentic.  A guy who seemed to be all about doing the work well turned out to be all about helping those inside the network and shafting everyone else.  All of this eventually came out into the open after I left. 

My second chair, if I remember correctly, mostly failed because he had just incredibly poor instincts and communication skills.  I am not sure he was afraid to discipline (#5) or had little ability to do so.  The environment was poisoned before my arrival, so it was hard to figure out where all of the responsibility lay.  Predators were allowed to prey, senior faculty protected said predator and threatened junior faculty who would not vote their way, and so on.  Certainly, multiple items on the Forbes list applied, but I cannot really remember which ones fit best.

My third and briefest chair was also the best.  He made hard choices (#3) by setting up a transparent system for merit raises; he listened (#4) to the junior profs; he was not afraid to discipline (#5) spending his entire year trying to fire someone (who was not tenured) who was literally absent without leave; followed through on his commitments (#6); was quite creative (#7); and so on.  But he was so brief because the lack of university support made the job far more stressful and unhealthy than it needed to be.

So, we landed in receivership with a person uniquely unsuited to be chair.  Given his bluster and his volume, one might think this Forbes list of cowardice would not apply.  But oh, did it, indeed.  Wouldn't listen (#4); didn't think for himself, just translated the Dean's dictates without modifying or questioning (#7); despite much effort to train him, he did not really grow or change (#9).  Absolutely failed to connect to people (#11).  Most damning perhaps was his inability to learn from failure (#12)--the turnover there was incredibly high, with 20 people leaving over about five or so years in a department of 22 or so.  Not all his fault but the learning curve was mighty shallow.

My first chair at McG was ok.  I think his biggest mistake was avoiding hard choices (#3), as the department got eight new lines to hire my first year there, and rather than thinking about the long term consequences, we just went along with the previously agreed log-roll among and within subfields.  So, McG does not have an Americanist, for instance.  It also ended up with far too few IR people given the student interest.  But overall he was fine as chair.  He turned out to be my second-best chair before Carleton.  Of course, given the cast of previous chairs, this ain't saying much.

My second chair at McG was the one who got me thinking about cowardice long before this Forbes piece.  He would say "rank hath privileges" meaning that he would listen first to those who had the most august appointments in the department, not realizing that rank and wisdom may not be correlated.  This tendency exemplifes Forbes sins #2 of avoiding work, #3 of evading hard choices, #4 of not listening (well, to those who are not chock full of rank), #7 of not thinking for oneself, #9 of not growing or changing (holy lack of learning curve, Batman), and #12 for failing to adjust to failure.  He actually was not such a crappy chair except he empowered the most destructive people with the narrowest views, doing much damage to one subfield (mine).  He probably was my third best chair prior to my move to Carleton, which is a sad statement indeed.  The good news is at McG is that the new chair has some previous experience and is hip to what has been going on.  I hope he can reverse the bad decisions of the old chair.  

Why are there so many poor chairpeople in academia?  Well, the first reason is that no one is trained to be chair.  The second is that the selection system is usually by turn--everybody else has done it, so it is your turn.  Indeed, my second chair at McG was exactly that--the last one standing at this game of musical chairs (sorry for the pun).  Third, cowardice may be incentivized since a chair that makes tough decisions will have to live with the people affected by them for the rest of one's career if they do not move up or out.

Of course, my experience may not be typical.  There may be departments that have runs of sharp, brave, wise chairs.  It may be that I am biased as I only notice the faults of my chairs and not their positive aspects.  Given that I have only been the departmental cranky person (that is, the one guy on the outs) for the last part of my last job and that most of the dysfunctions I have witnessed did not hit me, I don't think my reading of my various chairs is that far off. 

So, is my experience typical?  Or am I just biased?

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