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The Virtual Chair: Academic Management by Remote Control
January 11, 2011 - 9:15pm

After two decades in the academe, I have purposely avoided being nominated to any administrative position. This came from an earlier conviction that I would rather be a serious scholar than a paper-pushing bureaucrat. Because the pool of would-be university administrators seems to draw disproportionately from a handful of PhD holders, I thought it was a great disservice to have such expensive education wasted on the banality of managing. Besides, being tied to a desk job is the antithesis of my desire to travel abroad.

I was finally persuaded to be Division chair after my junior colleague decided to step down unexpectedly. My motives were mixed: I felt that I ought to “take a turn” as a way of giving back to my institution; to introduce reforms in the way the University does business; to mentor the junior faculty to be courageous and aggressive in applying for grants; and to inspire my colleagues to publish internationally. I bit the bullet but not without reassuring the Dean and my colleagues that henceforth I will no longer accept additional travel commitments from the ones I already have. They all cringed when I posted my personal calendar from November to February (I was going to be away two weeks for every month); and the forthcoming meetings and conferences I expect to attend on a regular basis. My terms were clear: they can have me, but they will have for the most part a “virtual” chair. I won’t observe a 9-5 Monday-Friday routine (my early morning writing ritual is sacrosanct); my electronic signature and email correspondence are official; all intra-department communication (announcements, notices, minutes of meetings, even fund-raising and donations) will be circulated in the yahoo group for the department. I will force the faculty to adopt 21st century technology and its attendant values of openness and expediency (decisions in real-time).

I started with the fundamentals. I had the faculty directory and yahoo group updated; built and publicized a faculty list of recent publication and research (to bring attention to non-performers); examined the office’s finances (particularly the way the faculty fund for conferences is used); worked out relay system with the staff; and established a “perimeter” in the office where I could not be disturbed. I kept a running tab of Divisional concerns (a separate diary) which I noted and crossed out once accomplished. I kept a supply of brewed coffee, tea, biscuits and treats for tête-à-têtes with colleagues, students and visitors. It was fine for the first two weeks I was physically around.

My dry-run, however, as a virtual chair was dismal. Before going to 10-day conference in Austria, I had tediously prepared paperwork and left detailed instructions to the staff and faculty in charge for two activities: the Division-sponsored guest lecture on the Mindanao conflict and the Division status report during the college meeting. The lecture went off without a hitch; the report was a total botch because the secretary did not relay the information to the reporting faculty accurately. With more preparation (and plan B in case the person in charge fails to deliver), I am optimistic that the scheduled publication workshop and the personnel consultation for first semester load distribution in January and February will proceed smoothly, even when I am away in Kyoto and Yogyakarta. Over the Christmas holidays, I was actively posting official communications throughout the yahoo group. Most people responded; others did not (and they will surely get a reprimand). The staff were front-loaded with tasks which must be completed in early January before my plane takes off. I am convinced everyone else’s learning curve on my management style will occur soon.

Can an academic really be good BOTH as a scholar and an administrator? In the sample of my University’s administrators, the answer is no. There simply is no time to do anything else. In my two-month stint thus far, I can very well see how one could get easily sucked into the position. What could be more life-draining than having to face a 3-inch pile of paper to be signed, many of which actually the Chair has no business of (e.g. countersigning student request for overload when such has already been approved by the academic adviser) and to sit through two-hour meetings which can be done over email? But I am determined to be a statistical outlier (meaning, I will publish and research as much as I can) and also to win in my crusade of re-thinking the physicality of being chair.

The Visayas, the Philippines

Rosalie Arcala Hall is a Professor at the University of the Philippines Visayas and a founding member of the editorial collective at University of Venus.



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