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What to Do as an Endowed Chair

July 11, 2005

When I left my position as department chair of English at California State University at Northridge, I left a job with an explicit set of assigned duties:  budget and enrollment management, personnel reviews, faculty and staff hiring, and strategic planning. In comparison, the position I accepted at West Virginia University, an endowed chair, makes much more vague demands upon my time:  teaching a light course load, mentoring graduate students, performing service, and, of course, maintaining an energetic research program.

It would be easy, in such a situation, to focus almost exclusively on my research and publication aspirations. My success in that arena was largely the reason I was offered the position in the first place. Certainly, others have made that choice in the university’s history, and have moved on after a few years to even more prestigious positions and larger salaries. This is hardly surprising, since it is also in keeping with the importance generally attributed to research over teaching and service in the academy, and reflects the mindset of the academic as "free agent" that is so pervasive today.

Frankly, that mode of operation deeply disturbs me. While no one can predict how long she or he will remain in any one academic position, we all must work collegially as if our departmental homes today will be our homes for the remainder of our careers; indeed, they very well may be. No doubt it was my time as a department chair having to deal with a few bad citizens that makes my feelings on this issue so strong. I remember well how destructive a few inflated egos can be in the community of a department, and how much potential synergy can remain untapped when individuals focus on self-interest alone. When I was offered a "prestige" position, I therefore resolved to myself and to others not to become that which I most detested:  a prima donna.

What I will offer here is an alternate vision of what an endowed chair or distinguished professor in a department should be:  a facilitator of others’ work, a discussion leader, and an engaged -- and intellectually engaging -- colleague. Anyone who reaches such a privileged position certainly knows well how to commit to and succeed at research projects. Furthermore, she or he will usually be experienced and successful at mentoring graduate students and well able to fulfill the teaching duties assigned by the department. However, few speak of service as key to the role of the endowed chair. The ample time that one has in such a position allows one to define not only ambitious research goals for oneself, but even more importantly, service goals vis-à-vis the department and university.

But even those service goals should emerge from a research process involving long conversations with colleagues. Newly arrived distinguished professors should spend their first months taking department members to lunch, talking over coffee, and simply listening to others’ concerns and interests. What is on people’s minds and how can the new senior colleague help foster common aspirations? What are the concerns of the junior faculty, in particular, that a senior faculty advocate might help the department address? What follows are some specific tasks that I decided to take on after conversing for over a year with faculty, staff, and administrators, discussing how best I could “add value” to my department, and not solely through my research profile. While what I heard most often was, "Please just don’t be a selfish jerk," I decided to follow a course rather more proactive and positive than that.

1.  Building intellectual cohesion. In many of our departments and universities, a quality sorely lacking is intellectual community. We are defined (and self-define) professionally through specialization. Compounding the fragmentation that this causes is the fact that our lives are hectic:  we rush to class, run to office hours, attend a committee meeting if we have to, and then hurry home to try to get a few hours of writing or reading done before bedtime. I would argue that what is needed most urgently in our fractured academic lives are venues or occasions to come together as colleagues to share ideas, read and respond to each other’s work, and cross-fertilize intellectually. A distinguished professor has the time and is well-positioned to help foster those occasions.

A research support group that meets once a month to exchange work-in-progress, offer feedback (even copy-editing suggestions), and engage in inter-methodological and inter-specialization dialogue is an easy and inexpensive way to nurture community and also mentor to junior faculty.  In fact, this would address some of the concerns that Gina Hiatt mentions in her recent essay “We Need Humanities Labs.” It would model the behavior among faculty that she hopes to see occur between faculty and students and among students themselves. All it takes to set up such a support group, as I have now at two universities, is a few hours of work on e-mail and a bit of organizational energy. Yet such a group is only one strand in what should be a larger web. It takes little extra time and effort to supplement that group with others devoted to reading a work of general use in research or pedagogy or to exchanging ideas for professional growth or teaching. Not all colleagues will take advantage of such opportunities; some may choose to participate in only one or even none. But for those who do participate, these efforts can help nurture a sense of intellectual community in an otherwise fragmented professional life.

2.  Bringing scholars to campus. A visiting speakers series is another useful way of fostering such community. This too requires a significant commitment of time if it is going to have an impact on a department, and few faculty other than an endowed chair have any time to spare for such a project. It can take weeks of work to find appropriate speakers, arrange dates, negotiate honoraria, and work with staff members to find venues and publicize events. And if a speaker is going to provide more that an hour’s diversion for a department, complementary events are vital.  I always arrange for visitors to work with small groups of students in seminar fashion, and that means finding students interested in participating, distributing readings materials to them in advance, and coordinating topics, times, and places. Furthermore, arranging lunches with faculty and holding receptions in my home for visiting speakers takes time that only a reduced teaching load would allow. However, the rewards of stimulating conversation and increased intellectual energy are well worth the effort.

3.  Problem-solving in the department. In my case, the year or so of lunches and other discussions mentioned above led to my zeroing in on an issue on the minds of many faculty:  the insufficient national visibility of our Ph.D. program. In response, and with the blessings of the department chair, I set up an informal working group to brainstorm ways of better publicizing our successes and to develop an action plan to present to the department as a whole. This same process would be appropriate for other concerns on the minds of a group of faculty:  curricular reform, fund-raising, professional development, etc. While the work of any such group needs to conform to established department policies and procedures, the energy generated by bringing people together who otherwise may not be involved in the power structure of the department, to formulate ideas and concrete recommendations, has the potential of increasing a sense of intellectual community and collegial investment. Of course, there is always the possibility that certain vested interests will be annoyed by such work, but who better than a tenured senior professor to “take the heat” if heat is generated?

That observation leads to a few caveats and a qualification about what an endowed chair’s role does not entail. One of the “don’ts” that comes to mind immediately concerns treading on the terrain of the department chair. An endowed chair does not set the department’s agenda, the department chair does. Furthermore, the endowed chair reports to the department chair. That reporting chain means that the endowed chair, whatever her or his ties to the university administration may be, should never ignore protocol and run to the dean or other administrator in a seeming attempt to get around the chain of command.

Furthermore, the endowed chair should never ignore the ongoing needs and work of the department. This means striving always for superb teaching and mentoring of students, holding ample office hours, serving on the working committees of the department, attending social functions sponsored by the department, and otherwise integrating oneself fully into the life of the institution. It is vital to be a colleague, not simply a titled presence.

Finally, don’t forget that a donor or a group of donors endow a chair for a reason. It is important to research and understand that reason, through visits and conversations with the donors themselves (if the opportunity arises) and/or through conversations with the development personnel who know the history of the endowment. Often the endowed chair will discover that her or his first priority must be to maintain a national and international research profile that brings acclaim to the university and to the donors (through the name attached to the endowment). Of course, this too can be termed broadly a "service" activity:  serving the needs of the institution and the generous donors who support it.

Each individual who accepts an endowed chair or distinguished professorship will have to arrive at a unique sense of mission for herself or himself.  These positions are highly competitive, because they are ones of extraordinary privilege, often involving enhanced salaries and other perquisites. That alone could lead to poor relations with colleagues unless the privileged professor devotes significant amounts of time and energy to the common good. With greater social privilege come greater social responsibilities, and in our profession, that means service responsibilities. At the very least, this means asking (to re-phrase John F. Kennedy), not only what your department can do for you, but more importantly, what you can do for your department.

Bio

Donald E. Hall holds the Jackson Chair in English at West Virginia University. He is the author of The Academic Self:  An Owner’s Manual (Ohio State University Press).

 

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