A New Take on Musical Chairs

Faculty-driven chair exchanges can be a positive force for budget transparency, camaraderie and interdisciplinary collaboration, writes Hollis Robbins.

March 31, 2022
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Last month at Sonoma State University’s School of Arts and Humanities, where I serve as dean, the art and art history department elected as its new chair the outgoing chair of the English department. Few eyebrows were raised within the school. As its dean, I have encouraged and supported the department chair role as requiring a set of skills and core competencies that transcend discipline and department. For our small, undergraduate-focused public liberal arts college, faculty-driven chair exchanges have been a positive force for budget transparency, camaraderie and interdisciplinary collaboration.

Over the past four years, a communication and media studies professor has chaired the department of theatre arts and dance. An English professor has chaired the American multicultural studies department. A French professor who previously chaired modern languages and literatures has chaired theatre arts. And a Spanish professor and a liberal studies professor have chaired our relatively new department of Native American studies. So when an English professor was the top choice to chair art and art history, who was I to say no?

In the cases I’ve cited, department faculty members overwhelmingly voted for and welcomed the “outside” chair— although we avoid that term. For the practice of chair exchanges to work, the department community must embrace the new chair. Also, in each case, either no tenured faculty member was ready or willing to step into the chair role or the department felt that a chair from another department would be able to transcend rivalries and lead fairly. As the practice has become normalized, departments across the School of Arts and Humanities have begun talking more about who might be best at the job than squabbling over whose turn it is.

Interdepartmental chair exchanges may not work at top research universities, in specialized science and engineering fields, or with powerhouse departments that train doctoral students to tend deep disciplinary roots. But for many liberal arts colleges or regional master’s degree–granting universities, choosing a chair from outside a department ought not necessarily signal that something is amiss. The choice of a chair from another department may represent an interest in innovation, building bridges or just shaking off old habits.

Stefan Kiesbye, professor of English at Sonoma State, has said that departments in the School of Arts and Humanities are allies and that he hopes “that chairing a department outside one’s own discipline won’t be seen as an administrative incursion.” Instead, he wants to “strengthen ties between faculty, facilitate collaboration and help departments understand one another’s individual and collective needs and vision.”

Kim Hester Williams, an English professor at the university who has chaired American multicultural studies for the past two years, has worried about the costs to her home department for lending out her time elsewhere. But she says that “chairing in a different department has broadened my thinking about interdisciplinarity and the relationship between humanities disciplines.”

Sonoma State, like fellow members of the Consortium of Public Liberal Arts Colleges, graduates students with a strong foundation in the liberal arts—with majors in the humanities, arts, sciences and social sciences. As part of the California State University system, all students are required to take and pass a suite of general education courses including critical thinking, written and oral communication, quantitative reasoning, American history and political institutions, ethnic studies, and global awareness. Most courses are not bound by discipline or department. For example, foundational oral communication classes are found in many departments: philosophy, theatre, English and American multicultural studies, to name just a few. Courses with a strong writing component are found in every department, from art history to communication and media studies.

Under normal circumstances, a French professor might never have had the opportunity to spend time in the photography or lithography studio. A television studio professor might never see cameras used in theatre classes. Students might not be encouraged by their English adviser to take classes in medieval art history to strengthen their application to graduate school in medieval literature.

After chairing theatre arts for a semester, media studies professor Ed Beebout remarked on the passion of that department’s faculty for creative work and student success. “I was impressed by how much time and energy they put into both their classes and productions,” he said. “Because university departments can become somewhat insulated, we don’t often get the chance to see the kind of impressive work our colleagues are doing across campus.”

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At my university, the department chair is responsible for assembling each semester’s course schedule (a mix of general education and disciplinary courses) and negotiating teaching assignments—which includes ensuring appropriate workload for tenure-line faculty and offering work to lecturers according to the California Faculty Association collective bargaining agreement. The department chair is not necessarily a member of the department’s retention, promotion and tenure process—instead, there is often a separate committee for each candidate under review. Nor is the department chair always a member of a hiring committee, though it is fairly common practice in our school to invite faculty from adjacent departments to serve on such committees.

In the corporate world, successful CEOs move from one industry to another all the time. The most important leadership qualities—determination, vision, dedication, the ability to organize and inspire confidence—are transferable. Ethical, thoughtful chairs who are good listeners will listen outside their department, learn new jargon, be just as transparent and be just as interested in ensuring a rigorous curriculum, nurturing junior faculty and supporting student success as they would be in that department.

Beebout’s experience has, in fact, led to more interdepartmental cooperation. “The theatre arts department’s lighting director has been instrumental in setting up a new lighting system for our media studies department’s new video production studio. Likewise, our media tech recently assisted a theatre arts instructor with a major student video assignment. The next logical step would be co-taught courses in areas of mutual interest,” he added.

Of her experience chairing several departments, Christine Renaudin says that she gained invaluable knowledge of the overall functioning of the school and university, as well as corresponding insights about how to better balance resources and foster collaboration across programs. “Chairing outside of one’s departmental discipline is refreshing for all involved, highly educational, invaluable training for leadership and certainly excellent preparation for anyone aspiring to the role of dean.”

In the end, chair exchanges—a form of musical chairs where everyone wins—opens up possibilities for innovation and collaboration not yet imagined. It also offers important leadership opportunities for chairs not yet ready or interested in a deanship but thoughtful about helping other departments thrive.

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Hollis Robbins is dean of the School of Arts and Humanities at Sonoma State University.

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