• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Ask the Administrator: Chairing at the Hotel California

A long-suffering correspondent writes

June 23, 2011

A long-suffering correspondent writes

I am long serving chair at a CC, and no one in my division wants to run for the position. In fact, it is a widespread problem at my college. With a few overloads, faculty can actually make more money teaching than they can as a chair, but our complaints to the administration fall on deaf ears. When an impasse is reached, the administration threatens to appoint someone from outside the division, so I get stuck with another term, taking on more responsibility without any additional compensation or release time. BTW, I am not really that great of an administrator. I am just the least incompetent person available. Any advice?

Like the song says, you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.

Actually, though, you can.

Lower-level administrative positions, like department chairmanships or associate deanships, can really suck. You get saddled with all kinds of work, and the pay bump, relative to teaching, is usually either negligible or negative. This can make recruitment a real problem.

Since the obvious answer -- increase the pay bump until the position becomes attractive enough -- isn’t culturally acceptable, especially at the cc level, people tend to take the jobs for other reasons. Some actually enjoy the work, or take it as a needed break from teaching. Some are control freaks. Some see it as testing the administrative waters. Some do it out of fear of the catastrophes that would ensue if someone else did it -- these are the good soldiers whose work either mitigates or enables an unsustainable structure.

Having been the administrator with deaf ears before, I can attest that sometimes none of the available options is very good. Okay, you step down; now what? Assuming that the resources aren’t there to hire a new full-timer from the outside as a chair -- and if you reward dysfunction with resources, you will open the floodgates of dysfunction -- then you either have to accept a substandard chair or face a department without a chair. (The issue with that is that the work doesn’t go away just because the worker does.) Sometimes a chairless department can be put under the protective custody of a nearby department, though that often brings resentment if it’s for more than a year. I’ve even seen deans attempt to run departments themselves, though I’ve never resorted to that personally and don’t recommend it.

In the best case, a not-too-abrupt resignation sets in motion a series of candid conversations about the state of the department. Does the department actually need to be freestanding? If it does, then what does it tend to do to own its status? If it’s unwilling to do that work, then what, exactly, does it propose? It could go to a “co-chair” model, which can work if there’s a clear and logical way to split the duties -- say, one handles the adjuncts and the other handles the labs. It could go to a rotation system, in which everybody takes a turn for a pre-set number of years. Or it could decide that chairing just isn’t worth the trouble, and propose a merger with another department with relatively solid leadership.

The nightmare scenario is that you resign abruptly, and someone power-hungry but incompetent steps in and does untold damage. Assuming that’s not the case, though, I’d suggest telegraphing your resignation early to give the department and the administration a year to come up with a new plan. If you say now that you’ll step down next June, then you’ve given ample opportunity to everyone involved to come up with something without a gun to their heads. You’ll have to put up with one more year, but it sounds like you’d need to do that anyway, and you’ll have the consolation of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. If all goes well, people can have a badly-needed discussion before it’s a crisis.

Good luck! I’d love to hear how it goes.

Wise and worldly readers, is there a better way?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.


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