Uncomfortable Chairs

Disputes illustrate the pressures faced by many department leaders, especially those with controversial views.

June 15, 2005

Some department chairs like to talk about themselves as "first among equals." But a series of incidents this year suggests that chairs may actually have a real disadvantage compared to their fellow professors (and that's beside the obvious disadvantage that they must attend more meetings).

Chairs are more vulnerable to having their statements scrutinized and their rights to speak out on certain issues curtailed by virtue of their positions. They have academic freedom, but they are demoted over controversial statements -- even though those statements wouldn't cost them their tenure.

Consider these developments in 2005:

  • Timothy Shortell withdrew his election to the position of sociology department chair at Brooklyn College this month amid criticism in some New York City newspapers of his statements (made on a Web site with no connection to the college) criticizing religious people. Brooklyn's president condemned the statement and Shortell's supporters believe he was effectively forced to withdraw because Brooklyn administrators wouldn't defend him.
  • When a University of Colorado panel released a report on Ward Churchill in March, it said that the outspoken professor could not lose his tenured position because of his statements, however offensive they were to many people. But the panel said that had Churchill not given up his department chair's position (which he did voluntarily after the controversy broke), he could have been removed from that job.
  • The University of Texas at El Paso is removing Steve Best -- a leading proponent of animal rights whose ideas were bashed by lawmakers at a Congressional hearing recently -- as chair of its philosophy department. The El Paso Times, which reported on the removal, quoted Best as saying that the move was political and the university calling it a routine rotation.

These developments come as little surprise to some who follow issues related to department chairs. And even some people who are absolute defenders of academic freedom say that department chairs are in a different position than other faculty members with regard to their public statements.

For example, Roger Bowen, the general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, said in an interview that he is angry at Brooklyn College's president for criticizing Shortell's past comments on religion and for appointing a panel to investigate them. He sees both of those moves as infringing on Shortell's academic freedom. But he also says that Brooklyn administrators have the right to decide that a department chair is sufficiently controversial that they would prefer someone else in that spot.

"Academic freedom is academic freedom -- for everyone," Bowen said. But a department chair has duties both as an administrator and as a professor. "By agreeing to become chair of a department, you are subjecting yourself to administrative guidance, and that guidance may be in conflict with your views," he said.

Many department chairs say that they are aware of the delicate position that they are in and don't have too many difficulties with it.

David Bartholomae, chair of the English department at the University of Pittsburgh, says he thinks about the nature of his position, but hasn't had to censor himself. And he notes that there are benefits to this situation, as well.

"If someone calls me on the phone or I'm writing something for the campus community, I'm aware that even if I'm signing it with just my name, there is a way I'll be read as representing English or speaking for English, and you put some limits on what you will do, and you wouldn't necessarily have the same limits" as a professor who is not chair, he said.

The flip side, he said, is that "if you decide to do something controversial, you get a wider hearing."

Legally, the right to demote department chairs at public colleges is widely considered to be governed by a 1994 ruling by a federal appeals court that upheld the right of the City University of New York to strip Leonard Jeffries of his chairmanship. CUNY moved to shorten Jeffries's tenure as a chair after he gave a speech that included several derogatory remarks about Jews.

But beyond the legal issues there is the question of campus traditions, and they may differ from place to place.

"Chairs are in the role of being both faculty and administration, so some of this will be campus by campus," said Mary Lou Higgerson, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the college at Baldwin-Wallace College. "There are some campuses where chairs are truly a leader among peers and they maintain primarily the position of tenured faculty, and there are campuses where they are more like administrators."

Higgerson, co-author of The Department Chair as Academic Leader, says the key to avoiding problems is for colleges to be absolutely clear about what they expect of chairs. If a college's officials want a chair not to be controversial, they should say so.

In noting the wide variation of expectations, Higgerson said that one way to tell where chairs fall is to look, at unionized campuses, on whether they are part of the bargaining unit.

In CUNY, of which Brooklyn College is a part, they are part of the bargaining unit, and that's why union leaders there say they believe there should be no difference in the academic freedom of a chair or another professor.

Steve London, an associate professor of political science at Brooklyn, said that it was dangerous to think that department chairs should have any less freedom of expression -- or that college presidents could seek chairs devoid of controversy. "They are elected by their peers to represent their interests," said London, first vice president of the Professional Staff Congress, an American Federation of Teachers union that represents faculty members at CUNY.

London also noted that many department chairs don't make a career of it. "It's quite normal for faculty to move in and out of teaching and service to administrative duties, so at what point are they covered by academic freedom and at what point are they not?"

Not surprisingly, Professor Shortell, who gave up his shot at a chairmanship, agrees, writing in an e-mail interview, "I prefer to err on the side of liberty."

Department chairs, he said, understand that they "have to be careful about making it clear when they are speaking as an individual and when they are speaking as a representative of the college. I think department chairs are capable of making that distinction." Presuming that someone who had spoken out on public issues in the past can't make such distinctions, he said, was "the very definition of thought-crime."

The real danger of the controversy over his aborted election, he said, was that it affected faculty members who were not yet -- and might never be -- chairs. He noted that the comments that generated the controversy about him were made four years before he ran for chair.

"If making controversial remarks as a faculty member forever disqualifies you from holding an administrative post, then faculty don't really have any meaningful freedom," he said. "Indeed, if this logic applies, wouldn't the college or university have to interrogate every potential department chair to determine if he or she had ever said anything that might cause offense?"


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