Departments Without Chairs

Kean University considers budget-cutting move that professors say will hurt academic freedom -- and may actually add expenses.
May 5, 2009

Department chairs are a fixture of campus life and academic governance. A plan being floated at Kean University of New Jersey would merge many existing departments into larger units and replace chairs with "managers" -- who would be appointed by administrators and would not hold faculty rank or tenure.

The proposal, which has yet to be released by the university in written form, has angered professors, who held a rally Monday to denounce the idea as one that would endanger academic freedom and destroy a key way for professors to be heard at the senior levels of the administration. Further, the professors charged that the administration was trying to deal with budget woes by adding administrative positions at the expense of academic jobs.

Kean administrators -- whose relations with faculty leaders, especially those in the union that organized the rally, have been contentious for years -- defended their plan (while declining to provide details). Administrators went further and accused professors of trying to protect overpaid positions. Because the idea being pushed at Kean -- eliminating the chair position -- would be a notable change for most four-year institutions, the debate is being watched by faculty groups elsewhere.

Like many public colleges and universities, Kean faces both a deficit and a lack of certainty over how large the shortfall is, although millions will need to be cut somewhere. Administrators say that they are still developing plans, and doing so in conjunction with faculty and student groups, and that it is "premature" to discuss specifics.

But deans recently briefed department chairs about a plan that would involve cutting the number of academic departments roughly in half, and creating new positions to oversee these larger academic units. Currently, faculty chairs are nominated by the professors in departments, with final approval coming from the administration, a system that is common in academe.

The plan as described to department chairs would involve administrative appointments of people without faculty rank or the protections of tenure.

The administration is "using a minor budget shortfall to force a major reorganization of academic affairs," said James Castiglione, who teaches physics at Kean and is president of the Kean Federation of Teachers. The union is part of the American Federation of Teachers, whose national president, Randi Weingarten, appeared at the Kean event Monday to pledge help with efforts "to restore financial and educational sanity here." (The union also argues that the changes the administration is pushing would violate the terms of the faculty contract.)

Because the plan would leave departments managed by people who do not come from the faculty ranks, professors will lose any advocacy that they get from department chairs, Castiglione said.

Further, he said that the savings from no longer having to release chairs from some of their regular course load would probably be offset by the salaries paid to these new managers. The union released statistics showing that another New Jersey public institution, Montclair State University, which has 25 percent more students than Kean, has only 104 administrators, compared to 163 at Kean. The union estimates that bringing the administrative ranks down to the size of those at Montclair would eliminate the need for cuts in academic programs.

For years now, faculty members have complained that President Dawood Farahi places a higher priority on non-academic matters (in particular the physical plant) than on what takes place in the classroom.

The idea of replacing faculty with administrators in leading departments suggests limited understanding of what chairs do and why they matter, said Cathleen Londino, chair of media and film. She noted that chairs at Kean are teaching throughout the time they lead departments, and said that was key. "The university is supposed to be about relationships between faculty who teach and students who learn," she said. Chairs, by virtue of teaching -- typically years of teaching -- "know and understand the program, and have built the program. We know our students. We do the advising. We see students daily."

Londino also noted that faculty chairs at Kean sometimes must go to bat on behalf of professors whom administrators want to dismiss or deny promotions. She questioned how "managers" appointed by the administration could do that without tenure. "When you take the side of a faculty member, if you feel that's appropriate, there has to be protection," she said.

She stressed that chairs and professors were under no illusions that they should make all the decisions, but that they felt they deserve "independent" voices with a shot at influencing outcomes.

Kean administrators declined to answer questions in a telephone conversation and agreed to respond only via e-mail. While asked specifically about the comparison of Montclair and Kean administrative staffs, the response from a spokesman did not address the issue. The statement said that it was "time to set aside greed and self-interest to develop a long-term solution to ensure that Kean continues to remain competitive, true to its mission and to attract students."

The statement did not specifically address the idea of eliminating chair positions, and the spokesman did not respond to a request for clarification. But the statement suggested that the course release time that chairs receive (which is common in higher education) is inappropriate.

"The majority of our faculty go above and beyond serving our students in their teaching and research," the statement said. "The small and vocal group leading the protest today wants to preserve a system that rewards part-time work with full-time pay. Most New Jerseyans lack such job security and know first-hand about the dangers of losing jobs and making payments on their homes, cars, etc. Most would not consider two or three days a week at 17 hours full-time employment. The university cannot afford to operate like that. No business can."

Gary Rhoades, national general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, said that the Kean proposal would clearly violate AAUP standards on governance. The association's statement on governance says: "The chair or head of a department, who serves as the chief representative of the department within an institution, should be selected either by departmental election or by appointment following consultation with members of the department and of related departments."

Rhoades said that while he sees the proposal as violating the rights of professors, he also thinks it's foolish from the administration's perspective. Department chairs are "in between positions" in that they both represent departments to the central administration and represent the administration to the departments.

"If chairs are not of the faculty, then their ability to communicate and to be in any way an advocate on either side is compromised," Rhoades said. Unit managers such as those envisioned at Kean "would have no credibility. This would be self-defeating."


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