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“At least you’re not a chair of a big department,” they tell me.

As if to imply those chairs have it much tougher than I do. It doesn’t feel like that to me. In fact, I will argue that being a chair of a small department can actually be harder, albeit in different ways, than being chair of a large one.

While the dynamics are more complicated in a larger department with significantly more people around, those same people are available to help out in a crisis and to disperse service requirements. That’s not the case in small departments. In a small department, if one faculty member becomes ill and cannot teach their introductory classes, it could require every faculty member to take a teaching overload. But the joke is on them, because they probably already have an overload, as the small department is understaffed in the first place.

Overloading the Overloaded

First, the obvious: a small department means small resources. Coming into 2020, our department had six tenure-track faculty members. Three retired. We hired one new faculty member and expect to hire more. However, in a time of budget shortfalls, we go through the expensive, lengthy and time-intensive search process while also teaching our normal set of courses and providing the same experiences for students. The work falls on the shoulders of the current faculty, which is at 67 percent our previous strength.

One solution is to hire more part-time faculty to join the department while the long-term hiring is being worked out. However, those positions are likely to be short-term and often inequitable. When we ultimately hire our new tenure-track faculty members, it will drastically reduce the number of part-time faculty members we need, as the new hires will take up a large number of classes. This might be OK for some specific adjunct faculty members, but it reduces the field of people who match because you can only ethically hire people looking for short-term work.

Representing Departmental Interests

In a small department, we have to strategically consider how our department is represented across the university. In a small department, we have to make sure we cover all the key committees, which leaves little room for other types of service. The service load for smaller departments, with reduced faculty, is exponentially higher. We still are required to staff all of the various committees that larger departments do, such as sending representatives to Faculty Senate, academic affairs and tenure and promotion committees, as well as admission events—which are most often scheduled on weekends.

And you never know when an issue that can affect one’s department can come up. For example, recently the general education committee recommended that our general physics and astronomy courses don’t count as natural science requirements. (Can you imagine, physics not a natural science?) While they obviously are sciences and we can solve the problem by making some minor changes to the syllabus, it still amounts to essential work. And it highlights the issues that small departments face: because we don’t have representation everywhere, we can be blindsided by issues that come up across campus.

Playing Defense

In a department that averages about 10 students or fewer a year, every single student is precious. This is especially true in a world of extreme cost savings, where a handful of students can mean the difference between upper-level courses running or not. Well-intentioned initiatives by faculty and administrators in other departments can infringe on the small department’s operations.

It becomes a balancing act. In some cases, working on a new, exciting interdisciplinary class or project can be a wonderful experience for students. However, it can also mean that students will be taking time from core classes in a small department, which is already getting squeezed from every angle possible. I find that I have to spend a fair amount of my time playing defense against well-meaning initiatives on the campus.

As someone who tries to be an innovator myself, I struggle with this. I can’t tell you how many times people have tried to make me feel bad, saying things like, “You’re not doing what’s best for the students” when I argue against a new program that’s likely only going to take students away from one I’m associated with.

The thing is, I do want to do what’s best for the students. I have built an entire career on it. We have carefully developed a program that works and has a long history of success. But when a faculty member in a larger department creates a new program without carefully working out the details and then recruits students away from small departments, it can hurt the students’ education, the small department’s future and the university’s credibility.

That can be good if it forces small departments to continue to innovate and develop exciting programs and classes that students are interested in. But as these threats are continually popping up, one has to be continually on guard.

Personalizing Personnel Decisions

When you work in a small department, you only have a handful of people on your team. Working in such close quarters can be difficult. If someone goes up for tenure and doesn’t get it, you have nowhere to hide. As chair, you have to sit there and look at that person and say, “I am sorry, but that’s what we decided.” It’s very personal from all sides.

Similarly, when serious conflicts arise between tenured faculty members, the situation can be highly disruptive to a small department—and for a long time, too. And even positive relationships can strain over time when you are working so closely to other people.

Focusing on the Advantages

While you may experience no small amount of extra stress working in a small department, you can also discover great things doing so. In my role as chair, I look to build up my peers and individual students as much as possible. I want to help them get the resources that they need to be successful. Everyone is important, and when you work in a close-knit small department, that is even more true.

A small department can also be nimble. Making changes is easier. You can innovate. You can more quickly and easily provide students with exciting opportunities that will encourage them to take on the major.

You can take advantage of your small size to be flexible. Your faculty members’ careers and students’ interests are continually changing. If you keep your department flexible, you can provide the latest and greatest thing.

Yes, working in a small department is challenging, especially today. It is increasingly common to hear a story about a college cutting entire departments. And no matter how much reassurance I get from my administration, I am aware that we are on the front lines and could be the first to go. But until then, I’ll be doing more with less and representing our small department with no small amount of pride and gratitude.

Matthew J. Wright is the department chair and professor of physics at Adelphi University in New York.

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