How to Choose a Department Chair: The Case of Pembroke University’s English Department

Credit: Katie
Like many academics, I recently watched Netflix’s The Chair, and like a lot of those academics—especially those from a humanities background—much of it seemed quite painfully realistic. The mess that Sandra Oh’s character, Professor Ji-Yoon Kim, inherits when she is elected chair of Pembroke University’s English department contains several elements many of us fear: falling enrollments, impending budget cuts, space and technology challenges, a stagnant curriculum, impolitic faculty, structural racism, and lousy office furniture. Also realistically, it is difficult to identify the causes of all the dysfunction. Pandering to consumer demands and the rise of cancel culture are certainly factors contributing to the problems Professor Kim must face as chair, but I would argue that the real cause of the disarray in Pembroke’s English department is Pembroke’s dean, Paul Larson. He is responsible not because he wants Professor Kim to push a senior faculty member into retirement or because he relies on a PR flack to guide his response to a crisis caused by an ill-considered classroom comment. He is to blame because he has permitted Pembroke’s English department to rely on identifying their leadership by internal election. The dean might have been able to forestall some of the problems the English department is currently facing had he insisted on conducting an external search for department chair well before the start of Professor Kim’s ill-fated chairship.

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