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

Leadership and Management

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

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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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.

The position of the department chair is one of the most difficult in the academic hierarchy, and it needs to be held by someone who has the necessary skills, temperament, and desire to do the job. The chair must serve as the first-line motivator of department faculty, understanding their concerns and advocating for them to the dean; but the chair also serves as a manager and as the conduit for advancing the dean’s and central administration’s concerns to the faculty. If a chair is going to function well, they must be able to engage in productive discussions with both sides. They need to be experts at compromise and must have the respect of both their faculty and their dean.

An effective chair in a real-world Pembroke University would have established minimum course enrollments well before a time of crisis; they would have discussed student teaching evaluations at each annual review session; and they would have worked with the senior members of their department’s faculty to keep their teaching fresh. Such a chair would have encouraged curricular overhaul as well and would perhaps have been better able to create an environment more welcoming to junior faculty and faculty of color. Nothing we see in The Chair suggests that any of the members of the Pembroke English department (with the possible exception of one untenured individual) has the complex range of skills needed to be an effective chair given the state of contemporary higher education as portrayed in the show.

In the real-life, peri-pandemic moment in which we find ourselves, the academic department chair needs a tremendous range of skills: a sensitivity to the changes coming in higher education caused by shifting demographics and a coming decline in the traditional college-aged population, an innovative spirit that supports quick shifts to new instructional and research modalities, a demonstrable commitment to increasing equity and closing achievement gaps, and an ability to encourage faculty to continue the best practices the pandemic has spurred while jettisoning those stopgap measures that need to be left behind. The higher education landscape is going to look different in 10 years, and today’s department chairs need to be able to work with faculty to prepare for the coming changes.

The Pembroke English department would be in a much better position at the start of the series had the dean insisted on an external hire long before Professor Kim was elected to the position.

There are, of course, reasons beyond governance policies that the Pembroke dean might have shied away from an external search. An internal chair already has a sense of the department’s faculty (or at least their public personae), and they already have established relationships across campus that may make it easier to begin their work. Hiring a chair from the outside means investing in a new faculty line at the senior level, typically with tenure. A dean or provost may not want to incur this cost, understanding that if the new hire returns to the faculty, they will continue to be an expense the college will need to bear.

Even though an external chair might have been more expensive and disruptive in the short term, if that person could have kept the Pembroke English department from sinking into decline, the costs would have been worth it.

The leadership issues Pembroke’s dean should have been considering as he worked with the faculty of the English department are the concerns all deans should reflect on as they help their academic departments chart their futures. A dean’s responsibility is to help keep their academic programs as vibrant as possible—to help them make long-term plans and prepare to respond to the evolving needs of their campuses and their disciplines.

While finances and faculty governance policies may dictate that a department elect or appoint an internal chair, there can be significant advantages to seeking a chair through an external search. A national search for a chair publicizes the department’s work and can strengthen its national reputation. It prompts academics in the field to learn about the department, its institution, and the achievements of its faculty members. An external chair also brings to campus a new network of contacts that can further benefit the faculty and students of the department by supplementing their own professional networks and opportunities.

Additionally, an externally selected chair provides the department with the opportunity to look at all dimensions of its activities with fresh eyes. An external chair is not a part of any of the inevitable departmental factions, and they can look forward with less defensiveness about the past or complacency about the present. With a fresh perspective and the benefits of experiences elsewhere, an external chair can help faculty to see where curricula can be strengthened, processes streamlined, and (perhaps) limited funds made to stretch further.

Research conducted in the corporate world suggests that current conditions should influence the decision of whether to promote from within or hire from outside an organization. According to Eric Krell (2015), one of the most beneficial times to hire externally is when “strategy shifts are underway,” because in such moments an organization may not have developed the skills internally to embrace wide-scale change.

Higher education is in such a moment as it prepares for the changes created by emerging student needs, demographic shifts, and ongoing anxieties about the value of higher education. As Walt Gmelch argues in “The Call for Leadership: Why Chairs Serve, What They Do, and How Long Should They Serve,”

The time of amateur administration is over. This is not a time for professors to play musical chairs, stepping occasionally into the role of department chair. Too much is at stake in this time of change and challenge to let your department’s leadership be left to chance or taking turns. The future of universities and colleges depends on answering the call to department leadership with commitment and vision. (p. 2)

In the case of Pembroke University’s English department, radical change is clearly necessary to break up the cabal of the most senior faculty, push curricular reform that will respond to students’ needs and interests, and support the creation of a more diverse and inclusive tenured faculty body. The dean should have seen that and stepped in to help.

The problems that Pembroke’s English department faces are the problems those of us in real-world universities are likely to face in the coming decade. Faculty within our academic departments will need to be encouraged to meet this future. Such leadership may come from skilled, energetic faculty already on campus who are eager to answer the call, but in many cases, we will need to look outward to find the right person to lead our departments forward with vision and commitment.


Constance C. Relihan, PhD, is the dean of University College and a professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University.