Wearing Two Hats

Like many departments, this year we will be facing some big, thorny issues, chief among them curriculum revisions that will likely evoke a very wide range of opinions within our faculty. My concern regards my particular role as chair in this revision and the discussions that will accompany them. To what extent is my role to be the manager of the process, and to what extent am I allowed to have an individual opinion on any given issue? Since I am chair, of course, these can necessarily overlap—by putting something on a meeting agenda or creating an ad-hoc committee, for example, I can bring an issue to the fore or move it forward in a particular way. And some of my individual opinions may reflect my position as the chair and an awareness of how the university works, such as knowing that a particular change (however interesting) would have impacts on credit hours or course scheduling. But some of my opinions, I’m sure, simply reflect my own understanding of the discipline or particular parts of it. I don’t want those to be my sole guide, but neither do I want to check them at the door while others in the department speak freely. How do I balance these two (or more) roles I have?—Professor Wearing Two Hats

 

Dear Prof. W. T. Hats:

The role of the chair in important departmental discussions is, as you recognize, characterized by trade-offs, if not pitfalls. On the one hand, you know that your voice has more weight, and arguing strenuously for or against a proposal could have a chilling effect on your colleagues, especially junior faculty. On the other hand, you’ll likely be living with and teaching in this curriculum long after you’re chair, and as a member of the department you are entitled to a say. Plus (borrowing a third hand) you probably know the current curriculum and the budgetary, staffing, and pedagogical issues inherent to it better than anyone else in the room, and that expertise is important for an informed conversation to take place. While my suggestions below could apply to any contentious issue, the granddaddy of them all is curriculum revision, so I’ll be talking at length about how to avoid the bind you’re concerned about in the first place.

First of all, what kind of curriculum revision are you doing? Are you making tweaks to a single track of the major? Overhauling the whole thing? Something in between? It’s useful to have a clear and shared sense of the scope of the project before you begin. That will (we hope!) avoid you all getting off track and debating issues that aren’t actually the ones at hand.

Let’s separate these issues out, and also notice the advantages you have as chair that your colleagues don’t have. For example, before the question of curriculum revision even gets to the floor of the department meeting, you should be meeting with the chair of your curriculum committee to talk over the various options (this is assuming that your faculty is large enough to have such a committee). This is an opportunity to make clear your priorities, and get a reality check on how the rest of the department could react to them. Ideally, you and the chair of the committee are on the same page and share at least some common assumptions about what the revised curriculum will look like. If that’s the case, you can use your meetings with them to talk over various options that you’d like the committee to consider. That’s not to say that you’re engaging in some kind of Game of Thrones-style behind-the-scenes machinations; rather, you were elected at least in part for your vision for the department, and you want to discuss that vision in a low-stakes environment.

It’s possible that the curriculum committee chair has a very different idea of what your curriculum should look like. That’s okay too: this is an opportunity to talk with them about how the department can navigate strong opposing feelings and opinions while avoiding acrimony as much as possible. You can decide on ground rules for the larger-scale discussion, but you should also make clear what you believe are important changes and why.

Well before the department discusses curriculum revisions, everyone needs to be equally well-informed. The curriculum committee should get a sense of what your peer institutions have been doing with their curricula and share that with your colleagues. You don’t have to follow their examples, but a survey of eight to ten counterpart departments can give you the lay of the land. If your institution has a strategic plan, you should share that with the department as well.

I’m assuming that your department has already had in-depth discussions of what concerns this new curriculum should address. Many departments will have half-day or day-long retreats to get to consensus about their shared goals for the major—or clarity on where the fault lines lie—before they even start curriculum revision. This is crucial. Ideally, you have a document that outlines the points of agreement and of divergence so you have a starting place for discussion. Do not start curriculum revision with open, undirected conversation. That way lies madness and disaster: old grievances will be taken out of storage, positions will get entrenched, and the process will grind to a halt. All that stuff has to be out of the way when you get together to do the real work of redesigning your curriculum.

Using the points of agreement and debate as a guide, your curriculum committee should come up with no more than two models of the new curriculum for the department to consider. It can be useful for either you or the committee to put together mock-ups of what a couple of different sample courses of study might be for students within these models, contrasted with what you have now, so faculty have a concrete sense of what these changes mean. The chair of the committee should preside over and moderate these conversations, not you.

Now we get to the heart of your question: once these conversations are underway, what’s your role? I’d recommend that you rein in your desires to comment as much as you can. After all, you’ve had a great deal of input into all the back-end processes and been able to shape what the department is considering (more or less, depending on how much the committee chair is on board with your vision). At this point, your best strategy is transparency: make clear what it is you’d like to see and why, rooting your opinions in data; be explicit that this is a democratic process and you’re just one vote; and then try to keep as quiet as possible. After each discussion, meet and strategize again with the curriculum committee chair to debrief on how the process is going, what the goals are for the next meeting, etc.

Finally, be prepared for the reality that you might not get what you want. You can’t just say that the process is democratic—you have to respect that process. That means no lobbying behind closed doors, no throwing your weight around. If you consult with individual faculty members, be clear that this is just information-gathering, not pressure. Be available to junior faculty who might feel intimidated to speak up, and assure them that their opinions are respected and have no bearing on future evaluations (and then make sure that that’s actually true). For this process to work everyone has to believe that it is fair, transparent, collegial, and democratic, and it’s your job as chair to make that happen.

—The Chair

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