A Second Term as Chair?

Ultimately, you have to want to serve another term, whatever the obstacles and disadvantages. Do you have a sinking feeling about the whole thing? Or are you more hopeful than apprehensive? Again, it’s not relevant whether you think there’s someone worthy of succeeding you — this is your decision about your life. Making something of a sacrifice to recommit might be part of the calculation, but it can’t be your primary motivation. 
I have been asked to consider accepting a second term as Chair of my large department, after a first five-year term. I am willing to consider it, but I’m having some trouble balancing my personal career goals against the so-called ‘needs’ of my department. Some context: there aren’t any obvious other candidates for this position, in that others have already served in this capacity or are serving elsewhere on campus, don’t think that they are suited for serving in this way, or are too junior. I took up the position with several goals in mind, and those initiatives have mostly been established and are building momentum. My department is notoriously difficult to chair with a reputation for conflict across our campus (at least, there are several highly contrary individuals), and I would take this role on again at no small personal cost. I have weathered this role, but not without emotional/ psychological wear and tear. Can you help me think through the benefits (personal, professional, departmental) of agreeing to stand for this role again? Are there any?—Prof. Re-up

First of all, congratulations on achieving so many of your goals! Given how fractious some members of your department are, that’s a real win.

Let’s get the “there’s no-one else to do it” issue out of the way first. While it would have helped to be able to prepare eligible faculty for leadership, that’s not always possible, for the reasons you list. At the same time, you shouldn’t accept a second term for this reason — you’ll feel resentful towards your colleagues if you re-up because none of them is willing or able to step up. In addition, some people can rise to the occasion in ways that you can’t predict. At any rate, you should decide to take a second term for your own reasons, not because you feel cornered into it.

You haven’t really given any reasons for why you’re willing to consider doing a second term, and several for why you shouldn’t. So I’ll have to infer that you do find some parts of the job rewarding. Given your success in the job, I’d imagine that you feel gratified by your achievements and feel satisfaction in a job well done. You might want to see the initiatives you launched gain real traction and be established in the culture of the department. That’s not nothing. Plus, now you know the requirements of the position, are familiar with the administration, and know which pitfalls to avoid. You’ve probably developed some strong relationships with other chairs, and feel part of a community. And being in charge has its own rewards.

I take seriously your concerns about your difficult colleagues. A second term might give you the opportunity to stand up to them with more confidence and authority, and lay down the terms of engagement a bit more firmly. This could be the time to talk to them about their behavior, and what you expect of them as colleagues (thereby doing a service to everyone!). At the very least, you might feel more entitled to take the time to remove yourself emotionally from (and this is a technical term) their mishegas. If you do re-up, I would strongly recommend that you set meaningful boundaries around your workday: you’re chair during business hours and  no longer. That way you have more time to yourself and your scholarly work. I know some chairs who set a bounce back message for evenings and weekends saying that they’ll respond  during business hours to whomever is emailing. One way to control how much access your colleagues to you is to set open hours, times in which your door is open and anyone can drop in or make an appointment (I find that 2 hours each at different times on three different days is plenty). That way, when your door is closed, you have a reasonable expectation of being left alone.

To be honest, a five year term is long — many institutions have 3-year terms, which seems to me much more humane.  I wonder if you could negotiate for a semester or even a year off in the middle of the second term, with an interim chair holding down the fort. That way you won’t be serving ten uninterrupted years and you’ll have real time to get research and writing done, as well as to take a breath. I had a sabbatical in the middle of my second term, and it was a life-saver.

Ultimately, you have to want to serve another term, whatever the obstacles and disadvantages. Do you have a sinking feeling about the whole thing? Or are you more hopeful than apprehensive? Again, it’s not relevant whether you think there’s someone worthy of succeeding you — this is your decision about your life. Making something of a sacrifice to recommit might be part of the calculation, but it can’t be your primary motivation.

—The Chair


3 replies on “A Second Term as Chair?”
  1. says: Another Chair

    I agree with the advice here. In the middle of my second three-year term as chair—meaning in my fifth year—I cannot imagine agreeing to a third. My department is in the original poster’s position. Although I’m of the mind that it is best for only full professors to serve as Chair, countless departments have associate professors serve with only a few crucial adjustments. The people I believe shouldn’t serve due to rank or alleged suitability may very well be suitable. Even if they aren’t, organizations have a tendency to pull together in the face of less than ideal leadership and function, or to assist an otherwise hapless leader. In short, it’s not the end of the world. At worst, the department (or individuals within it) learns that the sort of “learned incompetence” in which people pretend to be incapable to avoid work is ultimately toxic. All but the most unreliable people can survive three years as Chair.

  2. says: Yet another chair!

    I am on sabbatical in the middle of my second 3-year term (so this is my fifth year), and this all seems like really good advice–both the original post and the comments from “another chair.” I agree that five years seems like a really long additional commitment. A sabbatical in the middle of the second five year term might be good, but I wonder if it’s possible to agree to serve 1-2 years while you find and start to train a replacement who could then fill out the term? (As an aside, I wonder if there’s anyway to work with the university on the length of the standard term?)

  3. says: also a chair

    I took on the position as chair when there was no one else to do it, and had to postpone a promised sabbatical to do so. My department of eight TT faculty, several of whom were still untenured at the time, would have had an external interim chair because of its small size until my sabbatical was over. That provided me with excellent negotiating grounds to ensure that I would have a substantial break when my (four year) term was over. Your large department with “no one else obvious” to step in will probably not be in the position of having an external person show up as interim, so you may not be in this kind of bargaining position — but if you are, and if your provost is telling you there is “no one else” for the job, then I would make sure that you use that fact to your advantage to negotiate for whatever will help make the job more manageable. Maybe that’s a sabbatical partway through. Maybe that’s a designated associate chair who can take some of the workload off your plate while also learning the ropes to be able to transition into the position. Maybe it’s the all of that plus a shortened term of three years, so you spend three years with an Associate Chair, grooming that person for the work, then that person becomes Chair and you get a nice sabbatical at the end of it. If there is serious personnel conflict in the department, the provost (or whomever appoints you) is clearly aware of that and happy with how you are managing it, and if that is a job they want you to continue, they also have to be aware that the exhaustion of continuing to do so is not tenable without more support. And since you obviously will not be Chair forever, at the very least a conversation with the provost about what would make a good succession plan seems like a thing you can easily and reasonably ask for as you are negotiating this question.

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