Crisis Management: Between the Faculty and Upper Administration

Dear ATC,
Like many (all?) chairs nationwide, I’ve been facing a host of pressures regarding COVID matters, ranging from institutional demands for hybrid and F2F teaching to faculty feeling pressures about their scholarship, service obligations, and work-life balance. All of these are magnifying a question I’ve long struggled with as chair—how do I faithfully discharge my obligations to both my college administration and my departmental faculty, and how do I balance what seem to be their increasingly competing interests (if not demands) and do so without losing my integrity? Our faculty and campus are certainly not as divided as some I’ve read about, but that’s in part because we generally trust each other’s basic decency and intentions. Like so many other things, that trust is starting to come under some strain, which only seems to intensify the importance of my managing the chair’s intermediary role. But how do I do that without being seen—by either side—as two-faced or insufficiently understanding and supportive?
—Prof. In Between

Dear Prof. In Between,

This is a very common conundrum for chairs to find themselves in, and it’s especially difficult when you have to be the bearer of bad news to your faculty, as has been true for so many of us during this time of budgetary crisis. Personally—and not everyone may agree—I see the role of advocate for one’s faculty and department as a more central duty to the role of chair than being the messenger/implementer of administrative decisions. That doesn’t mean that your relationship with your administration has to be oppositional. Indeed, a big part of your job is to work with the administration and there has to be some level of trust there in order for your job to be bearable: I know chairs who feel like their administrators are acting in bad faith, and it is a very difficult position to be in.

As always, I would advise to be as transparent as you can on both fronts. Be honest with your faculty about the kinds of challenges your institution is facing and assure them that you’re advocating for them as much as possible under these constrained circumstances. At the same time, be open about what is non-negotiable. In my experience, it’s best to get ahead of budget cuts and course cancellations as much as possible: once you see something coming down the pike, let your department know about it. With administrators, be clear that your department will be unhappy about the kinds of decisions it is your job to implement, and that you don’t consider it your job to make them feel better about it, since you don’t like it either.

I would also recommend that you get in touch with your counterparts in other departments for solidarity. Too often in tight financial times, departments are explicitly or implicitly pitted against each other in the competition for resources. This can be corrosive within an institution. Plus other chairs know what you’re going through and you might be able to organize together to make sure that whatever your administrators decide to do is implemented fairly across the board.

—The Chair