Difficult Conversations

Reading the Remote Room in a Pandemic

People are still pretty freaked out about all kinds of things: the pandemic, the election, floods, fires, and I’m sure some of your colleagues are also having to supervise their children’s education. So their reticence to participate in meetings could have much less to do with you than their own feelings of unease. The more you can put people at ease and involve them in the meeting, even if not to participate substantively, the more relaxed everyone will be.

Crisis Management: Between the Faculty and Upper Administration

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?

Talking to Contingent Faculty in a Moment of Crisis

Be transparent with your contingent faculty about what you would like to be the case, what you’re concerned will happen, and how you think it will affect the department.  Try and gather as much information as you can from your dean or provost about the kinds of cuts that might be coming down the pike. Then meet with your NTT faculty to share what you know and listen to their concerns and fears. Be clear that these potential cuts are out of your hands but that you support your contingent colleagues and will advocate for them as much as you can. Ideally, you will have established clear channels of communication with your NTT faculty, and there’s a level of trust and confidence in your leadership. But even if that’s not the case, now is the time to make it clear both that you’re on their side and that you are subject to the financial needs of the institution.

Remote Learning

In the wake of the coronavirus, my faculty has been forced to shift to completely remote teaching for the remainder of the semester (and who knows how much longer). Few of them had been trained in this mode of instruction, and not all students are adequately outfitted at home with Internet-connected computers. Some students seem to be writing papers on cell phones now. Do we need to shift to a less rigorous expectation, even to mere morale-boosting?

Handling a Break-Up

I’m the chair of a small department, and have just been informed that two of my department members, who have been married to each other for the last 15 years (one was a spousal hire, in fact, at the time of recruitment), are separating. It appears this is an acrimonious split, and to make matters worse, they research and teach in related areas. The implications for the work and/or the climate of the department are significant. Can you offer advice about how I might handle this while still respecting their privacy?  Help!

Sink or Swim

I am a chair at an institution in distress; we are experiencing line terminations of junior faculty and other budgetary cuts. The line cuts have been particularly challenging for many reasons, not least the hope that was dangled in the announcement that the lines could be restored if other cuts seem sufficient, which has made it very hard to organize. The junior faculty, extremely creative, amazing teachers with excellent publication records, feel unsupported by senior faculty, even shunned to a certain degree, and also sometimes feel cut out of decisions. Senior faculty feel like they are uncertain what to do: they are unsure how to fight back, and are uncomfortable doing planning for next year that may likely involve planning to not have the junior faculty present. Some are themselves in fight/flight/freeze mode. The sense of “business as normal” can be excruciating when business is not, in fact, normal. How ought a chair best navigate these challenging waters?

Disciplinary Deadlock

The disciplinary deadlock you describe makes any kind of meaningful debate within the department impossible, and you want these colleagues to help you break through it. In my experience, expecting people to rise to the occasion usually works, especially since you’ve hand-picked this group of people as less invested in these divides and focused more on problem-solving.

Is anger the answer?

I have always counted my even temper as a strength, especially in my role as chair.  Am I failing to be an effective advocate for resources for my department if I always respond moderately? Are there times when anger would be the better response?

What Makes a Good Dissertation Adviser

Recommendation letter season is upon us, and I’ve been asked to write for a graduate student whom I’ve occasionally worked with but do not supervise. In getting an update on…

Who’s the Boss?

You’ve answered several questions about faculty, but what about working with staff? In my case, I have a departmental secretary/program administrator who has been with us for over a decade….