Tuesday, May 01, 2007

On being a department chair 

My existence beyond this blog and radio show is mostly defined as being a department chair. Todd Diacon of the University of Tennessee writes that it's a hard job, but worth it. (Permalink for Chronicle of Higher Education subscribers.)

As a central administrator I am now tucked away in a fortress on the edge of the campus. Rarely will I encounter the people whose work I administer and whose expectations I help shape. And when such encounters occur they are a) scheduled in advance, and b) thus largely scripted.

By contrast, every week -- if not every day -- as a department head you bump into a professor you have disappointed, or even angered, by some decision. Furthermore, that professor is often a friend, always a colleague, and often admired for his or her excellence in teaching and scholarship.

That tension is painfully unavoidable, for, at a minimum, department heads must evaluate professors every year and divide up the pool of money available for raises.

I am lucky that SCSU does not have merit money for raises, so I never have to do this.

In addition, life is messy, so that at myriad other points in the year tense encounters and situations are likely to occur -- as when you decide that no, the department doesn't have enough money to cover Professor A's third conference travel request. Or, yes, Professor B will have to teach at 9 a.m. on a MWF schedule even though he is a self-proclaimed afternoon person who is most brilliant on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

The nature of the job means that often you please no one, not even your boss, which, in the case of a department head, is the college dean.

Regrettably, this has been more difficult insofar as I'm on my fourth dean in six years and about to get my fifth. Two of them have had to wear the interim tag. The interims have had a better understanding of the university but no payoff to the visioning task that is part of the job (Diacon says that they "see the forest in ways that professors cannot" and that "they have a bigger picture both to paint and to interpret." True, very true.) I've managed somehow to work with all four of them, as well as my department. How? After going through a long list of what makes the job tough, Diacon gets around to why you do it. And it's about the growth of the person who takes the job.
You learn new skills as a counselor, a coach, and a confidant. You learn the importance of fund-raising, and, in the process, meet fascinating people from outside the university.
My experience in talking with people who have been department heads in the past is that they become much more at peace with the life they chose to take up after the PhD. I am looking forward to giving this job up in a couple more years -- I am not of a mind to do anything else in administration as Diacon now will do, but never is a very long time so get back to me on this later -- but I wouldn't trade this experience for fifty trips to conferences and seminars. I'm looking forward to a better academic life.

UPDATE: Of course, I would have loved to have Atomizer's job. But I flunked that test on the back of the matchbook.