Monday, March 14, 2011

On Reluctance

An oft-repeated opinion in academic departments is that the person you don't want as department chair is the one who wants to be department chair. According to this philosophy, it is the deeply reluctant who are the more desirable candidates.

But is that true? Why shouldn't those who are willing (if able) to do the job be the ones who do the job? Why do some think it is better to have as chair someone who is reluctant to take on major administrative work?

In some departments, the chair position rotates (swivels?) among the tenured professors every few years and everyone is expected to take a turn at this job. In large departments, however, there is a selection process by which a new chair is designated from among the tenured professors (typically the full professors). It is in these cases that the significance of enthusiasm vs. reluctance is relevant.

I am skeptical that reluctance can be used as a reliable indicator of whether someone will be a good department chair.

I agree that someone who wants to assume the all-powerful position of chair in order to hoard resources for their own purposes, reward friends, enact vengeance on enemies, and schedule weekly faculty meetings at 7 AM on Mondays might be a bad choice. However, in the more normal situation in which some faculty are interested in serving as department chair and others would rather focus on research and teaching, why not choose a professor who is willing?

If someone sees being department chair as a good use of their time, and possibly even interesting, and has the necessary vision and organizational skills to do a good job, I think they would be a better choice than someone who would rather have an invasive medical procedure than spend more quality time with the Dean.

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

Being drafted for Department Chair, are you? :-)

Azkyroth said...

I would assume it's hyperbole derived from the notion that people who are a bit scared of the responsibility are less likely to implement vast sweeping changes that will blow up in the department's collective face, whereas those who want to be in charge may be dangerous either via the negative aspects of "ambition" or the law of unintended consequences.

Anonymous said...

In my department, the problem is the folks who want the position are power mongers with limited organization skills. They are the folks who indicate deep hatred of others, have no problems bashing students, staff and junior faculty (yes, in public) and then hide behind the veil of tenure and academic freedom when making these comments. I have no issue with the basic premise that folks who want the job should be given the chance to perform the job (I don't want it!), but this doesn't hold true across the board!

a physicist said...

My theory: reluctance to be chair is perceived as a sign that the person is research-focused. If someone is willing to be chair, they might be suspected as being less serious about research. And we can't have someone like THAT as our department chair, can we? (Yes, I'm being sarcastic.)

I agree with FSP, I think it is good to have people around who are willing and able to be department chair. Our department has some who are "willing" but fewer who are "able".

Steveo said...

I think people have a confirmation bias here. They see the person with the ambition to become chair and fear (rightly or wrongly) that this person will use the position for personal gains. And they see the person they think would do an excellent job as chair being reluctant to serve as chair. But most faculty, in my experience (as a graduate student who sat on a chair selection committee) are reluctant to serve as chair.

I was involved in a very interesting chair selection a few years ago, where multiple candidates were seen to be running for chair for their own personal gain and the committee ended up selecting no one as chair. This scared some of the reluctant faculty to run the second time around, resulting in a much better choice as chair.

Anonymous said...

I think that being an administrator is seen as being a departure in some sense from being a Pure Scientist, and therefore this is seen as somewhat suspicious. Why would you *want* to get pulled into administrative duties, dealing with all of that non-scientific stuff...unless, you want The Power. If you want the job because you want The Power, that makes people nervous. Why do you want all that power?? Do you plan to do Horrific and Terrible things?? Absolute power corrupts absolutely and all that.

On the other hand, if you're a science-loving scientist who just wants to do some fun science, but darn it all...you reluctantly agree to step in and serve as Chair, then people are less likely to think you are doing it solely because you desire Power to do Terrible Things.

DrugMonkey said...

HAHAHA, there is TOTALLY a move to make you Chair over your objections, isn't there? good luck!

akajb said...

I found the process very interesting - viewing it as a graduate student. We had three candidates. One who *really* wanted it (and had turned down the position at a different university), one who ran with a solid platform, and one who's talks were confusing and made everyone think even *he* wasn't sure if he wanted it.

Who got it? The one who ran a solid platform. The one who *really* wanted it had recently pissed off most of the grad population as well as had angered the support staff in the department. The third one wasn't even really considered by most people as a valid candidate.

Could the one who *really* wanted it have got it? Sure. If he had focused instead on his platform and actually reaching out to everyone. I'll be interested if he'll run for next time, which should be coming up soon.

Alex said...

People who really get into administrative stuff start speaking strange, nonsense languages that are foreign to us. Perhaps that mistrust partially reflects a lack of understanding of necessary tasks that they perform, but I don't think we're entirely wrong here. If you cannot explain what you're doing in clear language that highly-educated people can understand, you aren't doing much.

More distressingly, people who get into administrative stuff start paying great attention to political tea leaves. When the Powers in the administration building have some sort of debate and change a word in a report from "unsustainable" to "untenable", or merely mention something that had previously not been mentioned at all, people who are into administrative games start attaching great import to all of this. More annoyingly, they actually spend part of a faculty meeting telling us how wonderful this is. The rest of us, however, wait for these tea leaves and rumblings of court gossip to translate into actual, concrete doings. Words in a report are nice, but resources in our hands are far nicer.

So, yes, I'm distrustful of somebody who is eager to rush into that world. It rots the brain, and next thing you know some administrator is actually trying to persuade me that my Broader Impact statement will read stronger if I mention that what I'm doing is in line with some Strategic Planning document that was recently released to great fanfare. (Apparently it shows that there is institutional support for my work so NSF should invest in it. I'm still waiting for that alleged institutional support to move from the "words on a page" stage to the "resource in my hands" stage.) The "Broader Impact" statement is already vulnerable to bullshitting. No need to make it worse by shifting the focus away from the actual activities of my research group (you know, the things that might actually impact somebody in some broad way) and into court gossip.

Alex said...

assume the all-powerful position of chair in order to hoard resources for their own purposes, reward friends, enact vengeance on enemies, and schedule weekly faculty meetings at 7 AM on Mondays

Ah, the academic version of what is best in life! Hence my Master's and PhD diplomas bear the signature of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Anonymous said...

I do think that people who want to be chair can be good chairs, two of my grad/postdoc mentors were departmental chairs and were fantastic at it. However, it seems it really matters why you want to be chair. They both wanted (to varying extents) to be chair because they really cared about their respective departments and wanted them to run well. Each of them put enormous effort into a really positive vision for the department and they got most of the department on board with that vision. These are people who want to serve the department and feel they can do it through being chair, not people who just want the chair title. On the other hand people who want to be chair because they want to exert power - terrifying! I'm waiting to hear who the new chair will be in my dept. It could be good but it could be awful. There are a couple possible folks who would be a big improvement over the current fairly ineffectual chair but there's a least one person who really will use it for payback. He wants it bad. So, I guess it just depends on WHY you want to be chair.

EliRabett said...

Demand three free postdocs and support for all your students.

Anonymous said...

My grad department had a great chairperson. He wanted to stay in the position, and my understanding is that the faculty were happy about that. Then came a new Dean who put term limits on how long people could chair...

Anonymous said...

Our department has a bunch of full professors and a bunch of assistant professors. You can't become head (understandably) until you are a full professor. We have a hard time getting anyone to serve (and no associate level people are rising to become full anytime soon to restock the pool). It's like some people forcibly try not to be 'department head like' so that folks don't beg them to serve. This makes me sad because it seems like being department head makes a statement about how 'bought in' the faculty are to our department. We have a really wonderful department (we all interact well), so if nobody wants that job it must really suck. How do departments get people to serve? Sweeten the pot?

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

Being reluctant does not make one good. I have dodged the chairship of our department for years, because I would be really bad at it. I could do the routine paperwork, the curriculum leave plans, and the internal work of the department, but I could not stay polite to the higher administrators.

We had interim chairs for years as we tried to hire a chair from outside (and the interim chair was better than the outside hire we ended up with). We recently rotated chairs (to another recent hire) and are much better off. Of course, we are a tiny department, so the choices of who can be chair are rather limited. So far as I know, no one has really sought the position.

Anonymous said...

It's because The Reluctant know what they'd be getting into and what's actually expected of them. They know enough to hit the ground running and do a good job, but because the job sucks so much they don't want to do it.