Friday, November 01, 2013

Heads or Chairs?

Whenever administrators at the department level (or moral equivalent) gather to discuss their experiences, a very common topic is whether one is a head or a chair. What is the difference and who cares?

First let me note here that I am not entirely one or the other (but will not explain that statement further), so the distinction is not one that I feel strongly about. Nevertheless, I have found myself having the heads-or-chairs conversation (or listening to discussion of the topic) a surprising number of times in the past year or so.

During one recent discussion among a group of chair-heads, it turned out that some people's definition (in this case: powerful heads vs. less-powerful chairs) did not hold up in the face of data. In fact, in a group composed of heads and chairs, there seemed to be no difference in terms of the types of activities and amount of "power" (for lack of a better word) each administrative species had. Perhaps there is a distinction within a single institution that has both heads and chairs, but any such distinctions across institutions seem to have little or no meaning. I am not even sure there are distinctions within single institutions. I know of one case in which the distinction is related to historical preference rather than to any real difference in responsibilities.

To answer the question about the difference between a head and a chair: There seems to be a belief among some that heads have more power (such as to make decisions with less consultation of faculty, committees, deans) or length of term (5±1 years versus 3 years) but in fact there may or may not be a difference at some (many?) institutions.

Who cares? Do you care? My unscientific research into this critical issues seems to indicate that heads care more than chairs. I have heard some people (n = 6) specifically note that they are a head, not a chair, but I have not heard a chair make such an emphatic distinction. Maybe administrators at higher levels care. Maybe I have met the only 6 people in the world who care. I can tell you for sure that my mother does not care.

Which one do you think sounds better? I think they both sound absurd (if you really think about it), but head is simpler because it is gender-neutral. Chair can of course be short for chairperson, but chairman is still a very common word. The easiest way to get me to claim to be a "head" is to ask me whether I prefer chairwoman, chairman, or chairperson. Ugh. None of the above.



18 comments:

Anonymous said...

IME, a chair is typically elected locally, from among the faculty, and is shorter term, whereas head can be and often is brought in from the outside. They both seem to serve at the pleasure of the dean, with head not having to actually be elected by the faculty with whom he or she works. As for power, I have never met a head with little power (not that it is always wielded wisely). While there are many powerful chairs, I have met a number of fairly powerless ones; the same cannot be said for my experience with heads.

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

At my medical school, all departments are led by Department Chairs. Within some clinical departments, we have sections (like the Section of Otolaryngology within the Department of Surgery), and those section are led by Section Chiefs.

I have never heard of any institution with the formal title of Department Head. Can you point us to one?

This Chair versus Head thing sounds like the delusional gibbering of superannuated ineffectual freaks.

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

OK. I did a little googling, and it appears that "Department Head" as an official title is only used at low-quality public universities (mostly in states of the former confederacy), while elite private and public universities use the title "Department Chair".

So maybe this is why in your experience "Department Heads" have this delusional compulsion to claim it is a more esteemed title than "Department Chair", to compensate for their perceived inferiority.

DRo said...

I had no idea there was any difference, and I guess I do not care (to answer your question). I thought they were just different terms to describe the same position.

Female Science Professor said...

All of the definitions proposed in the comments so far also do not match the dataset as a whole.

ESL said...

In my field, chairs are elected locally and serve for ~3 year terms (and often reluctantly, but that isn't part of an official definition).

Heads are chosen, often with input of faculty, but not necessarily by vote (often placed into the position by a Dean or similar type). Heads don't necessarily have an official term, and often stay for much longer than 5 years. And heads can be hired externally.

Anonymous said...

Whatchoo fucken talkin' CPP?

http://www.eecs.mit.edu/about-us/eecs-department-headquarters

chall said...

I thought the "chair" referred to the "donated chair" which in itself usually means more individualism and power and that the department chair is that embodied sort of.

As a side reference, the difference between "project coordinator" and "project manager" are equally interesintg. You seldom fins PM in academia even though PCs in academia do the same as PM in industry.

Along These Lines ... said...

I would not want to be labeled a piece of furniture

EliRabett said...

There is a legal difference at some public institutions. You can get an idea by looking at the statutes of the University of Illinois ARTICLE IV. DEPARTMENTS

and yes, there has been abuse as is obvious from this section

Section 4. Change of Departmental Organization

On the written request of at least one-fourth of the faculty of the department, as defined in Article II, Section 3a(1), and in no case fewer than two faculty members that the form of the organization of the department be changed, the dean shall call a meeting to poll the departmental faculty by secret written ballot.

Anonymous said...

In my current country Chair is most common. In my previous one Head was. But, the latter was England which is more bureaucratically PC and used to Headmaster/mistress.

Anonymous said...

do you mean other departments don't have "thrones"?!

Anonymous said...

Ugh.
Go with "director".

Anonymous said...

Who cares, indeed. Not me.

But I would rather be a headchair than a chairhead.

Requin said...

Within the Big 10 universities, some have headships and others are chair systems. Head systems are much more hierarchical and less transparent. The head is a dictator, though the dean can (and will) dictate policy, overruling the head or setting the agenda when she wants to. Basically, when the faculty vote in a chair situation it means something, while in a head situation it is merely "advisory" to the dictator - I mean, the head.

Anonymous said...

In my university, there was the head of the department, and underneath hir were the Chairs - they were the specialists of the different subjects that made up the department.

app said...

At my university the departments are headed by heads, and grouped into `schools' which are chaired by chairs. So its definitely heads < chairs where i am.

"The easiest way to get me to claim to be a "head" is to ask me whether I prefer chairwoman, chairman, or chairperson."

These terms are all repugnant because of their implicit bias towards the human species. The academic potential of goats and donkeys will surely be realized in future, and in anticipation of this the term `chaircreature' is appropriate.

And then there's the anticipated arrival of extraterrestrials, who will no doubt be a great boon to academia here on Earth. So really the right term to use is `chairbeing'.

Anonymous said...

My title is head, and I have also been at institutions with chairs. I think (and think is the operative word) that I have a bit more authority and responsibility than if I were at a "chair" institution. I have seen good and bad chairs/heads and good and bad faculty and good and bad upper administrations. Departments can prosper or fail under both models. I am reviewed by the faculty annually and every three years. If I lose the support of the faculty, I would step down. Whether head or chair, it can be a thankless endeavor. The joy comes in seeing programs and faculty prosper. The downside is sleepless nights trying to accommodate the needs and desires (often divergent) of factions and faculty that have a long history of brutal battles amongst themselves...