Giving Up Full Custody

A department chair who has returned to the faculty finds it surprisingly difficult to let go

Joyce Hesselberth for The Chronicle

September 23, 2013

When our children were very young, my husband and I followed some family advice that has become our motto: "Always leave while you are still having a good time." At dinner parties, before our toddler would dissolve into a tantrum brought on by overstimulation and exhaustion, we would make our excuses. Leaving so early? Yes, we are, while it is still pleasant for everybody.

That versatile motto has also worked well in my professional life. It has come in handy at office holiday parties and retirement dinners. It's helped me end some doomed writing projects before the enthusiasm truly waned. And now it has helped me decide to give up running my department at Salem State University, in Massachusetts.

Last summer I completed my second three-year term as chair of the English department. I had decided against seeking a third term even though I loved the job, and my colleagues were strongly encouraging me to continue. But I was feeling some pressures—aging parents, and the beginning of the teenage years for our youngest. And the family motto (or was it a warning?) was very much on my mind.

Our department had never had a chair serve for nine years. While I remained both energetic and energized in the role, I was uncertain that I would be able to maintain the momentum for three more years. Even though my colleagues were encouraging me to stay, I dreaded the thought that they might someday whisper behind my back, "When is she ever going to finish her term?"

So I made the decision to step down, creating an opening for someone else to take the reins. However, unlike the dessert course that I might have missed at the dinner party while I was tucking my toddler into bed, or the amusing antics I might have witnessed by staying late at the holiday party, or even the tossing of a manuscript into the trash bin before it succeeded in boring me to death, the handing-over-the-reins-to-a-colleague was a more emotionally complex challenge than I had anticipated. While I am thrilled that a talented and compassionate colleague has been unanimously elected as my successor, it is surprisingly difficult to let go of the administrative responsibilities and habits of mind that I have cultivated for six years.

The job of a department chair is one of the most demanding on the campus. Chairs serve as a buffer between the faculty and the administration. The essence of the role is to protect and support the department's faculty, both the full-timers and the adjuncts.

A lot of the chair's work involves clearing obstacles that prevent people from thriving. The more that faculty members were unencumbered, I found, the better they were able to teach, do service work, and be productive researchers. If they needed something to help them succeed, like more space, or money, or time, I would do my best to get those things for them, and that became a major source of my own job satisfaction.

My best efforts were always directed toward that end. The 30 full-time and 50 part-time faculty members in our department became, in a sense, my wards. Handing over responsibility for them to my newly elected colleague this fall feels like the emotional equivalent of a parent going from full custody to weekly visiting rights.

Most chairs will attest that, by merely climbing onto this first rung on the administrative ladder, you learn so much about the workings of the university, about things that are sometimes invisible to you as a faculty member. How do those white-board markers, blue books, and paper supplies for the copy machine stay stacked and replenished in the department supply cabinet? How do the cookies and coffee arrive just in time for late-afternoon meetings about topics that need sweetening? How are good relationships cultivated with the maintenance department so that a call to unlock a secured classroom results in a speedy appearance of a set of keys? I now count copy-center and mailroom staff, food-service providers, and custodians among my valued colleagues.

And then there is that all-important role of buffer. As department chair, you are frequently in the position of being a spokeswoman for the department, expressing the opinions or desires of the group to folks higher up in decision-making roles. The communication flows in both directions, with top administrators seeking your advice as new programs and projects are conceived and executed.

While faculty governance offers channels for professors to help shape the future of the university, department chairs are most often at ground zero as issues arise and solutions are brainstormed. As a chair, sometimes you are riding the train, or at least standing on the platform, as the engines of change are fired up and head down the track.

It will be an adjustment, now that I've returned to a faculty role, to stand inside the station, watching the arrivals and departures as they are posted on the board.

As department chair, I found my interactions with students frequent and varied, but much different from those with them as a faculty member. Student-chair interactions may involve scores of e-mails about routine administrative matters, but also problem-solving about all sorts of issues, such as transfer credits, academic-integrity issues, personality clashes with a professor, and family crises. I kept a box of tissues ready for the inevitable tearful meetings, and was on hand for celebrations such as honor-society inductions and graduation festivities.

Now, in transitioning back to the classroom, I hope that my administrative knowledge of how the university runs will enrich my work in the area that is the lifeblood of the institution: teaching. From my years as chair, I know more about the challenges that students face—their struggles to balance the complexities of their lives with the demands of an academic program. The smaller pond of the classroom is where the depth of experience lies for students—well, there, and in late-night dorm conversations. Those are the places on campus where the exchange of ideas truly transforms lives.

Transformation, growth, and learning: This is what we desire for our students, and what we need for ourselves to remain viable as mentors and teachers.

Every academic year is a new beginning, and this year more so, as I resume my faculty role. The idea of leaving while I am still having a good time is pushed to the back of my mind. I'm going to focus on what my students and I are learning, and watch our mutual growth unfold. For now, I will set the family motto aside, and take my cue from an old Louis Jordan song: Let the good times roll!

Nancy Lusignan Schultz is a professor of English at Salem State University.