From Faculty to Chair

My first chair position was in a six-person department at another small college here in Iowa. We had a fairly regular rotating-chair system, and my term came early: I’d been there almost six years and had just been approved for tenure and promotion when the incumbent chair, who was finishing her first year of a three-year term, took another job and departed. I was next in line but had expected to wait another couple of years; I was very young, and had not yet really become a “player” on campus in the areas where real power and influence were exerted.

Chairing a department in a small college is very different from chairing a larger department in a university, which I’ve also done. At my small college, chairs had very little actual power. In effect, everything at the department level was done by consensus. For example, there was no such thing as a search committee, as we were all the search committee when we hired.

While I would say that the chair had a tiny sliver more authority and influence than other members of the department, it wasn’t much. Mainly, when the department’s interests needed to be represented on a college committee or the like, the chair’s job was to go and be that advocate. Chairs were also the point people for handling student (and, occasionally, parent) complaints. We convened department meetings and took care of formalities like coordinating the course schedule. My department’s operating budget was in the four figures, so there wasn’t much in the way of financial power either.

The biggest thing I learned in my four years in that position was how to begin to balance the interests of my department and discipline with those of the college as a whole. It’s a cliché to say that the chair’s main role is to ensure the smooth running of the department and to advocate for it at the higher levels of the institution. That’s true, but my main discovery was that the chair’s mediating role also went the other way—to advocate for, or at least make possible, the functioning of institutional policies and initiatives at the departmental level.

The most important instance of this mediating role came when the college leadership decided, with the concurrence of the board of trustees, to reduce the basic faculty teaching load from seven courses per year to six. There were a number of reasons why this was a positive move, of course, but there were some interesting logistical challenges to conquer in order to make it happen.

In our department of six, it was routine for our seven-course teaching load to include three sections of composition, one or two survey-type courses, and two or three upper-division courses more or less in our academic specialty. In a year when no one was on leave or out sick or whatever, that meant that we were able annually to offer 18 sections of composition. Since the cap (basically inviolable) was 17 students, we could provide 306 seats in composition each year.

We were recruiting first-year classes of about 380, so this was a pretty good supply—we’d generally have enough new students who had already taken composition, who had placed out of it through various other means, who waited until their second year, or who decided to transfer before needing the course—that we could accommodate everyone who needed and wanted to take composition without any real difficulty.

When it came to reducing our annual load, however, there was a challenge. It was a decidedly different thing to teach three composition courses out of seven than it was going to be to teach three courses out of six, and we were instructed that we would not get an additional faculty member to enable us to carry on with a two-course composition load for the future. We also knew that we could not, and probably should not, rely on increasing our use of adjuncts to fill the gap.

The dogmatic departmental response to this dilemma would have been to play chicken with the rest of the faculty and insist on a new faculty position based on the argument that reducing our upper-division offerings by about six courses per year would “ruin” our major, which was one of the largest and strongest on campus.

It became clear to me, however, that the absolutist approach—what I’d call the Patrick Henry mode of departmental conduct (“Give me liberty or give me death”)—was not going to work. We could have tried to hold the entire load-reduction process hostage, or we could have found other ways to fight the change. But I began to see that no matter what we did, we couldn’t really duck a challenging outcome for our program.

That’s where the art of compromise entered the picture. I asked the dean to convene a special committee to figure out how to continue offering an adequate supply of composition courses without damaging our major program. I chaired the committee, and we pretty quickly came to the conclusion that the best load for English faculty was three composition courses one year and two the next. But that still reduced our overall composition offerings by three courses a year, and would have resulted in a severe shortage of seats for new students.

The moment of real enlightenment came to me when the members of the committee suggested that we develop a system that would have non-English faculty teach a few of these composition courses each year with appropriate professional support, a compromise position that would, I am absolutely certain, never have been developed had the English program not been willing to be at least 50-percent flexible on its own composition load. Once we arrived at this breakthrough, we easily developed a plan that added support to our tutoring center and professional development for non-English faculty members who were willing to teach composition-oriented courses in their own disciplines, a plan that received enthusiastic administration support.

Everyone involved gave up a little, but the overall outcome was that everyone won; the teaching-load change became possible, and the composition program evolved in a way that still works 15 or so years later in a yet more refined and effective form (I know this, in part, because I am friends with the current chief academic officer there).

As a new faculty member, I approached this kind of issue from an absolutist position. The interests of my program and my discipline were paramount, and not to be subject to interrogation by those outside it. I have seen this approach in my colleagues since then in three different institutions, and it’s almost inevitably counterproductive on the macro level. Understanding that was my first and most valuable major lesson as an administrator.

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