Small Department/Big Department

My last couple of entries concerned the lessons I learned while chairing my six-person English department at a small private college here in Iowa. After four years at that job, I moved to a much larger, multidisciplinary department at a public university in another state, which was a surprisingly large transition with instructive messages for anyone interested in administration, either as a participant or a spectator.

As chair of my small department, I didn’t have much power or influence, with the partial exception of faculty hiring and, in some cases, in representing the department in collegewide decision making. In the larger department I joined, the situation was much different, and the transitional experience was my first real lesson in how to understand the broader landscape of higher education in the United States.

Though it was not specifically related to institutional type, the first big difference between those two positions rested on the distinction between occupying an internal rotating chair and being brought in from the outside to a position that was, essentially, a “chair for life” appointment with a considerably larger degree of structural power.

A great deal of the job at my small college was constructed, intentionally or not, to preserve the status quo. Virtually everyone who came into a chair position there was an established institutional citizen, with pre-existing alliances, a well-defined collegial position, and existing stakes in most or all of our various issues and controversies. In addition, we all knew that we’d sooner or later go back to the faculty, which both limited our willingness to take any risks and greatly shortened the time horizon for any big projects. Because of these factors, and because the chair didn’t have much formal power, any special influence inherent in the job could generally be exercised only around the edges, not at the center of the college’s functions and operations.

On the other hand, it was remarkable how different it was to be brought in from the outside with an explicit agenda from the administration, as well as a strong though implicit agenda from the department faculty. (In some ways, this confluence of factors made this job the most fun of the four I’ve held.) At the time I went to my second institution, Georgia College & State University, it was in the midst of a transition to realize its new mission as Georgia’s Public Liberal Arts University (this was an official phrase), and I was hired, in part, to help the department of English, speech, and journalism claim its role in the mission.

One of the first meetings I had after I got there was with the president and the academic vice president. They directed me to work with the department to create an M.F.A. program in creative writing, which made sense for us: We were Flannery O’Connor’s alma mater and had a long and strong tradition in Southern literature already. This was the kind of big, mission-related new enterprise that was being encouraged all over campus, and most of these enterprises were led by departments alone or in teams, which gave the chairs a tremendous role in the university’s evolving position.

More routinely, though, there were some other new things to learn. For example, I had much of the control over annual evaluations and promotion and tenure, as well as the authority to recommend salary adjustments each year. At my smaller institution, the chief location of P&T decisions was the campuswide committee, but at the new place the college committee was mainly in place to verify the procedural rather than substantive correctness of the department’s recommendation. I was the primary evaluator of faculty performance on annual reviews and in other areas, which was a lot of work but which rested a great deal of influence in the chair role.

The symbolic influence of the position was much greater as well, for there is a tremendous difference between knowing a chair will return to the faculty in a couple of years and having a chair who is effectively in place permanently. In fact, I think that this difference is at the core of the differential power of the two positions, regardless of any other structural factors at play, because it made it possible, as I have already suggested, for the chair to engage realistically in planning and development that lasted beyond the typical three-year window of a rotating chair.

The more important difference between these two positions, for me, was that I quickly realized that to be a responsible and effective chair I would need to plug myself into the larger institutional discussions and issues, and think of the job as more of a career rather than a temporary trial by fire. I do not mean that I began to divest myself of my faculty identity (I always thought of myself primarily as a faculty member and maintained a regular teaching portfolio), but rather that I would need to start thinking institutionally and strategically not just internally but relative to the overall higher-education world.

During my first year, for instance, we were evaluated for, and eventually granted, membership in the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges. Since English is obviously at the core of any liberal-arts college, it was clear that our department should be a player in the Coplac initiative, which in turn required my engagement with the process and my development of useful knowledge about our application and what it might mean and how we could use the process and our membership to strengthen the department.

Similarly, our pursuit of the M.F.A. was eye-opening in many ways, from internal politics and financing to the need to deal with the University System of Georgia office to get the program approved. Much of that work was done by our director of creative writing, who was (and is) a brilliant and hard-working leader, and he deserves much of the credit for the program’s fast start and subsequent success. However, as with any such large initiative, there was a great deal of background work with which I was involved intimately, including plenty of wheeling and dealing around the budget, whether or not we should use M.F.A. students for any teaching, and so on. One great lesson from this process was, honestly, how to use the president’s and vice president for academic affairs’ own priorities to extract funds from them to support the program and help it grow.

By the time I left my position at Georgia College & State University, a lot had changed; the M.F.A. program was a great success, we had significantly increased the number of majors in all our programs, and we had fundamentally changed the nature of the department’s overall operations in many ways. These changes were quick and dramatic, and a lot of them were able to be so quick because the department had a lot of autonomy and decision-making authority as an academic unit, which was both a cause and an effect of its having a chair position that was strong and at least potentially enduring.

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