Have you ever overheard (or been part of) this conversation? For some reason the issue of being Departmental Chair comes up – maybe the Chair position will soon be vacant at your institution, or maybe it just was, or maybe you’re just chatting about career trajectories in academia. Sooner or later Dr. X asks Dr. Y “What about you – will you serve as Chair next/later/some day?” And – stop me if you’ve heard this one – Dr. Y says “Oh, I’m not interested in being Chair”.
But Dr. Y’s “I’m not interested” is a huge non-sequitur. It has just about nothing to do with the reasons academics become, or don’t become, Chairs. And it makes me wonder: does Dr. Y really think that the department’s last Chair had been dreaming of academic administration ever since she was a little girl? Maybe there are a few such people in academia, but in my experience they’re pretty uncommon. I served 5 years as Chair of my Biology department (and a year as Acting Dean of Science) (UPDATE: and served another year as Acting Chair, 2017-18), and I can tell you without reservation that I was never “interested” in the job*. And my informal surveys of other Chairs and Deans suggest that most of them would say the same.
So wait. If we aren’t “interested” in being Chairs, why do we do it? Well, in jest we often say that we’re just stupid, or that we run away slower than everybody else. (At least, most days we’re saying it in jest). The real reason is pretty simple: somebody has to do it. The activities of a productive academic – research, undergraduate teaching, graduate student training, and all the other parts of our jobs – don’t happen without a fair bit of administrative infrastructure. Since we don’t want to be told what to do by a suit-wearing MBA, we’ve come up with a system in which a much less directive form of administration is performed by a Chair drawn from our own ranks. But that means our own ranks have to step up. If everyone who “isn’t interested” in being Chair – which is to say, basically everyone – drops out of the running, the whole system collapses.
The simplest system might seem to be for everyone to simply take his or her turn. If the average academic department has ~20 members and an average career is ~30 years long, then your “share” is 18 months of service as Chair. Nearly every term is longer than that, though, because I’ve oversimplified the situation. In fact, not everyone will be Chair – not because they couldn’t be**, but because there are other administrative roles that also need to get done. We need Deans, and Directors of Graduate Studies, and Presidents and Secretaries and Treasurers of scholarly societies, and Editors-in-Chief of journals, and the list goes on. Any of these is something one might not be “interested” in doing, and doing any of them involves sacrificing some time that could have been devoted to one’s own research or teaching. But so what? Each of them needs to be done, and so over a career, each of us needs to take a turn at some kind of role we’re “not interested” in.
So, it’s perfectly fine to say that you “aren’t interested” in being Chair (I’ve said it myself, before, after, and even during my service as Chair). Just realize that by saying it, you aren’t distinguishing yourself from any of your colleagues, and that your saying it has nothing at all to do with whether you should consider doing the job! Which, of course, you should. We all should.
© Stephen Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org) Mar 12 2015
*Note that this isn’t to say academic service is entirely without rewards. Believe it or not, along with the pain, Chair and Dean jobs come with some things to enjoy, and some things to feel proud of. More about that in a future post.
**You are doubtless thinking that you know several people who either couldn’t do the job, or should never be allowed to do it. You might be right (I’m sometimes tempted by similar thoughts); but you also might also be surprised.