Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Professor Plainspoken is the pen name of the writer, who has been a faculty member for more than 20 years. She has published and held leadership positions here and there. Ever loyal to her institution and colleagues, she is unwilling to provide more information on her background and work. However, she is perpetually dieting and is a fan of comedian Paul Mooney.
Once I was a faculty member who nurtured warm and fuzzy feelings for my colleagues. I spoke with them daily about things professional and personal. I knew their partners and children and socialized with them outside of faculty events. So, when asked to serve as chair of my department, I said, “Yes! Of course, I will be chair!”
Thus began my descent into the ninth circle of hell. My trust and relationships with my colleagues and my health headed for ruin, despite my pure intentions. I tragically underestimated the effect of my race, gender and age on my ability to facilitate faculty governance. Writing this bit of advice to other academics is one of the ways I found to reconcile my heart and mind with my experiences.
How did a well-seasoned, bald and jolly fat black woman academic ever happily take on the task of heading a department? I accepted the position out of a sense of duty and the prime directive to demonstrate my race’s competency and willingness to work hard. But alas, the intersectional space I occupy would make chairing a department harder than I imagined.
I had ideas to improve the departmental climate and to shepherd the junior faculty through the tenure process. More than a few made that journey during my first several years as department chair. I believed that the tenure process did not have to be a hazing ritual. If we supported candidates emotionally and professionally, it would make their lives easier. Ultimately, we all might have a healthier work environment because newly tenured faculty members could avoid that awkward period right after receiving tenure — that period, you know, when you sort of hate everybody, but you don’t know why. Everyone who came up for tenure received it, and I felt good about it.
As it turned out, warming the tenure pool up enough to stop freezing the candidates was not difficult, but other tasks proved to be my undoing. During the first year that I was chair, new orders came from on high regarding merit reviews, which prompted revisions to the tenure process. I was responsible for bringing the updates to faculty regarding the proposed changes. They were angered and upset by those changes, and they transferred that exasperation to me — plus a little extra!
In addition, I undertook a tiny revision in our curriculum, one that my colleagues said that they wanted. I reasoned that if I were to facilitate this change, they would be pleased. It was a terrible idea. Each meeting designed to work out the changes ended in raised voices and comments aimed straight at my self-esteem. There were too many changes going on at too many levels. I thought I was helping make the department better. I was too deep into the process before I realized that they did not need or want my help. Oops.
What went wrong here? Some parts of managing an academic department are like managing any workplace group, and other parts are distinct to academe. Some of my colleagues outranked me, which is awkward. Unlike corporate managers, who never have to manage the CEO, you have to figure out how to lead, or cooperate with, people who do not have to do anything you suggest. In fact, only junior colleagues are so compelled — even your equals have no incentive to cooperate. You cannot sack, suspend, sanction or slap anyone. You need their good will, respect and loyalty if you can get it. Subconsciously, it may be hard for your white faculty members to respect you or be loyal to you. They may believe that they have good will toward you, but they are probably delusional.
One way to handle a position without power is to use your analytical tools to figure out which faculty member is the most influential. You can solicit help for your tasks and projects from this faculty member, who in turn helps to sell it to colleagues.
While developing a relationship with the faction leaders in your department, stay authentic. Don’t pretend to be fond of them if you are not. You can take them to lunch or dinner as you build what is a necessary professional relationship for the good of your department, and ultimately for the good of students. As chair, I did not create any of the proposed changes on my own. They became mine when I introduced them without privately soliciting support. And so we come to the lesson for today:
Understand the nature of your position. Be careful about implementing changes of any kind during your first year. If you do, do your homework and be a smart and politically savvy chair by courting the power brokers in your department.
Every black woman occupies the intersectional space of race and gender. Think of that as the base model. For me, include the following characteristics: a strong black identity, a forthright style of communicating, extra weight, very short hair and grandmother eligibility. I could not be more of an affront to the standard for academic leadership and womankind. In all fairness, I was aware of this going in, but I believed that my colleagues respected me, were fond of me and had faith that I would do right by them. They probably felt that way before I became chair. Taking on the position meant restructuring, redirecting and reassuring colleagues that I would not become giddy with power.
There ends a key lesson in chairing from Professor Plainspoken: proficiency in politics encourages peace and prosperity for you and your colleagues.