Ask the Chair: What if Your Leadership Style Is the Problem? – The Chronicle of Higher Education

Note: In the “Ask the Chair” series, the author of a new book, How to Chair a Department, answers your questions about departmental leadership. This month’s queries arrived via Twitter, Facebook, and email. Read last month’s column here.
Question: I am a visiting associate professor with 30-plus years’ experience and am currently working with a department chair who is unlike any I’ve ever encountered. Your August column asked how department heads could help make the conditions of adjuncts more professional, ethical, and humane. I am wondering whether some chairs would be open to hearing that they are the ones causing the distress — and whether a non-tenure-line faculty member could even say as much.
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Note: In the “Ask the Chair” series, the author of a new book, How to Chair a Department, answers your questions about departmental leadership. This month’s queries arrived via Twitter, Facebook, and email.
Question: I am a visiting associate professor with 30-plus years’ experience and am currently working with a department chair who is unlike any I’ve ever encountered. Your August column asked how department heads could help make the conditions of adjuncts more professional, ethical, and humane. I am wondering whether some chairs would be open to hearing that they are the ones causing the distress — and whether a nontenure-line faculty member could even say as much.
In my experience, some department chairs adopt one of three inappropriate roles in relation to contingent faculty members:
My current chair wears all 3 hats, and that is why she is so hard to work with. It’s never clear which one I’m going to get, and so it’s hard to anticipate the direction of the conversation and plan strategies to keep it on track.
I’m sure there are ways to tell my chair that I’m a grown-up academic — experienced and with better pay than most adjuncts — who has hopes and dreams and career goals that brought me to this (temporary) position. I feel as if my department chair treats me more like a teaching assistant whose main job is to grade introductory quizzes because senior faculty are busy in their labs. Or maybe the solution is to simply move on.
— Heading for Burnout
Dear Heading for Burnout,
Your letter serves as an important reminder that current and former chairs don’t have a monopoly on great insights into how department leadership can be done well. And as we witness the increasing “adjunctification” of the profession and the heightened attacks on tenure and academic freedom, these kinds of concerns are hardly peripheral to the role of the chair — if they ever were.
In the earlier column that prompted your letter, I noted the limitations of a lone chair’s power, while also pointing out some small-but-significant steps a department head can take to improve the work culture for contingent colleagues. I won’t revisit that advice here. Instead I’d like to focus on your three how-not-to-chair styles of leadership. Unfortunately I recognize all of them. And candor requires me to acknowledge that I’ve had moments when I’ve been all three. So maybe I’ll just use my space this month to add a bit more detail, and a different perspective, to what you’ve already presented.
I have been an “authoritarian parent” chair. I have (and remember with a wince) been peremptory and aloof in my dealings with adjunct instructors. Sometimes, I suspect, I’ve done it in the name of efficiency, thinking without quite saying: The outcome of this “conversation” is predetermined, so why drag it out? I need to add a section of freshman writing next semester, and we both know I’ve got more leverage over you than I do over my tenure-track colleagues. Thanks in advance for helping the department.
Here I would add only that in my case, at least, some of this rude behavior was prompted by feelings of guilt: the knowledge that we — my institution, my department, me personally — are taking advantage of you. Given that structural inequity and the limited power of the chair, it would be easier for me to sleep at night if I didn’t have to interact too personally with you. How’s that for an ugly truth? But there it is. Humanizing you requires that I do something to improve your lot, beyond wringing my hands.
For me, when the authoritarian-parent impulse arises, it helps to recall my first position as a visiting assistant professor, and how very isolated and lonely I felt. And disrespected. Of course it’s harder to treat someone shabbily whose full humanity and professionalism you acknowledge. Which is why it’s important to recognize the gifts, dreams, and precarious situations of contingent colleagues, and do all you can to treat them honorably — so that they, and you, know you did your very best for them. That you risked some of your institutional power to make their lot better.
I know I’ve been “the buddy,” too. This can be a problem for chairs not just in relation to their contingent instructors, but with staff and tenure-line faculty members as well. Years ago in the first week of my first appointment as chair, I remember that I asked the department’s administrative assistant to make me a list of all the faculty and staff birthdays; I wanted to send everyone a birthday card. What a nice touch, right?
As chance would have it, the next birthday was that of one of my crankiest colleagues. And she was “creeped out,” as she said, by my gesture. I was so embarrassed that most of the details of that conversation have been erased from my memory, but I seem to remember being compared to a stalker. No further cards were sent.
It was an important lesson to me that we all have different ideal relationships to our departments and institutions. Some people (like me) prize camaraderie in the workplace, while others prefer a strictly professional relationship to their work and co-workers. Best to figure out what model you, and your colleagues, are operating out of, and adjust accordingly.
In the case of a chair buddying up to adjunct faculty members, guilt may be at work here, too. In such moments, the chair is thinking: I’m unable/unwilling to support you as a professional colleague (via salary, workload, professional-development funding), but at least I’ll be your pal. (And then, maybe, you won’t be mad at me?)
It’s pretty threadbare when you put it down on the page, isn’t it?
And finally, let’s turn to what you call the “college insider.” Much like the buddy, this type of chair seeks to establish an overly familiar relationship with a contingent faculty member — in this case by sharing “insider” knowledge. Everyone gossips. It’s in no way surprising that a department chair would know things about the inner workings of the department or institution that an adjunct would not. The surprise is only in what this type of chair is trying to leverage by sharing gossip with an adjunct faculty member.
My suspicion here is that, in this specific form — chairs using inside dope to ingratiate themselves with a nontenure-track faculty member — one thing at play is a desire to bring the adjunct colleague into the fold: You’re one of us because I’m sharing an intimacy with you.
Yet in doing so, you as chair are also building barriers between the adjunct and potential colleagues in the department, unfairly prejudicing this vulnerable instructor against possible collaborators and allies. And of course, if you are willing to betray a tenured professor this cheaply, the adjunct will realize that they might well be the butt of your next indiscretion.
As for our correspondent: It’s not hard to see why you’re Heading for Burnout. And it’s surely no consolation to know that these three types of dysfunctional relationships exist between chairs and tenure-line faculty, too. In my book, I write that one synonym for chair is “designated grown-up”; in your current position, it sounds like you’re the one serving in loco parentis to your chair.
If we assume, for argument’s sake, that your chair means well — that these inappropriate postures are some kind of psychological compensation for an inability to provide the kind of work environment that the chair knows you deserve — perhaps it would help to raise the issue of working conditions for adjuncts at a department meeting. Sparking a conversation that is less about the chair’s personality and more about what reforms to lobby for to the senior administration might make the campus a better place to work for everyone.
And if your chair does not mean well — if these behaviors are just the power trips of someone with relatively little institutional authority — then I’d most certainly request an exit interview with the dean on my way out. No matter how desperate the institution might be for departmental leadership, such a person should not have power over any faculty member’s well-being.
I’ll close with a resource on this front that was brought to my attention by James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association. The AHA posted a detailed memo for history chairs on best practices for supporting adjunct instructors.

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