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The Generic Chair Hypothesis

Tomorrow's Academy

Message Number: 
701

Like any good hypothesis, the generic chair concept is testable. This is consistent with Donald Campbell's concept of the university as an Experimenting Society, in which the experimental method is used to evaluate existing and proposed practices. Currently, most program changes and new technologies at universities are introduced ad hoc. An administrator hears of a program at another institution and decides that it would be of local benefit. If the implementation is made, there is no systematic evaluation of cost or effectiveness. Often the administrator has moved on to another position or campus, and no longer involved with the program.

Folks:

In this postings, Robert Sommer, distinguished professor of psychology emeritus at the University of California, Davis, looks at the notion of a "generic" department chair and proposed a way to test the hypothesis that this can be an effective model, He has had plenty of experience. In his time at Davis he chaired four departments, three of them as an outside chair specifically brought in to resolve conflicts. Reprinted from an unpublished article with permission of the author who can be reached at: [rosommer@ucdavis.edu].

Regards,

Rick Reis reis@stanford.edu

UP NEXT: In Doctoral Education, It's Time for an Overhaul

Tomorrow's Academia

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THE GENERIC CHAIR HYPOTHESIS

Bob Sommer

I had almost no contact with department chairs during undergraduate and graduate school, and met no one who served as a role model. The chair was something I fell into, an unoccupied piece of furniture, and when it proved comfortable, it was easy to sit in others. During an academic career spanning four decades, I headed four departments in different fields. This led me to view the department chair as a generic role, in this respect similar to positions such as university president, college dean, and department office manager. In recruiting a college president, a candidate's previous departmental affiliation is largely irrelevant. When it comes to appointing a dean, there is usually a desire to recruit from fields represented in the college, but whether an engineering dean candidate has a background in mechanical, electrical, or civil engineering is less significant than personal attributes and experience. An office manager in Chemistry may be brought in from Anthropology, Dramatic Arts, or from the medical school. Often the road to advancement for office staff involves a change in departments.

I do not favor lay administrators for academic units, but prefer faculty with a liberal arts viewpoint emphasizing the connectedness of knowledge and disciplines. A further requirement is good interpersonal skill, including some experience in conflict resolution. Criteria for choosing a chair are broader in departments that cover fields of study than in disciplines. An individual appointed to head Environmental Studies or Community Development may have a degree in a variety of academic fields or perhaps an exemplary record in public service or journalism without a doctorate. Chairs from outside the specific discipline are also common in small colleges and developing campuses, where multiple units are grouped together under a single chair until they reach critical size. For troubled departments, where all eligible faculty have been associated with warring factions, an outside chair may be the best way to bring peace.

Viewed in this larger context, it is the disciplinary department that is unusual in insisting upon a chair from within the discipline or a cognate field. On its surface this criterion seems so logical and obvious that it is rarely codified, discussed, or defended. The primary justification for this unwritten rule is that an internal chair will understand the teaching, research, and service programs of the unit. Over the years, I have come to question this assumption, and see drawbacks to its implementation.

In an era of extreme specialization, hiring an internal chair is no guarantee of knowledge about the specifics of departmental programs. When I headed a department in my own discipline, I had extensive knowledge in several topical areas but no understanding of others for which I was responsible, such as animal care and research using hazardous materials. When I headed an Environmental Design program, I was responsible for a gallery, a darkroom, and an arboretum.

Certain personal characteristics will be of value to a generic chair. She/he must be flexible, a good listener who is cognizant of context (problems that appear phenotypically similar in two departments may be genotypically different and require different solutions), and a "quick study," with a steep learning curve in new situations. Good powers of detachment are helpful, as many faculty and staff complaints will cite ancient wrongs and injustices committed before the generic chair arrived on the scene and cannot be remedied.

Like any good hypothesis, the generic chair concept is testable. This is consistent with Donald Campbell's concept of the university as an Experimenting Society, in which the experimental method is used to evaluate existing and proposed practices. Currently, most program changes and new technologies at universities are introduced ad hoc. An administrator hears of a program at another institution and decides that it would be of local benefit. If the implementation is made, there is no systematic evaluation of cost or effectiveness. Often the administrator has moved on to another position or campus, and no longer involved with the program.

I propose testing the hypothesis that department administration involves generic skills more than it does subject matter knowledge. A successful chair in one department knows the campus culture, rules and procedures, and has (or should have) people skills. When I headed a nationally-ranked Department of Art, a field in which I had no professional training, I was responsible for all teaching and budget issues. In writing merit and promotion letters, I looked at exhibition record, published reviews, prizes, awards, fellowships, and commissions. As chair of Environmental Design, I wrote promotion letters for landscape architects. In this field, I focused on the range and significance of their professional work, consultancies, writings, and professional recognition. When I chaired Psychology, I wrote promotion letters for physiological psychologists about whose work I knew little. For them, I reviewed publications, considering such factors as the number of papers, journal stature, and innovativeness of the findings- and yes, I could judge this without expertise in the subject, by relying on assistance from faculty in the subject area who provided written comments during merit review. I could also examine grants, awards, and make citation searches. This was similar to my service on the Personnel Committee of Letters and Science which reviewed faculty in departments ranging from Anthropology to Zoology.

Implementation

I recognize that the outside chair concept is not original. In most cases, it involves a department riven with conflict, and the chair is seen as a caretaker. What is novel here is the suggestion that the outside chair model should be tested and evaluated in healthy departments. I am not suggesting the creation of a new class of non-academic department administrators. The generic chair I envision is an academic, but whose specific discipline or field is less important than administrative experience and personal attributes.

The experiment could be done on a modest scale by recruiting volunteers among successful chairs for a two-year exchange of departments. This would involve minimal paperwork or additional resources. Evaluation could be as informal as written journal notes of the two chairs and deans as participant observers or, if funding were available, to hire a program evaluator to conduct formal interviews with the above parties plus faculty, staff, and students in units, and to prepare a written report for dissemination to a wider audience.

Another way to test the hypothesis would be to recruit several successful chairs to administer departments in unfamiliar fields. In my case, this would have been a department like Nematology. I have never seen a nematode and have no training or job experience that relates to these microscopic worms. If I could successfully administer such a department, it would support the generic chair hypothesis.

Benefits of this Experiment

The higher education community gains information as to the degree the chair role is generic. If the hypothesis is supported, it will expand the pool of available chair candidates on a given campus.

Generic chairs represent a pool that could be tapped during emergencies. The presence of experienced chairs is critical in difficult budget times, as the chair is the bridge between department stakeholders and the administration. Their presence would enhance institutional memory, as an experienced department head will remember previous budget cuts and class cancellations. When a chair has witnessed previous crises with serious but not fatal outcomes, there is less likelihood of a "sky is falling" mentality.

Being able to administer another department could reduce burnout of competent chairs. The romance disappears after heading a unit for several years. It is time to move on, hopefully without wasting years of hard-earned experience. I believe there are chairs of History or Biochemistry who would enjoy chairing an English or Art Department. Although the problems will be familiar, at least the names and faces will have changed.

It will reduce parochialism and aim toward universality of knowledge, which are important considerations in a rapidly changing economy and technology. Imagine the intellectual implications of a physicist heading a History Department or a musicologist as chair of Economics. Such exchanges would be excellent training for higher administrative office.

rosommer@ucdavis.edu