One Person, Six Directions
The Inevitable Conflicts of a Department Chair
By Kathleen Stassen Berger

From the April 2002 AAHE Bulletin


Too much to do, too little time. Deadlines ignored; demands not met; requests trashed. Students, faculty, staff, and administrators queue up with phone messages, mailbox memos, emails, and knocks on my door, now closed despite contrary aspirations. At a workshop/conference for new chairs of academic departments, I heard conflicting advice: Open Door vs. Hide Out, Support Faculty vs. Institutional Loyalty.

I have now met hundreds of similarly confused colleagues. My problems are not peculiar to my own deficiencies or my own institution; they are inevitable and endemic. Six distinct and legitimate forces push, pull, and trample department chairs. To deny this is disaster. I know, as few chairs, few written descriptions, and even fewer administrators appreciate, that it is impossible to satisfy all six. Honesty is ruthless, but recognition of these six may help others. It has helped me.

Legitimacy: Presidents, vice presidents, and deans are the muscle of the college. They allocate resources and provide structures that allow the college to function.

Chair’s job: Frequent, diplomatic communication with administrators to win their support; clear interpretation, communication, and implementation of administrative policy.

Danger if the chair’s job is well done: Distrust and hostility from the faculty, especially if the administrators are not scholars. (If administrators are scholars, equivocal decisions and managerial innocence create other problems.)

Chairs of Other Departments
Legitimacy. Peers are natural allies. They share the same problems, the same students.

Chair’s job: Build relationships and alliances; reveal details about budget, courses, and students to reach a common agenda and to outmaneuver secret deals between administrators and chairs.

Danger if the chair’s job is well done: Openness creates vulnerability, allowing others to build their turf and marginalize the chair’s department. Deans resent and resist solidarity among chairs.

Instructors are the backbone of any academic institution, providing the essential service. Full-time faculty members also elect and support, or defeat and undermine, the chair.

Chair’s job: Encourage, support, and guide the faculty toward highest quality research and teaching.

Danger if the chair’s job is well done: Tenure, academic freedom, and chair’s protection can cloak inadequacy in the classroom, laziness in scholarship, and toxic hostility of individuals.

Intellectual integrity is the soul of the university, which was created to be a community of scholars who pursue truth and knowledge.

Chair’s job: Create conditions that elicit intellectual pursuit, including modeling scholarship of recognized depth by engaging in it oneself.

Danger if the chair’s job is well done: Elitism, research, and national acclaim distract from local concerns and necessary paperwork, undermining availability for all five other groups.

Legitimacy: Students are each college’s reason for being, the lifeblood of the institution.

Chair’s job: Recruiting, retaining, and advising students. Their satisfaction is crucial; too many withdrawals and failures become a hemorrhage no department can survive.

Danger if the chair’s job is well done: Lower standards, grade inflation, overcrowded classes.

Wider Community
The public provides our daily nourishment, giving money, status, and students.

Chair’s job: Curry community approval via the press, the politicians, business people, religious leaders, trustees, and the general public.

Danger if the chair’s job is well done: Crowd-pleasing, publicity-seeking, betrayal.

No wonder chairs feel beleaguered, stretched, confused, at sixes if not at sevens. Danger is real, sometimes unavoidable. The two groups with obvious day-to-day needs (students and faculty) are not the two with the money and prestige (administrators and community) nor the two where original and natural loyalties lie (scholars and other chairs).

I want to be an excellent chair but I cannot satisfy anyone, not even myself. All six constituencies have legitimate reasons to want more than any chair can deliver.

That insight alone reduces my frustration and guilt. I am no longer stunned when other college leaders, each accustomed to talk brilliantly at length without interruption, ignore my wisdom. The chair’s job is essentially social, we mediate between two conflicting teams: Professors chosen and lauded for their fierce self-determination vs. administrators chosen and promoted for their ability to give and follow orders.

Chairs must stay afloat amidst sharks and opposing currents, even riptides and undertows. And where do we hope to anchor? Some seek college presidency; others long to return to the classroom. These divergent goals are expressed by diverse personalities, with varied values and vulnerabilities. Some curry favor — tolerating verbosity and empty politeness to dodge any critique. Others cherish efficiency — becoming livid at the obfuscation and delay that are essential for those who want harmony. Bluntness is a mark of brilliance for some; a sign of boorishness for others.

At the chair’s conference I attended, the leading researcher of a nationally acclaimed and generously funded study on universities critiqued the “hollow collegiality” of many academic departments. Several of my fellow chairs mumbled that hollow collegiality would be enviable. Our time-robbing meetings are not hollow but are filled with frustration; they never proceed exactly as each of us knows is best. Contentment is not ours.

Given these hard truths, I no longer seek to satisfy everyone, or even anyone. Sometimes I ask for ideas, sometimes I close out opinions. Sometimes I leave at noon, sometimes I stay until the last night class is dismissed. Sometimes I deny requests from students, faculty members, administrators, chairs, the community; sometimes I agree. Chairing is never easy unless one ignores reality.

A faculty member threatened a grievance because I had refused to accommodate him by telling a less senior instructor that the latter’s schedule had to be changed two days before classes began. The angry faculty member had known me for years and was accustomed to giving me advice.

“Kathleen, you need to realize that sometimes chairs must make hard decisions,” he said.

“I know that,” I told him. “I made a hard decision. The answer is ‘No’.”

A year later, he told me that I was a wonderful chair. He never did file that grievance. I still do not believe his praise, and I know I cannot completely please anyone, except sometimes me.

Kathleen Stassen Berger is chair of the social sciences department at Bronx Community College. Contact her at

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