More Difficult Chairs and Difficult Faculty

Apr 18 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

I've kept talking to Molly (see here and here for background) about her situation as a junior faculty with, to her perception, a difficult chair. There has been a lot of back and forth from my faithful readers on what is good advice to Molly. Read the comments to those posts for a sense of the debate.

Molly has, for now, decided to stay in academics. I know some of you will think that's a foolish decision. But I think it is a very personal choice, in the sense that liking Peeps, one's preferred time for waking up, and having children is a very personal choice. There are different levels of difficulty and significance of said choices (see post on making decisions), but this is Molly's decision to make. My ongoing commitment to her is to work with her, and help her, and advise her. I write about this in part to elicit your, dear reader, help, but also because I value the various responses I get.

Molly's chair sent her a list of expectations. It's actually two parts: a list for the entire department and a list for Molly and one other jr faculty. If I was chair, in my current PhD/non-clinical department, I couldn't imagine sending this to a bunch of academics. On the other hand, from my time in a clinical department, I can certainly perceive that in that setting, a department of people who have not come up through a standard academic pathway, that it might be necessary. I recall discussions I have had with junior clinical faculty who wanted to stay in academics and were baffled by some parts of the culture. Context, once again, is important here.

Molly was confused by the list. She was not insulted by the list (which would be an understandable reaction), but just didn't understand what it meant. I looked at it and thought, if I gave this to any junior faculty that I am currently mentoring, any basic science jr faculty, they would shrug and say "so what, I'm doing that already".

Here are some of the points (paraphrased):

  • Follow all AMRU institutional accounting requirements

Yup. You can't spend money on alcohol. You can't buy a computer from the equipment money on your federal grant without special procedure. You gotta turn in receipts. You gotta get authorization for over a certain amount.

  • Teaching: Should be aligned with department, college, and university goals. Should be agreed upon and approved by Chair during annual review


  • Service: Should be aligned with department, college, and university goals. Should be agreed upon and approved by Chair during annual review

To me, these are just restatements of something I told Molly before. One doesn’t get hired because of some altruistic need on the part of the university to improve you, and help you, although that often comes along for the ride. One is hired because there are jobs that need to be done, jobs within the department and within the school.

Molly who worked as a consultant and a lone ranger, didn't understand why anyone else would care about these things, and why she needed to pay attention to them. Then there is the part of the list that might be a bit insulting.

  • Attend all department meetings and participate accordingly. Absences (excused and unexpected) should be communicated to the Chair.
  • Serve on departmental committees as agreed upon in consultation with the Chair
  • Participate in departmental strategic planning and implementation as agreed upon in consultation with the Chair
  • Notify the Chair or designee in advance if unable to keep a meeting
  • Follow institution guidelines regarding all human resources requirements, including timely submission of all reports (direct and indirect)
  • Follow institutional guidelines regarding all IRB requirements and expectations of compliance.

If I showed this the jr faculty in my department and asked what they thought, they'd probably say "you're kidding", in part because they trust me not to jerk them around. These are kindergarten rules. These are rules you give to teenagers who are thinking with their hormones, and have significantly screwed up something to the extent you need to lay down the law. (If you have a teenager who has never significantly screwed up, like drugs and arrest and hurting someone badly, you are very lucky. This, in my perception, is usually orthogonal to parenting, but that's another post).

But it makes me think that someone in this department screwed up pretty badly to make a chair think that these kinds of rules are necessary. I know some commentators will see this as proof that the chair is six kinds of BSD and jerk and ineffective as leader. Yet, I've seen enough evidence to the contrary and I know that he didn't institute these rules when he became chair, but in response to situations of which I do not know all the facts. These rules, er, guidelines, are a response to something, and not necessarily Molly. That doesn't make it any easier for her.

Molly's particular "expectations", which is not quite the same thing as rule, include:

  • Be familiar with and follow all tenure and promotion guidelines
  • Actively maintain a successful program of scholarship

So to whom of us are these surprising? Unexpected? Molly was adjunct in this department before this chair came on board, and moved to tenure track at the time he started. Thus he didn't have a hand in her hiring, which is when I would expect these things to be discussed. Molly wrote to me saying she didn't understand. I said these things I would tell any brand new faculty. The only problem is that the previous chair did not say these things explicitly to you when you were hired.

Part of what is most difficult for Molly, something with which I remember struggling as a new jr faculty are the expectations about research funding. Not that one should get research, but about how getting funding is overseen and regulated. Research should:

  • be aligned with strategic goals of department, college, and university
  • be limited to a manageable amount of required oversight
  • strictly adhere to institutional requirements for IRB, grants accounting, and human resources
  • be discussed with chair and approved by the Chair during annual review

Now, in my dotage, these seem reflexive to me. These guidelines are one (large) part you work for the university not yourself and one part we (the admin) need to make sure you don't screw up anything in public for us and one part I (the chair) don't want you doing more than you can reasonably do. Do not get more money than you can handle.

When I was younger, I bridled at rules like this: why can't I do whatever I want? Well, I couldn't and you can't. We live in a society with rules, and guidelines, and expectations and limitations. We work for an institution, that often reports to the State Government, and when we are so lucky to get NIH money, we are answerable to the federal government. When we use animals in our work, there is Federal Law that governs what we can and cannot do.

As I said to Molly: this is the job.  These are the guidelines and expectations.  If you cannot live with these, it's time to move on. If you want this job, then you figure out how to work and live within these limits.

7 responses so far

  • xykademiqz says:

    So which ones are insulting and/or confusing and why? Could you tell us more about what it is that's baffling? I really cannot figure out what it is that Molly is having issues with -- these seem normal/unremarkable.

    (I avoid faculty meetings when I can, because with a meeting-happy chair we have something every week, but I too still know that I am supposed to report when I will be absent.)

    • potnia theron says:

      Indeed... that was part of my point: I think these are relatively innocuous and straightforward. But, if you have not been in an academic setting, and you have only worked for yourself, as a consultant, or out of your home, or out of a one person office, this *could* seem very intrusive and managing.

      For me, these are things a chair discusses during the negotiation phase/new hire phase for a young faculty member. Again, for Molly who is significantly older and been on her own for a while, it seems overwhelming.

      The insulting part is telling someone to do something that they feel is obvious. If a dept chair sat you or me down and explained that you must submit an IRB or IACUC before starting animal work, I could see being miffed. OF course I know this. What kind of idiot do you think I am?

      I also think part of Molly's problem (which I need to talk with her more about) is that she goes off and writes grants to develop significant programs that are outside the scope of what her department does. For example, say I am a basic science department working on the evolution of bunny hopping, in a department that does lots of evolution and lots of locomotion studies, and I wrote a grant to train pediatric nephrologists in epidemiology. My chair might be irritated because this is way outside of the programs that they/the college/the uni are trying to build. And, if that program required substantial matching funds, I am sure my chair would say: no, I've got funds, but I am interested in matching bunny hopping studies, not things outside of what we do.

      Yet, if I wanted to do ped neph, I might resent being told what to work on. And therein lies the trouble.

      • David says:

        I'm running into something similar in my group. The previous team lead ran the group in the exact opposite method of micro-managing - people just worked on what they are interested in (there is some structure and team-wide projects, but activities were only really tracked once a year). It is frustrating to find out that someone has spent 100 hours on a project that is outside the scope of the team responsibilities. And then that person says the organization has to pay for them to present at some conference that has nothing to do with our line of business, simply because they were invited and accepted (without asking for permission).

        I don't want to micro-manage (I don't have the time and its not effective in the long run), but when team projects suffer and there's a travel budget crunch, you can bet that the laissez faire attitude will end.

        • potnia theron says:

          Sounds like you are in industry? Yes?

          I think part of the problem with academics is that the expect/believe that an academic environment is different. That Academic Freedom means they can do whatever they damn please.

          This attitude was very prevalent when I was young - the folks 10-15 years older than me, the ones at the interface between Silent/Boomer generations would drive chairs crazy: they didn't feel that the course outline (in a multi-section/team taught/group effort) should constrain what they wanted to do.

          • David says:

            I do applied research for the gov't, so in between academia and industry. There is an attitude in gov't that people take a lower salary in exchange for more freedom. A lot (maybe all) of it comes down to trust. If my boss trusts me and I get my work done, she doesn't care about my time in 15 minute increments and if I do a short side project. And our team has been operating like that for decades. Unfortunately, for some folks, that trust is in question, but the folks think they still deserve the benefit of the doubt.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    I really cannot figure out what it is that Molly is having issues with -- these seem normal/unremarkable.

    Same here. A lot of these look like they could have come straight out of the faculty handbook.

    Not that anyone ever actually reads the faculty handbook, but still.

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