Advice to a new department chair: "to choose is to offend."

Here’s a dose of stiff medicine at the Chronicle, called “Advice to a New Department Chair” (via RYS Hall) from an outgoing department chair.  (My department is looking for a new chair this year, so the subject is on my mind lately.)  It’s actually great advice, although it’s probably not what new chairs want to hear.  The first declaration on his list is,”Nobody held a gun to your head.  No matter how reluctantly you took the job, you had the ultimate say as to whether to accept it. In that sense, you took the job willingly, knowing it would be difficult and sometimes stressful. Nobody forced you to seek it, or promised a bed of roses.”  I think this is really useful professional advice that applies to a variety of professional roles and service we might take on.  My favorite bit of advice is this:

To govern is to choose, said President Kennedy. And my corollary is, To choose is to offend. Expect criticism. It will not always result from the most-controversial or hard-to-defend decisions you will make, but sometimes from those that will seem like no-brainers to you. Your motives and sense of fairness will be suspected.

I got a version of this advice from a good friend of mine, when I privately complained to her about some long, crazed e-mails written in the correspondent’s blood I was getting concerning some of my work for the Berkshire conference last year.  The angry e-mails (and phone calls–ze called other people to complain about my decisions!) upset me:  did this person think I was a 23 year-old graduate student ze could push around?  Where was the respect?  Did ze not understand the hard work and careful planning that went into my decision, and that I made the decision with the advice of others, too?  My friend said to me, “Well, Historiann, the more stuff you do, the more you’ll get criticized.”  She continued:  “You either have to decide to live with the criticism, however fair or unfair, or decide not to do anything.”  She was exactly right:  if you stick your neck out and take on a role in which you’ll need to make decisions, not everyone will say “thank you for doing all of that hard work!”  Well, some will–but some will complain that you didn’t make the right decision–because it’s so easy and fun to criticize the quarterback from the sidelines, isn’t it?  (Of course, occasionally they might be right, but right or wrong, you won’t get credit for volunteering to make the decision.)

Needless to say, I realize that this all seems pretty obvious in retrospect, but I guess I had to hear it from someone else before it all clicked in my brain.  And, I should say that the words of praise, encouragement, and genuine appreciation for my work far, far outnumbered the few complaints I received.  (Perhaps that’s why this one persistent complainer stood out so dramatically and was so upsetting to me.  Everyone else loves my work–what the hell is wrong with you, pal?)

I decided that in the end, despite some criticism, it was good to be the quarterback.  If anyone doesn’t like my plays, they can damn well field their own team and put on their own show.  (And, please, please let me remember this as I watch happily from the sidelines for a few years.)  You can either bitch, or roll up your sleeves and get to work.

0 thoughts on “Advice to a new department chair: "to choose is to offend."

  1. Good luck with your new position! My father was offered a department chair position several times in his career, but he refused each time. He hated the politics. Ironically, because the office politics had gotten so bad, he became the only candidate acceptable to all factions. He reluctantly accepted, and did such a good job that he was given a second and third term.

    The key, he said, was that because he had stayed out of office politics for the first 15 years, his impartiality was unquestioned. It also helped that he was given power to assign the office allotments in the new building.


  2. Ouch, that one hits home in Philly, Historiann, on account of how Donovan (#5) had a tough day on Sunday. As you know, we throw snowballs at Santa Claus in this town. And that phrase about booing the kids who don’t find any eggs at the Easter Egg hunt? Made in Philly! So, youse just hafta rub some mud on it and call the next play. You moved the yardstix on the play in question, in any case. How are them Broncos doing, anyhow?


  3. As to department chairs, David says that “everyone has their price”. Of course, no one ever gave him his, so he escaped:)
    But I think you are wise, at least for now.


  4. Some people just have their own issues that they work out on everyone around them. That Big Berks was awesome! I don’t think I’ve ever been to a conference where I wanted to attend at least one panel for every single session, much less two or three. The public history sessions were an excellent inclusion, and that one on black women ended way too soon.


  5. Clio B.–do you mean the one with Terri Snyder, Annette Gordon-Reed, and Angelita Reyes, et. al.? You were there and you didn’t even introduce yourself?? That was an awesome session, I must say.

    Well, thanks for your compliments, again. Of course (and Susan can tell you this too) the fact that there were three different panels per session that you wanted to go to was interpreted as a BAD THING by some people!


  6. Yes. You seemed like such a celebrity and I was too terribly shy. I desperately wanted to talk to Annette Gordon-Reed, too, about her book, but had the same reaction. My end of our conversation would have been this: “OMGOMGOMGOMG!” I’m much braver online.

    You know, the Berks should get together with some biological engineering conference to support cloning research. That way, we could be in all of the places that we want to be at the same time.


  7. I was just appointed as Director for My Department due to my speedily preferment on the job, but the trouble is that people feel that I’m to young for the job i believe that there will be lot of undermining because of this promotion and the problem is that I don’t know what to do cause I don’t to come down hard on them. What is your opinion on this?


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