Friday, May 30, 2008

Department Heads: Friends or Foes?

As part of an academic couple, I have invested a lot of time gathering stories and advice on how to solve the "two-body" problem (i.e. how to get two tenure-track jobs at the same institution - or at least the same metropolitan area). The stories are almost always the same: if one spouse has a job and the other does not, the university will not come up with a second job unless an offer from another university is obtained. It is almost like it's written in stone on some University Tablet of Commandments: Thou shalt not make a spousal accommodation unless another institution makes an offer first. I know of only two exceptions to the golden rule: 1) a second job may be thrown into initial job negotiations, 2) a university knows they cannot afford to match offers from richer schools and acts proactively. I have heard of multiple incidences of exception number one. I have only heard of one incidence of exception number 2.

I have a friend, let's call her Prof X. Prof X has a tenure-track position and is married to Dr. Y. Dr. Y does not have a tenure track position and is coming to the end of his postdoctoral funding. For the past couple of years I have been telling Prof X that if she wanted to shake loose a second job, she needed to hit the market ASAP, but she has been reluctant to do so. I never delved into why, but I think part of our difference in perspective results from her landing her job on her first application and interview, whereas I went through a 3-year grueling ordeal that still causes me to break out in dry heaves when I think about applying for jobs. Hence, we have very different perspectives on the job market. Whatever the cause, she and her husband put off applying for jobs until this past fall. They did well on the job market, getting several interviews and one job offer.

Here's the part that links with my question today regarding department heads. Her department head, as per the secret University Commandments referenced above, suddenly came up with the money to offer him a tenure-track position. Dr Y would have to undergo an in-house "interview" process, but this was primarily to be a formality. Prof X turned down the job offer from the other university before the position for Dr. Y was finalized. For whatever reason, (I do not know the details), it now looks like the department head is waffling on his decision and it appears the position for Dr. Y is in some jeopardy. The reason could be innocent, (i.e., budget problems, which are plaguing many states, may make coming up with the money harder), but I have some reason to suspect something more nefarious (though I do admit I have a penchant for conspiracy theories). I suspect that Dr.Y may have some enemies in the department, resulting in some loud voices arguing against his pending position. Furthermore, that a department head might rescind an offer once a competing offer is no longer looming is not out of line with the various horror stories I have heard.

Since I am sure others have had Department Heads go back on their word, let's assume for a moment that Prof X's department head is supremely Machiavellian. This leads me to my current question: should a department head be considered a friend or a foe? I have always felt like a faculty member should be able to count on their department head to be their advocate with the higher administration. I have benefited from mine helping me to deal with a variety of issues that were interfering with my teaching and/or research (though only if it wasn't something he needed me to do for political reasons). However, the story of Prof X, and others like it, suggest that a Department Head should be viewed as a chess opponent not an advocate. As long as you have options on the board, everything is good but beware the Department Head checkmate. It can really suck.

1 comment:

Candid Engineer said...

Great thoughts on getting tenure. You are setting yourself up very well.

You've made mention before of your educational pedigree and the disparities between that pedigree and your current R2 institution. I was hoping you might be able to write a bit about how you wound up in your current spot and the challenges of taking such a position after coming from someplace "better".