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Speaking Out

Rocking the Chair

The new regulations governing the extension of a department chairman's term of office are typical in that they mandate the forming of a committee to evaluate the incumbent without giving any indication of how to go about it. In order to spare such a committee the embarrassment of that first meeting, during which suggestions for criteria will be met with small, tolerant smiles or nearly exorbital rollings of the eyes, I propose to fill the lacuna forthwith.

Step One: The first thing, of course, is to ask the incumbent if he/she wishes to continue in office. Any sign of eagerness to do so should be considered grounds for flat rejection. A crisp negative reaction shows character and, if it seems genuine, may be sufficient reason to pursue the matter further. A modest willingness to continue "if no better candidate can be found" is marginally acceptable.

Step Two: Appearance should be evaluated next for strategic, not esthetic, reasons. Chairmen in the humanities should present a slightly seedy-tweedy, faintly British, I-don't-have-to-do-this-for-a-living appearance. This holds true even for the leaders of departments of foreign languages, since it is considered bush league for such persons to wear berets, Tyrolean shorts, assault rifles, caftans, togas, flecks of dried tomato sauce, or any other ethnic accoutrements. The heads of science departments ought to give the impression of having dressed in the dark in order to open the lab at dawn. By contrast with this disheveled look, chairmen of departments in the social sciences should present a prosperous, we-have-grants-coming-out-of-our-ears, front. Note that norms for women chairmen (or "furniture-people," to avoid the sexist oxymoron) have not yet been established. One hesitates to give advice on such a delicate and potentially litigious subject, but it seems reasonable to suppose that their clothing statement should express seriousness without absolutely denying gender. Perhaps a linoleum suit with a little designer scarf would do the trick.

Step Three:The next step is to send a questionnaire to all members of the department, asking if the chairman has been arrogant, insensitive, dictatorial, arbitrary, and obviously determined to make a mess of things. Unless a significant number of responses are affirmative there is no need to proceed, since the chairman is pusillanimous to an unacceptable degree, is on drugs, or has had a lobotomy.

Step Four: If the incumbent has passed these preliminary tests, a TV camera (what is called a "shoplifter's special" in a trade) should be installed in his/her office, with a monitor nearby to be personed by at least two members of the committee at all times. At first, the chairman will tend to wave and smirk at the camera, but will soon forget it is there. When he/she begins to walk around the office without sucking in his/her stomach, notes can be taken in earnest. Special notice should be extended to his/her handling of highly emotional complainants. Obviously, a low grade must be given to perfectly natural and often apposite, but always undiplomatic, responses like: "For God's sake, stop being such a baby!" What the committee should look for is sympathetic hyperbole, such as: "I have known war, famine, and pestilence, but the outrage that you have just described tops them all." If the chairman can make his/her face a mask of grief while listening, so much the better, but any actual sobbing or rending of garments should be considered excessive, except, perhaps, in the Folklore department or in Theater Arts.

Alternate Step Four: Should TV equipment not be available, or should the committee be eager to get on to more interesting activities, there is a shorter, and, in some ways, more efficient procedure to be used. Tie the chairman to (appropriately enough) a chair. Force him/her to listen to members of the committee reading, slowly and antiphonally, from my dissertation (available at a modest rental fee) or from old Army field manuals while another member administers nasty shocks with an electric cattle prod (what is known as an "American Legion convention special" in the trade). If, after hours of this, the chairman can write a long memo in the leaden, featureless style that is absolutely de rigueur for chairmen, his/her term should be extended, provided, of course, that he/she does not interfere excessively with his/her administrative assistant, who really runs things, as everybody knows.

Alternative to All of the Above: Unless the committee is in a mood to take revenge on a particularly odious chairman by the procedure just described, the best thing, really, is to trump up some charges against a relatively onset incumbent, to reject him/her, and to choose as a replacement the person in the department who is most obviously living beyond his/her means or who has had the most trouble with the IRS. The caption on a cartoon that used to be displayed in Vartan Gregorian’s office, when he was Dean of FAS, put the chairmanship in the proper perspective. It read, if I recall correctly through the haze of time and of moderately priced Scotch: “Dean is a shepherd, and the chairmen are his crooks.”

—Clifton Cherpack, Professor and Chairman, Romance Languages


Originally published in Almanac October 6, 1981




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