What a Department Chair Can—and Can't—Do

The responsibilities and limits of power for heads of college departments vary greatly.

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Every department at a college has one: a chair who, typically, is a faculty member in that department, assigned by the dean to manage the department. The department chair usually has the plush corner office in the new Albert E. Hoofalos Center for Academic Excellence, or at least the 8-by-10 office in the pre-World War II hovel that doubles as the economics department. Regardless of the physical surroundings, most students have absolutely no idea what this person doesand doesn't do. And it's no wonder. In the complex university structure, even the chairs themselves often don't know exactly what their powers and responsibilities include. 

Nevertheless, it behooves students to know more about the role of the chair, because sometimes the chair can be a lifesaver. Here's a firsthand look at what chairs can, and cannot, do to solve student problemsfrom Lynn, herself a chair for the last seven years:

The problem: "I can't get into the classes I need (or want)." 

No can do: The chair has no control over other departments, so don't bother asking the chair of journalism to get you into a closed math class. And in many cases, the chair can't even get you into courses in his or her own department, because course professors have full control over enrollment in their classes. 

Can do: Chairs can lean on an instructor in their department to get you into a course if you're very close to graduation and your graduation would be delayed if you were not able to take the course. In such a case, chairs sometimes also have the option of exempting you from a requirement or allowing a substitution for the requirementas long as the requirement is for the departmental major (or minor), not a general education requirement. The graduation angle works because chairs are under big pressure to get students to actually graduate their department. First-year students will never be able to play this angle, so don't even go there. 

The problem: "I want to dispute my grade."  

No can do: In most cases, chairs would rather jump off a bridge than change another professor's gradesno matter how strongly a student insists that the grade was unfair. That's because for the most part, individual professors have full authority over the grading in their classes. Chairs are also reluctant to change grades because if they change your grade, then by the next day, half the class will be pounding at the door wanting their grades changed, too, not to mention that the chair doesn't want to mess with grades in courses outside their area of expertise. 

Can do: Chairs can intervene if there are procedural irregularities in the grading of a course. Say, if the professor doesn't follow the grading procedures outlined on the syllabus or doesn't apply the same grading policies or standards to all students in the same class. In such a case, the chair will take the matter up with the relevant faculty or teacher's assistant, even if it means personal unpleasantness for the chair. Chairs may also step in if a professor has ridiculous grading policies, such as failing a student for missing even a single class or assigning 60 percent of the grade to one test.

The problem: "My professor sucks." 

No can do: In most cases, chairs can't do much about bad instructors. Many professors have tenure—that is, a lifetime contract—and chairs have few ways to get tenured professors to improve their teaching, other than to pray they find another job, retire, or die. At most schools, there are some ways to revoke tenure, but these are only employed in the most extreme circumstancesand even then, they don't always hold up in court. Also, at many schools, chairs have to hire part-time or adjunct faculty to cover courses that they don't have regular (so-called "ladder") faculty to teach. In such cases, the chair has very little leverage because the part-timer can just tell the chair to take a hike. 

Can do. Chairs can talk to faculty about problems with their teaching and advise them about how to improve. Specific complaints from students, especially if they are numerous and repeated, can motivate the chair to have this generally uncomfortable conversation. If there's a specific problem (such as the professor talks too fast or writes illegibly on the board), the chair can usually encourage the instructor to resolve the problem. But if there's a global problem (such as the professor puts the students to sleep faster than Propofol) the possibilities for real improvement are limitedbut probably better than nothing. (Of course, the simplest and most direct remedy is for the student to just drop the course, which in many cases is the best solution, anyway.) 

The problem: "I'm not sure what to major in." 

No can do: In larger schools, chairs often do not have the time or interest to address your angst (or worse yet, your parents' angst) about whether you should major in their department, how you will find a job, and if additional majors or minors would be advisable. The department undergraduate adviser, the departmental website, or a friendly upperclassman or graduate student in that department would be better places to go. 

Can do: In smaller schools, or in departments run by a chair who's the Energizer Bunny, the chair will be happy to talk to you (and your Mom, Dad, Grandma, or dog) about your choice of major. This can be a mixed blessing, though, because many chairs consider it their duty to sell the department and will engage in masterful spinning to convince you that they are running a great program, all the while covering up that negative report from the outside accreditation committee that's sitting right there on the desk. On the other hand, some chairs are so bummed out by the lack of pay raises, and by the impossibility of placing the department's graduates, that they'll bad mouth the major, causing your Mom, Dad, Grandma, or Fido great consternation. 

The problem: "The professor is flirting with me or discriminating against me"  

Can do: Department chairs have a legal obligation to address charges of sexual harassment (trading sex for grades, offering unwanted sexual advances, or creating a hostile or sexually charged atmosphere in class); discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or in some states, sexual orientation; and failure to accommodate various disabilities. If any of these problems happen to you (or even if you think they have), you should immediately inform the department chair. In spite of the limits on their powers and their need to avoid turf battles with their faculty, chairs should and will step up to the plate when serious problems arise. In that case, they surely will have earned their plush corner office.

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