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I have been facing the following "problems" with my department head at an undergraduate institute. I joined it just under a year ago and am already facing (what appears to be) a lot of negativity from her. Here are my main problems:

1) Last semester, she would always come to me/email me telling me what a couple of students said/complained about me - mostly being that I am tough and expecting them to study more - well, it is Physics, you can't just enter the classroom as if you are entering a cinema and expect entertainment - one has to be prepared! Anyhow, I am pretty sure she was asking students "how is the new guy?" which encouraged this behaviour from students - she implied it once during lunch.

2) Towards the end, she failed to put an end to disruptive (and borderline racist) behaviour from one of the students in spite of my complaints, but kept on encouraging it instead of nipping it in the bud when it happened first.

3) Moreover, I am continuously discouraged in collaborating with another department - I haven't had any problems with them so far.

4) A few months ago, when I sent in the new syllabus for this semester (it has to pass through the Dept Head before being posted on the website), she said she wasn't OK with it - it didn't have anything unusual!

5) And now, when I wanted to add points for interaction in the syllabus for the next semester - as positive reinforcement (instead of penalising students), she gave a straight no, and asked me to give her a scientific paper proving that it is effective! I mean.. really?

6) To be in students' good books and get good feedback, she is encouraging a manipulative student - she helps him in doing homework and he will be taking a summer "reading course" with her. So, now this student doesn't have to sit in my course or pass it, and yet complains all the time which is encouraged by her.

I know these things are pretty vague but are definitely giving me a lot of negative vibes... Any advice as of how to face this situation? It looks like she is building a way to get my lose this job or make me go... Or am I just being too "sensitive" about it?

PS - She pretty much has the regular Dept Chair power -- my annual performance review should pass through her, teaching assignments pass through her, etc.

PPS - The disruptive student's concern was that the grade on the website wasn't correct where as everything was as it is supposed to be - she acted like a middle-man everytime he was trying to cause trouble instead of either directing him directly to me or atleast recommending that or telling him that disruptive behaviour is not OK. The manipulative student gets a slap on the wrist for blatantly lying about grades, quiz, etc, she helps him in getting his homework done - he is supposed to do it on his own!

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    Hmm. One thing I find strange (which has nothing to do with the question btw), is you explicitly mentioning the gender of the department head – AND specifying your own gender in the nickname "PhysicsMan". Though there is nothing wrong with the question, I find it a little weird and would prefer to see a form of a neutral gender. Apr 13, 2018 at 18:25
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    @usr1234567, I would never even think of pointing it out if the username of OP was not PhysicsMan. Apr 13, 2018 at 20:34
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    How is this dept head encouraged the disruptive student and the manipulative student? Why haven't you gone to your university's human resources department? Have you asked what specifically wasn't correct about your syllabus or what is wrong with collaborating with the other department? Your "question" seems more like a thinly veiled rant, rather than a serious question. Apr 13, 2018 at 20:36
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    @scrappedcola It is not hard to imagine many scenarios for which going to HR with this problem will cause additional problems for OP.
    – Mad Jack
    Apr 13, 2018 at 23:37
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    is the dept. head a prof or advisor of the disruptive student? My impression is that heads are usually too busy with administrative duties to personally intervene in any one student's affair, unless they are directly associated with the student (such as being the advisor), but perhaps UG institution is different?
    – PandaPants
    Apr 14, 2018 at 16:34

3 Answers 3

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Department chairs should solicit feedback from students and they should insist that teaching practices be based on evidence. That's normal. But it sounds like this department chair is using these mechanisms to be a bully. That's bad.

My advice would be:

  1. Document everything.
  2. Consult your university's omsbudsperson.
  3. Study up on your institutions procedures. There may be something that keeps the department chair accountable, such as an election. We do not know your institutions specific regulations.
  4. Develop good relationships with the dean and other faculty in your department. The chair often has little power on their own.
  5. Look for a new job.
  6. Keep in mind that department chairs often have no training for the job and may not like being chair. Do not be surprised if they are bad at their job.
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I think you need to 1. Keep detailed records. 2. Stand your ground and be assertive. 3. Make a formal complaint if you genuinely think you are under undue/unfair pressure and are being treated unfairly. 4. Challenge her on all the points you raise. Make it in writing.

Someone above asked why you 'specifically' mention the gender of your HoD. I don't think you did specifically but it may well be relevant. Sexism and gender bias works both ways. If she is undermining you and your authority (in collusion?) with a student it is unprofessional at the very least. At worst you need to be aware that your HoD might be crossing certain lines. I'm not an academic but in industry. If someone came to me with these issues in regard to a senior manager I would be looking hard, very hard at the situation, and would be expecting the senior manager to have damn good answers.

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    Hmmm. This seems like a really effective way to get the boot.
    – Buffy
    Oct 3, 2018 at 18:49
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    A junior person has no effective power to do that. The op would be striking from a position of extreme weakness. Whether it needs shaking up or not, this is the way least likely to succeed either personally or in effecting institutional change. If rage against the machine just gets you crushed, where are you? Self satisfied, maybe, but still crushed.
    – Buffy
    Oct 3, 2018 at 18:57
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    Please don't try to put words in my mouth. I said nothing like that. Effective action, not martyrdom.
    – Buffy
    Oct 3, 2018 at 19:39
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    I think I wasn't putting words anywhere let alone your mouth. Effective action then. Such as ?
    – colin
    Oct 3, 2018 at 19:44
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    "I'm not an academic but in industry." Then it is strange that you have decided to answer a delicate question about academic life. Oct 19, 2018 at 17:02
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Can you imagine a scenario developing, say within a year, in which you and the chair can truly trust one another and work together effectively? This doesn't seem possible to me, given what you say, though I think that the problem here isn't all one sided.

I'm guessing your answer is no, and will comment based on that assumption.

Find another, more compatible, place to work. But as you search, try to figure out the culture at any new institution before you plunge in. There are places, maybe like the one you are now at, where the new hire better keep his head down for a while. I've been at such institutions. I've also been under an extremely hostile head - worse than yours, in fact.

Spend the first year at the new job building relationships and getting advice on things. I too, once held a job in which students complained that I was too hard. In my meeting with the Dean, I showed her that yes, I demanded that the students do the work and that the work would be hard, but that it would be evaluated fairly. But I was under a cloud for that year and later became one of the Dean's top faculty.

But a new faculty member butting heads with others, especially those who have built up a power structure isn't going to get you anywhere. If you think the culture of the place needs change, and it might, know that it is a long term process and it isn't going to be affected by a newcomer who is seen as hostile. But it seems to me that you have passed the point of no return here. Even if you work out grudging acceptance, your future doesn't seem bright. Find a better situation, as I did. Don't fight a war you can't win.

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