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I am considering becoming department chair of a small department (10 people, not including adjuncts), and not because I really want to, but because no one else wants to and I like to be a good member of the department in terms of service.

Here’s my concern. I am close (platonic) friends with a couple of adjuncts in our department - I hang out with them socially outside of work, and just chat about personal things like my mental health. In my current position, I have no supervisory role over their positions. But I am worried that once I become chair - and so I will become their supervisor - the power differential will affect the friendship - I would no longer be so comfortable being so emotionally open (and perhaps I never should have been so open with coworkers in the first place, but I never envisioned becoming chair, also I have had trouble making friends outside of work). Also, it would be very hard for me to not give a favorable preference to my friends in e.g choice teaching assignments, raises, etc. And that if some other faculty members see that we hang out outside of work (e.g. through Facebook posts), etc they may feel I favor my friends for teaching assignments and so on. And they would be right.

Any advice? Am I over thinking this and being too cautious or careful? Should I tell the current chair that I have changed my mind and no longer wish to be chair?

  • My experience is that people who take jobs as place holders tend to regret it. – Scott Seidman Feb 22 at 17:42
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    An obvious suggestion: have you asked the current chair what they think about this situation? You don't even have to be so frank about it: just ask how being chair has affected their relationships with other department members. – Billy Feb 22 at 17:47
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    I don’t think you’re overthinking this. Your dilemma is very real and it sounds like you understand exactly the problematic issues here and how much your professional decision is putting at risk your social life and (potentially) personal happiness. Not much more to be said IMO, you just need to weigh your priorities and reach a decision. One last thing: do not allow yourself to be guilt-tripped into taking a role you do not want to take. That is probably the very worst reason to be making a major professional commitment that will have a dramatic effect on your life in the next few years. – Dan Romik Feb 22 at 21:25
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    @DanRomik on the other hand, this can result in departments and institutions chaired by the few people whom nobody likes, if every decent researcher tends to not want that role because they want to work on their research and not spend time on administration. There's this quote "those who want power probably shouldn't have it" which seems to apply a lot for academic administrative positions. – Peteris Feb 22 at 23:36
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    @Peteris yes, your comment is a good example of the kind of guilt-tripping I was referring to. – Dan Romik Feb 23 at 1:21
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You should expect some professional distance between yourself and anyone you supervise. You can be "friendly" of course, and you can interact at departmental social functions in a friendly way, but you have to recognize that whenever a dispute arises you are the boss, not the pal.

Some departments, however, with a long history of very collegial relationships, mutually supporting in every way, these sorts of things are unlikely to arise. This is especially true if lots of things are decided by committee or by consensus, rather than by fiat. In such a place your fears would likely be misplaced, until something unexpected happens.

There are places, very collegial, in which the department head position rotates among the tenured faculty, with the job lasting a couple of years or so and then passing on to someone else. If a place has such a history, then it seems to change the dynamics a bit. The 'head' is an administrator but is seldom called on to be an 'ogre'. Note that such things as tenure are normally handled by committee, rather than by the head, but annual salary adjustments might fall under your control.

The more the position calls on you to be a personnel manager, the more likely it is that conflicts can arise and the less likely it is that you can be "just a friend" to other faculty.

If you already have graduate students under you and are responsible for their future, you can get a small sense of what the relationship might be like. You can be friendly, but you need to keep a certain professional distance so that your authority is recognized when it is necessary for it to be recognized. Hopefully not often, but it happens.

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