Faculty votes to start chair searches internally

by Jackie Tempera / Beacon Staff • October 24, 2013

Emerson faculty members voted to begin searches for permanent chairs for academic departments in a faculty assembly meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 22. This decision will be passed on to the administrative academic affairs board for final review, according to Michaele Whelan, the vice president of academic affairs.

Currently, five out of the college’s seven department chairs are labeled as interims, meaning they are professors from the department and were not hired during a national search, according to Whelan. These interim chairs are in the journalism, marketing communication, visual and media arts, communication sciences and disorders, and communication studies departments.

Whelan said she and President M. Lee Pelton developed this idea after a conversation they had shortly after she joined the faculty in July of 2013. 

“We feel like we have excellent faculty,” she said. “There is no reason why chairs can’t come from the faculty.”

Whelan said labeling chairs as interim is unique to Emerson, and is part of what prompted her discussion with Pelton.

“I think the label of interim is uncommon,” said Whelan, who served as the vice provost for academic affairs at Brandeis University. “This is an Emerson thing. I’ve been at institutions where people have served as chair for a year, and they were still ‘chair’—it was just a shorter time period.”

Interim chairs are different only in title and appointment, said Whelan. When a chair steps down and the college hires a faculty member rather than completing a national search, this person is labeled an interim chair, she said.

Interims are selected in a meeting between Whelan, department members, and the dean of the school, Whelan said. 

Whelan said chairs — who ordinarily  serve three to five year terms, typical across colleges — take on a large amount of responsibility. This individual is tasked with teaching and actively participating in research and service, she said. That individual must also articulate the goals of the department to administrators, lead academic programs, meet with students, develop procedures for tenure and promotion, and improve curricula, among other things, according to Whelan. 

“It’s a big responsibility,” she said.

According to the faculty handbook, when selecting a chair, the dean of the school assembles a team of two tenured faculty members and one or two tenure-track professors from the department. That group then selects one or two faculty members from outside the department.

Then, the team usually receives 30 to 40 applications from professors across the country, said Whelan. Current faculty members are invited to apply, but are up against a large number of competitors, said Whelan. 

If the proposed change to end national searches for department chairs is enacted, search teams’ first step will instead be to look for viable options within a department, said Whelan.

Some current interim chairs said searching within the college was a good idea. This would cut down on the transition period and allow for more comfortable interactions between staff and the chair, they said. Many of the school’s interims have served in that position for multiple years.

Don Hurwitz, interim chair of the marketing communication department, has held his position for four years. He said he liked the proposed change, but felt that whether a chair comes from within the school or not should be considered on a case-by-case basis.

“Sometimes, you are going to look at a department, and there will be options for the position,” he said. “But there will be times where there is not a good candidate, and then you should do a national search.”

William Wyatt Oswald, interim chair for the communication sciences and disorders department, agreed there are not always good options from within departments to take leadership roles.

He said he felt this was the case with his appointment two years ago. Oswald said he took the position after the original pick for chair, a professor from within the school, fell through. Since he is a scientist who studies climate change, he said he thought this was an odd fit. 

“I am not a good fit for the long term,” he said. “When I took the position, I not only had to learn about the chair position, but I also had to learn about my department and start paying attention to things I didn’t need to know before.” 

Brooke Knight, interim chair of the visual and media arts department, came into his role this semester. He said he felt promoting department members to chair positions would be beneficial, a sentiment he said is shared by many professors across the college. 

“If the chair comes from faculty, he or she is likely to return to the faculty and be more answerable,” he said. “That person can advocate better, because they know the department better.”

According to Whelan, the college will look for long-term candidates people to fill these positions after the handbook change is reviewed by the board. She said she did not know when these roles will be filled, but would start the search by speaking to the interim chairs about whether or not they’d like to officially accept the role. 

“I think everyone likes to have a degree of certainty, but interim chairs fill a really important role sometimes,” she said. “It is a way for faculty members to try out that role and see if they want to commit.”