As most readers of this blog will know by now, I have been elected to serve as department chair by my colleagues in Foreign Languages and Literatures. It's this, mainly, that has led me to decide it's about time for me to stop blogging. Here I'll try to explain that utterly momentous decision--and also another decision I made, to stay on the Faculty Senate. A third change to my status didn't require any decision: I will no longer eligible for "active membership" in the Faculty Association, as chairs have been classified as AP ("administrative professional") staff who are no longer members of the FA bargaining unit.
I'm not explaining myself because many will care about why Dave is doing what he's doing (though some anonymous comments of late have reflected an unhealthy interest in my nefarious motives, and should have fun commenting on this). Rather, the issues I'm dealing with here may be of more general interest than the trivial question of how I'm going to spend my time. So there's room for discussion here that goes beyond the charge that Dave is selling out, never had anything worth selling, etc. In a few additional posts I'll try to pull together some things I've learned from blogging and the rest since Namdar and I started this blog back in March of 2011. Then it will be lights out--though I suppose I'll leave the blog floating forevermore on blogger, comments turned off, adding to the electronic detritus of the internet age.
Department chairs don't lose their free speech rights. Indeed, there is a campus blog run by a rather prominent administrator on this campus, Walter Wendler, director of the School of Architecture. Wendler's "On Higher Education" is unfailingly couched in general terms, but his harsh criticism of university leaders is obviously directed in some large part at our current president, who fired Wendler from his post as Chancellor. He seems to be getting away with it: good for him.
I suppose there are basically two reasons I think blogging while chair wouldn't be the right call for me.
The first is that by accepting an administrative position I will gain a certain level of access to the levels at which administrative decisions are made. I expect to speak rather freely there. I think, though, that there is a certain natural trade-off one makes once one gains this access. I can freely tell my administrative superiors what I think of their proposed policies; but once those policies are adopted--policies I may well have to implement as chair--further criticism of them becomes problematic. Of course there is usually some room at lower levels for interpretation of policies; and many policies and proposals are vague enough that some chairs will do rather more toward meeting them than others. But when push comes to shove, if you are a chair and are told to do something, you need to do it, for If you claim that you are doing X while publicly attacking X, you probably aren't doing X very well. Should you be asked to do something so unethical or idiotic that you cannot in good conscience carry through on it, resign--a là Gary Minish.
The second reason comes when I try to think of things from the perspective of the faculty of my department. While chairs "serve at the pleasure of" their deans (who in turn increasingly serve at the pleasure of, and beck and call of, the Chancellor), they are, with rare and unfortunate exceptions, elected by their faculty. And my faculty colleagues are the people I am supposed to represent and support. Would I, were I in their shoes, want my department chair blogging several times a week, usually in criticism of the very administration from which he needs to seek support for my department? Probably not. I would of course want him to speak up on issues of great importance, certainly in internal deliberations and, for particularly pressing and crucial issues, publicly as well. And where administrative decisions run contrary to the interests and values of my department, I'd want him to speak up forcefully on my department's behalf. But routine criticism of this or that initiative, especially initiatives irrelevant to my department--say, the student services building? Probably not a smart idea.
I have in fact been told that the Chancellor and Provost do not like this blog. Imagine my surprise! Good for them--I haven't liked many of their decisions. Perhaps their dislike is simply disagreement with my point of view--something that would be healthy enough; indeed it would actually be more worrisome if they agreed with the general thrust of my criticism of their stewardship of the university. If they instead don't like open debate and open dissent, that is more troubling. I do not deny that one can have too much public dissent, and that reasonable people can disagree about where to draw the line. I have criticized Glenn Poshard and Roger Herrin on precisely this ground, and I welcomed Ken Anderson's attempt to make a similar argument regarding this blog back in the first months of its existence. I also rejected his argument, of course. There is a difference between a blogger criticizing the administration and a university president holding a press conference to criticize the chair of the BOT and the governor.
Thus the venue, and the role of the debaters, does matter. It is this that has led me to another decision about my role in university debate, my decision to continue in the Faculty Senate. This position is also at tension with my position as department chair, and for similar reasons. In fact I believe I said somewhere, on this blog, that I believed that department chairs ought not to serve on the Faculty Senate. And I would support a move to amend the operating paper of the Senate to remove chairs and anyone else on an administrative appointment from the Senate and the electorate for the Senate.* The reason for this is the conflict of interest, as chairs serve at the pleasure of the administrators whom they are presumably supposed to be questioning, freely, as senators. Bill Recktenwald, in his closing statement as Senate President, spoke eloquently of the importance of free and open questioning in the Faculty Senate; while I disagreed with some other things he said, and believe the Faculty Senate should have a role beyond asking questions, he's absolutely correct about the importance of open discussion in that body.
The argument made in defense of the current scheme is that the administration welcomes free comment and criticism from chairs as well as from other senators, and that such criticism would have no affect on the departments represented by such chairs. This argument is based on a rather rosy estimate of human nature, and the nature of human power relations. As a matter of fact, I have indeed been told that the Chancellor and Provost also do not like some of the things I've said in the Senate. Again, I do not know whether this means merely that they disagree with some of the things I've said (which is only natural) or believe that my occasional criticisms are somehow problematic solely because they have been critical. The latter would be deeply troubling.
But as things stand, chairs are eligible, and frequently serve, as have others in administrative posts. My thinking is that the Senate, whose deliberations are not private but aren't exactly blog entries, either, is more akin to those venues in which I plan to share my vast wisdom, openly, with administrators (and any senators or others who may be listening), than it is to blogging. It thus seems to me consistent with my role as chair--at least for as long as the rules defining who can serve on the Senate remain what they are.
Okay, enough for now. I plan now a few additional posts, on the following topics:
1. Lessons learned from blogging.
2. Lessons learned--or lessons that should have been learned--from the union-administration conflict of the last two years.
3. Wise ruminations on the state of SIUC and how it could be bettered.
*Even better would be an effort to redefine chairs as part of the FA bargaining unit, as members of the faculty rather than the administration; chairs are classified that way in some other universities. But I don't see that happening.