Monday, January 3, 2011

Dealing with an Unsupportive Department Chair

Last month, following my blog Preparing Department Chairs to Advance Gender Equity, a colleague asked, "What do you do when your own department chair thinks there are no bias or diversity issues in the department?" This is a tough question for which I seek advice from others. Here are a few of my own thoughts; they are intended to be from the perspective of someone not in the old-boy's club of the department, although they are informed by my experience as a department chair.

First, I would ask the chair to meet with a group of concerned faculty -- this presupposes that such a group can be formed (in other word, seek allies!). All chairs should be willing to meet with faculty about concerns, whether they be teaching or committee assignments or student problems. Bias, climate, and a lack of diversity are certainly issues any chair should be prepared to hear about. If the chair is unwilling to meet about this, I would go up the administrative ladder to a dean or vice provost for diversity to express concerns that the chair is unwilling to listen.

Assuming next that the chair is willing to meet but is dismissive of concerns, I would ask the chair what he or she is most concerned about and to consider how bias and the absence of diversity relate to those concerns. Most chairs should be concerned about student enrollments; recently several physics departments nationwide have been or are in the process of being shut down because of declining majors. Neglecting concerns about diversity and bias is harmful to student morale, it hurts recruiting, and it misses an opportunity to show positive leadership for change. Ask the chair to talk with chairs of other departments elsewhere that are flourishing, for example those that are attracting so many students including women that classrooms are overflowing. I cite two: Florida International University and my own MIT. (This year we expect to graduate more than 100 physics bachelors degrees, of which about 40% are projected to go to women.) This past year, faculty from two universities approached me with concerns about plummeting student enrollments in their departments due, at least in part, to poor climates. In one case the chair was concerned and ready to listen to diversity issues.

If the chair is still unwilling to acknowledge concerns, I might ask him/her to consider inviting an independent committee (e.g. a CSWP Climate Site Visit committee) to assess the department. Also, I would team up with colleagues from other departments at the university for support and advice. Many universities have Women in Science and Engineering groups. If not, gather allies and start one!

I realize that all of this may be insufficient to stimulate change. However, your efforts are an investment in the future. The chair will change and a new chair should be exposed to concerns about bias, climate and diversity before taking over. Some men, in particular, really do care and want to do the right thing but need encouragement to believe they can make a difference. I'll be happy to add to your encouragement there; promoting diversity in my university and beyond helps improve the environment for everyone.

Does anyone have direct experience or thoughts they would like to share? Please do!