This recent six-part Netflix series packs a lot into three hours. Timely topics include racism, sexism, ageism, student protests, interracial adoption and mid-life romance. But the series is titled “The Chair,” and the story raises a very important question about academic life. Is Professor Kim, the new chair of the English department at “Pembroke University,” the ally of her faculty or the administration?
Much of the drama stems from her back-and-forth on that question. She is uncomfortable when Dean Larson asks her to nudge into retirement three senior faculty with low enrollments and high salaries. She neither agrees nor disagrees with the dean. She is even more ambivalent about the administrators’ eagerness to fire a tenured professor who made a Nazi salute during class. First she agrees, then she disagrees, blasting the termination hearing as a “kangaroo court.”
Yet by that time she’s lost the confidence of her department, and by a six to four vote she is out as chair. Kim expressed relief —“too many a–holes to manage … it’s a s— job” apart from the beautiful office — but she was still dismayed.
The message here? The difficulty of the diplomacy required of department chairs. Nearly all chairs view themselves as professors — they came from and will (with a few exceptions) return to the faculty. They continue to teach and advise students. They want to help their colleagues by lobbying on their behalf. On the other hand, chairs are administrators, and they are expected to work harmoniously with the administrators alongside and above them. They can disagree with deans and deputy provosts only so often. Most chairs pick and choose their battles, trying to win respect all around. What the Netflix series portrays well are the perils of that diplomacy.
In other respects, “The Chair” misleads viewers. The department looks like a vestige from the 1950s or even earlier. It is far smaller (12 faculty) than the typical English Department in a research university today. One faculty member rather than a committee drafts the tenure review of an assistant professor. An older professor never reads her student evaluations, which most instructors today must report on their annual appraisal. Faculty flirt with each other, a trustee decides who will give a prestigious guest lecture, and there are no adjunct instructors — three signs of a bygone era. It naively suggests that enrollments in the humanities fall when teachers are dull rather than dropping because 21st century students look for marketable majors and well-paid employment upon graduation.
Even so, undergraduates who watch “The Chair” will get realistic glimpses of the wide range of strong emotions and private quirks behind the masks we faculty often wear in class. Moreover, the acting is excellent, with memorable performances by Sandra Oh, Bob Balaban, and Jay Duplass. Moreover, the very young daughter of Prof. Kim is memorably mischievous, and even the ornery faculty are lovable, especially the Chaucer expert (played by the amazing Holland Taylor) who stalks a student in the library as he posts his comments on Ratemyprofessor.com.
The series brings to life aspects of the 21st century university that our students often do not see. If “The Chair” occasionally exaggerates and misrepresents, it is nevertheless a fun and insightful sketch of a crucial job in each and every department.
Robert L. Hampel is a professor and former director of the university’s School of Education.