Reflections on Chairing a Philosophy Department at Mid-Career (Part 1)

By Ronald Robles Sundstrom

This is the first of two posts on the same subject by Ronald Robles Sundstrom. The second post will be published next Thursday.

It is a common view in our profession, likely shared by many other academic disciplines, that taking on serious service commitments is a career-killing act for full-time, tenure-track faculty with active research agendas. This judgement is based on the unavoidable truth that administrative tasks within colleges and universities, such as chairing or other demanding positions, require large amounts of time which divert faculty away from their research plans and the time they would otherwise use for writing—this is in addition to its effects on the time and attention one might give to family, community and other restorative activities. Although the duties of a departmental chair often come with course releases—only those equally committed to teaching complain of being removed from the classroom—the time required to actually do the job well means giving more time to it than is contractually obligated. At the University of San Francisco, where I’m a professor, the release from 1 course translates to roughly 10 hours per week freed up for chair duties, but the time required for the job is 15 to 18 hours per week. This commitment is compounded by the department chair’s remaining teaching obligations, the time required for the college or university committee work that comes with being chair, and then there are…the emails.

So why did I do it? My department needed one of its tenured faculty members to step into the position for a 3-year term, but I had legitimate reasons to not volunteer for the job. At the University of San Francisco, occupying the chair of a department doesn’t come with much institutional power: You get to go to extra committee meetings, such as the committee of all the chairs, and many more; managing part-time faculty; the duty of organizing and managing the course schedules; leading and tracking student advising; running department meetings; and administering to the other needs of faculty and students in the department. It is, as our colleagues warn, a ‘time suck.” Besides, it wasn’t my “turn” and the department’s chair rotation had broken down—it only takes one senior member to say no to give grounds to all that follow to also decline the position. When I accepted the position, I was tenured and had just been promoted from associate to full professor; outside of the procedural reason to not step up, I had other commitments that I could have spent my time on.

The quick answer is that I, like many other professors, am committed to my department, wanted to do my bit to maintain it, and saw it as a natural step in my career path, but that is only part of my answer. I had other reasons having to do with being in the middle of my career. I’ll get to them, but first I want to remark on a few features of my 4-year experience as chair (yes, I extended the usual 3–year term by one year), that resonated partially with 5 national issues affecting contemporary academic life, all of which apply in particular to philosophy departments: 1) recruiting majors during a time when the interest in majoring in the humanities among student is declining, 2) academic assessment, 3) managing part-time faculty, 4) hiring full-time faculty while maintaining and increasing diversity, and 5) the mentoring of new and junior faculty. There are other concerns with academic life that are equally or more prominent, such as the cost of a university education, and conflicts over academic freedom, free speech, safe spaces, and trigger warnings, but those 2 issues affect university life generally and didn’t characterize my time as chair. My department’s reactions to the five topics that I am directly addressing were not exceptional, but they are illustrative of academic life in the first quarter of the 2000s in a philosophy department at a private university in the Jesuit Catholic tradition. This post will address the first two topics, and next week’s post will cover the remaining three.

1) Recruiting majors when the interest in majoring in the humanities is declining

Departments in the humanities are not attracting the numbers of majors and minors they once did—clearly there are exceptions to this trend, but the trend is real and affecting how departments function (e.g., enrollment in upper-division philosophy courses may decrease, which increases their chance of being canceled). Incoming students know little about philosophy as a discipline or subject, and do not see it as practical. Parents, for the most part, are rightfully alarmed about the cost of a college education and guide their children away from humanities majors and towards fields that they judge as remuneratively promising. Raising the number of philosophy majors and minors in my department, unfortunately, was not my sweet spot; instead I saw this trend play out over the four years of my term. I deferred to the ordinary practice of my department by offering courses that fulfilled the requirements of our program, scheduled upper-division courses that served our particular academic interests, and waited for the students to come. We should realize that passivity is not an adequate strategy in the face of a national negative trend in the number of humanities majors.

My department and I were aware of this problem, its effects on our course offerings, and on our individual work rhythms because of consequences to our preferred teaching schedules and seminar topics. We responded to this situation by taking extra steps to recruit and retain students, such as dividing up the department’s schedule among all the full-time faculty, and having them pitch the major and minor to every course, planning student-centered events, and to thinking through how our major and minor program appeals to the academic interests and future career needs of our actual and potential students. My colleagues, aware of the pressures that students and their families face and the concerns they have about employability, pitched our major and minor by both pushing back on the commodification of the college experience and highlighting how studying philosophy provides a set of soft and hard skills that are practical and sought after in the world of professional work. Business as usual won’t cut it in current conditions, and my department—partly led in this effort by our full-time term member—is acting on this challenge by increasing our engagement with our students and communicating the professional relevance of studying philosophy, its benefits to personal formation and vocational discernment.

A significant part of pitching the philosophy major and minor is communicating exactly what students will learn and what skills they will require. Responding to these questions beyond the usual references to literacy in the Western and Eastern philosophical canon and critical thinking, requires thinking through departmental goals, mission statement, and learning outcomes. What do we say to first-year students and their parents during prospective student events and freshman orientation?

2) Academic Assessment

Coming up with a consistent and attractive message aligns with a feature of academic life that many professors complain about and avoid—the task of assessment. In addition to my chair duties, I took on extra work as the faculty director of the assessment of the core curriculum in my university’s college of arts and sciences. Doing so led me to extend my term as chair for one year, so that I could participate in, and guide my department through, the assessment of the philosophy core requirement. Our core curriculum is comparable to the general education curriculum at other universities and colleges, and at USF it requires all students to take one introductory course in philosophy and another that focuses on ethics (my department shares the ethics requirement with the Theology and Religious Studies Department). These requirements drive students into our courses, and, to be blunt, is part of the justification for the continued existence of the department; without those students populating our courses, we’d have far fewer full-time and part-time faculty, and only have the mission of the university and its Jesuit Catholic tradition justifying the retention of the department as an independent academic unit. As important as tradition and mission are, they only go so far in the face of potential budget cuts and (thankfully, absent) the threat of retrenchment.

The work of assessment is not merely bureaucratic drudgery or the way a department can contribute to the ongoing accreditation of their university. Assessment can actually be thoroughly meaningful both for the university and the department itself. First of all, helping to maintain the function and accreditation of their university is not a small thing.

Secondly, the mechanisms of present an opportunity for departments to sharpen the message they communicate to students and parents.

It is an opportunity for the department to intentionally craft its requirements, align its courses to a common project or end, and to set and enforce expectations for its entire faculty, including full and part-time members. Yes, there is the paper work, the crafting of a mission statement, learning outcomes, rubrics, and the task of assessing student “work products” to determine if the outcomes are being met. However, this work is a valuable chance for the department to clearly communicate its goals and to talk to one another about what is occurring in the department’s courses, its pedagogical practices, and our common expectations: For instance, are final argumentative papers required? What do we think about other requirements, such as individual or total word counts or specific content? And what should our learning outcomes relay to instructors such that they, in turn, guide the construction of courses and their syllabi and are manifested in our students’ philosophy papers?

Assessment was my sweet spot (crazy, I know). I followed the lead of the chairs before me, who had a hand in crafting the university’s learning outcomes for the philosophy and ethics core curriculum requirements, and who then created the department’s program learning outcomes, and drafted our initial set of rubrics for both sets of outcomes. My department used assessment to improve its major and minor structure and requirements, its offerings to the core curriculum, and its results will play a role in our ongoing efforts to grow our program. Would you like to learn more? I’d be happy to share our materials with readers who are equally convinced of the value assessment, those who are reluctant about it, or who are otherwise compelled to conduct a curricular assessment.

Ronald Robles Sundstrom is a Professor of Philosophy, former Chair of the Philosophy Department, and member of the African American Studies and Critical Diversity Studies programs at the University of San Francisco. Has served USF in several capacities, including as the Faculty Director of the Core Curriculum at USF from 2014-2017, and received several awards recognizing his service, as well as his teaching: In spring 2017 he received the College of Arts and Science’s Faculty Service Award, in 2009 he was given the Ignatian Service Award for his service to the university, and 2010 he was the co-Winner of the USF Distinguished Teaching Award. His areas of research and teaching include race theory, political and social theory, and African American philosophy, with a particular focus on Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, and the topic of mixed-race. He published several essays and a book in these areas, including The Browning of America and The Evasion of Social Justice (SUNY, 2008). His current book project, Integration, Gentrification, and Equality, is on the ethics and politics of integration and gentrification, with a particular focus on residential integration and housing inequality.


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