On becoming the very model of a modern mellow chair


The academic profession is unique in many ways. We don’t think of our livelihood as a job; it’s a passion. We’re trained to be critical, evaluate outcomes dispassionately, and provide the community a concise description of our findings. When we finish graduate school and our postdoc and are ready to strike out on our own, we more than likely find ourselves in a job for which we have very little formal training. Becoming a department chair follows this trajectory. When I became chair of the Department of Biology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, two years ago, I discovered that nothing in my 35+ years in academia had prepared me for the job. Instead it is my experience as a father, grandfather, teacher, and mentor that has been most useful. What follows are a description of my experiences in the first two years and a few principles that are not found in the myriad of literature given to new chairs, but that have given me strength to endure and, hopefully, to lead.

Why did I take this job? I felt an obligation to serve the community that had given me so much when I was young. When we were young professors, the senior faculty members gave us the freedom to grow, and they led by example. Fast forward to present and we find ourselves in a very different world. Notwithstanding COVID-19, the academic landscape has been overhauled. What is a leader in this new world? What are our goals and how do we get there? I did not become chair for personal gain; I am not an executive; I am not an administrator. What I am is a buffer between senior leadership in the university (deans and above) and faculty. What I am is a leader of a huge team that includes faculty, staff, students, postdoctoral fellows, and people of all walks of life. What I want is for all of them to feel that they are valued and that there is someone at the top to count on who has their best interests at heart. I will use “team” going forward to include the diversity of people within the department.

My first lesson was to show vulnerability. I am pretty sure I’ve made every mistake one can in the laboratory, so I’ve learned that holding ourselves to unattainable standards is not productive—it’s not useful to feel constitutively inadequate. Realizing we are vulnerable organisms that feel things and process those feelings in diverse ways is important. Showing those feelings toward each other is a step toward embracing our humanity and reaching a place where we can discuss core values versus posturing for accolades of some form or another.

Listening is an art, the practice of which is woefully underutilized. This is interesting because as scientists we pride ourselves on our powers of observation. However, when it comes to interpersonal interactions, we have a tendency to pontificate rather than empathize. The importance of empathy is well described in a poem by Mary Oliver1:

Attention without feeling,
I began to learn
is only a report.
An openness—an empathy—
was necessary
if the attention was to matter.

I have told my team that I do not want reports. What I want is to understand the basis for a given request/complaint/demand in order to make sure that we are addressing the core problem.

I have found the practice of role-playing to be very helpful. If I switch roles in a given interaction, how will my words be heard? It never ceases to amaze how my words get “mis”-construed. But I have come to realize that words are not misconstrued. Instead, they are filtered through a complex cultural web. The sooner we embrace cultural diversity, the sooner we will be able to talk to one another with feeling and empathy and communicate rather than spar verbally. This is hard work and unfortunately, we don’t have the bandwidth to know everyone to the extent required. However, recognizing there are myriad interpretations is a step forward. Putting yourself in someone else’s position and trying out different deliveries is worth the effort.

Don’t tell people what or how to do things. Trust me, I have tried. Even if they follow your advice, this is not a morale builder. In reality, the chair’s job is to help everyone reach their potential. Instead of telling people things, I ask questions. They are in the form of “What are your goals?” or “Why don’t you try something else?” As chair, I am the conduit to the diversity of research, teaching, and service opportunities within the university. If I can help people continue to find satisfaction in the workplace and contribute in a meaningful way toward the education of the next generation then I am doing the job. The trick is finding the right fit. This gets back to listening to the team, finding out what drives them, and figuring out where they fit within the system.

Embrace ambiguity. This is a hard one for those of us trained as research scientists. We design experiments to distinguish different hypotheses and deduce mechanism. In contrast, university rules and regulations are written to be ambiguous to allow for the diversity of behaviors across, in my case, the College of Arts and Sciences. There is no rule book, and we are nothing if not a body of rule-followers. I rely on my own moral compass, circling back to leadership. (Such ambiguity is also one of the challenges in the COVID-19 crisis. As an unexpected consequence of the pandemic, we have learned that crises are when the natural leaders stand out.)

As chair, leadership is paramount. What does leadership mean? Another voice that gives me guidance is Krista Tippett in her radio show and podcast “On Being.” She recently interviewed Stephen Batchelor, who discussed nirvana as “…the absence of greed, absence of dislike, and absence of egoism.…a solitude in which you’re not being crowded out by your attachments and your fears and your egoistic confusions.”2 I am a leader if I am able to listen to all voices on my team, dissociate my personal feelings and desires, and help us become stewards for imparting our lessons to the next generation.

An Important Job. But…
To those who aspire to be a chair: I can’t emphasize enough the importance of a good chair. You are doing a good and necessary deed. It is invaluable for a department to have an advocate for promoting the welfare and professional development of all its constituents. There is true joy in explaining how wonderfully different people perform and why they need a raise/equipment/space/promotion. It is important that departments have leaders they respect and with whom they can openly discuss the diversity and complexity of issues that arise.

When you seek the position of chair, make sure you are doing it for your constituents, because what you give up is not trivial. The most notable loss is the time to think. There is no free time—zero. The speed, intensity, and frequency of questions and concerns from students, staff, faculty, deans, and provosts are simply unfathomable. If your department is one of the largest on campus, and biology departments often are, this is typical of what you will experience. I have learned to let nothing sit on my desk for more than a microsecond. I trust my intuition; I simply cannot do the due diligence that every concern deserves. It is often more important that a decision be made, so people can get on with their lives, and less important which decision it is. Another lesson from COVID-19: There are few things in our daily lives that actually matter. What I care about is humanity. If I can make someone’s life slightly easier, help people assess their goals and give them the freedom to achieve their goals then we will build morale and provide an environment where people of all shapes, colors, sizes, and desires can thrive.

1Oliver M (2007). Our World. Beacon Press.

2April 23, 2020. Stephen Batchelor: On finding ease in aloneness. https://onbeing.org/programs/stephen-batchelor-finding-ease-in-aloneness.

About the Author:

Kerry Bloom is Thad L. Beyle Distinguished Professor and chair, Department of Biology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He serves as ASCB Secretary.