Show Me the Money…or at least the course release

Since starting this blog several readers have urged me to take up the question of chair compensation.  So I conducted a completely unscientific poll on Facebook and discovered what I had suspected all along–it varies widely and in distressing ways.  Some chairs receive almost no monetary compensation and only a slight reduction in teaching.  Others get higher salaries (usually the result of going from 9- to 12-month contracts), generous stipends and course releases.  At some particularly enlightened institutions, chairs get to “keep” their increased salaries and/or are eligible for an immediate sabbatical when they go back to faculty status.  I am sure that a more systematic review would only increase the depth and complexity of this variation.  Within my own university, for example, it varies enormously among our six colleges.


Now certainly some of this variation is a function of department size.  And that makes sense.  If you chair a department of 4 at a small, private college your compensation will probably not be the same as someone who chairs a department of 40 at an R1 institution.  This distinction and others point to several key questions and issues.

The first: what is chair compensation meant to acknowledge or remedy?  Generally speaking, becoming chair represents an increase in workload and often an expectation of more time spent in the office.  I could do some of my chairing tasks from home, not unlike how I used to write and grade from home on the days I didn’t teach, but my presence in the office is more necessary now.  Questions to be answered, fires to be put out, you get the idea.  And certainly, all the chairs I know, both here and at other institutions, say that with the increase in demands for accountability and cuts in staff positions at the department level, there has been a marked increase in the amount of paperwork, report writing, and general administrivia they are required to complete.  And so, compensation is typically a combination of some increase in pay and a reduction in teaching load.  But–and this is an important observation–chairs still teach.  At most institutions this makes them different from associate deans, vice provosts, and certainly deans and provosts.

This brings me to the next question: how do we understand and envision the role and responsibilities of an academic chair?  By asking them to continue teaching we clearly see the merit in keeping them connected to the essential mission of the department: educating students.  As we increase their administrative burden, however, we pull them in a different direction.  And somewhere in this mix, I would contend, they also need to think about the difference between simply managing (staying on top of the paperwork) and leading their departments (helping the curriculum, research, and programming stay vibrant and engaged).  And all of this completely ignores the question of research.  Are chairs expected to keep up on this front as well?  At some institutions (my own included), the answer is “yes.”  While finding time for research amidst these other demands is undoubtedly a struggle, we risk disrupting or derailing the research potential and agendas of these individuals, if they chair for years at a time.  At most institutions they will not serve as chair for the entirety of their career–what happens when their term is finished and they have to jump start that part of their faculty profile?

So with all of this in the mix, what exactly is our understanding or vision of the academic chair?  Administrator but also teacher but also scholar?  This is the crux of the issue.  We can negotiate, bargain, and fight for better and more just compensation that is commensurate with our workload and performance expectations and that compares favorably to best practices at other institutions.  But this is just haggling over details.  Until we have a clear answer to this question–which would necessarily vary by institution and department–any discussion of compensation and the combination of components (salary increase?  stipend?  course releases?  some combination thereof?) will be limited at best.  Each institution needs to define the role of the chair in this fraught academic environment of mission creep, administrivia, and accountability and then compensate accordingly.


4 thoughts on “Show Me the Money…or at least the course release

    1. David: Intentional discussion about what we expect from chairs is definitely the key. Overall, I like the idea of doing things “for” others as chair (advocating for, administering for) as opposed to the constructions that follow from “of” (manager of, etc).


  1. As you’ve written, I think that at most universities the administrative workload of being a chair has increased. I’d guess that at most universities (e.g. mine) compensation or incentives for chairs have increased very little, if at all. As consequence, we might expect fewer people willing to be chair of a department. I certainly know of recent cases of this — departments that have had a hard time getting faculty to be willing to serve, and I’d be curious if you find (anecdotal) evidence of this in general.


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