I had to watch The Chair, the six-episode Netflix dramedy set in a university English department. I was an English major, I spent most of my career working at UC Berkeley, and Sandra Oh plays the lead. The clincher was the sub-head to Sophie Gilbert’s review in The Atlantic: “The near-perfect show elegantly skewers the subject of free speech on campus.” This show was made for me!
Wearing my risk manager hat through the first half-hour episode, I spotted ten glaring mistakes by Oh’s character, Dickinson scholar and newly-elected department chair Ji-Yoon Kim:
1. Initial faculty meeting: “I will not allow this department to be ransacked.” An obviously hollow promise that risks loss of credibility with her colleagues.
2. Initial meeting with the dean: “Everyone on this [forced retirement] list is utterly indispensable.” As if it isn’t a given that every department has its dead wood! Now she’s risking a loss of credibility with her boss.
3. Meeting with a junior faculty member: “Between you and me, he’s on the [forced retirement] list.” Discussing personnel matters involving others is a no-no and would be an embarrassing fact if the professor on that list files an employment suit.
4. Cajoles the junior faculty member into team teaching with the endangered prof, who also heads the junior faculty member’s tenure committee: Power imbalance much? This will be a bad fact if the junior faculty member is denied tenure and files an employment suit.
5. Signs a student petition to administration: The faculty typically generates its own petitions and doesn’t piggyback on student petitions. This will further antagonize the dean.
6. Acts on involuntary office relocation of female faculty member: “This is a Title IX lawsuit waiting to happen.” A non-lawyer making a legal conclusion — what could go wrong? Plus she’s raised this concern with the dean and he hasn’t had a chance to respond. Moving forward without hearing from him will be the third bad move in that relationship.
7. Asks a professor with low enrollments to do more for the department: “Are you asking everyone?” “Of course!” But she hasn’t, and now she’d better.
8. Play-fight with love interest Bill witnessed by third party: Highly unprofessional, and yet another bad fact if Bill, who has shown up to class drunk and unprepared, isn’t disciplined or laid off but the sober, dependable faculty members on the forced retirement list are.
9. Shares with others the names of three faculty members subject to forced retirement: Doubling down on that privacy violation.
10. Fails to show at a Title IX meeting: Yet another bad fact if the involuntarily relocated faculty member files an employment suit alleging she did not receive promised support.
Two long-time colleagues of mine, one of whom has been a department chair, looked over this list and gently reminded me that “hyperbole is required to make the plot enticing.” True that! The real story of campus administration isn’t made for television, so the writers had to make it so.
But they didn’t do it well.
First, they largely ignored Ji-Yoon’s missteps and moved the plot forward via Bill, who makes a fleeting, un-PC gesture in class that’s posted to social media and taken out of context, leading to a scene reminiscent of the ugly 2015 Yale confrontation over Halloween costumes (!) between students and professor Nicholas Christakis. If they truly wanted a sardonic portrayal of campus free speech from a female professor’s perspective, they could have worked from better material, like Laura Kipnis’s My Title IX Inquisition.
Second, though The Chair is sold as a ground-breaking story about higher education (“the first woman of color to become chair tries to meet the dizzying demands and high expectations of a failing English department”), it’s really an ivory tower romcom. Bill is eager to hook up with Ji-Yoon, who is wary because Bill is a doofus, but then Bill connects with Ji-Yoon’s adopted daughter in a way Ji-Yoon can’t. Never mind that their careers are cratering and so is the English department. The real question is, will they or won’t they?
The Chair is entertaining, so if you’re in the mood for diversion, by all means give it a watch. But don’t mistake it for a “near-perfect” depiction of anything.