Although few want ads for “Chairperson of Theology Department” appear in the Chronicle of Higher Education, nonetheless, it is more than rumor that a number of colleges and universities are searching for that “ideal” leader for the theology/religious studies department. The basic difficulty faced by search committees is that they find it difficult to draw up a job description of the position. Usually a letter announcing the opening simply declares that the university desires an “administrator-theologian,” dodging any details. A more lengthy ad—which did appear in The Chronicle—added: “who is willing to work in harmony with ecclesiastical authorities,” which makes the post even more mysterious, if not ominous.
However, in defense of search committees, it can safely be said that it is almost impossible to define the task of departmental chairpersons. Faculty consider them part of administration, administration declare that they are essentially one of the faculty; they should be leaders in their discipline, but are given little time for research; they should be better-than-average performers in the classroom, but their teaching abilities are allowed to rust as they become more and more a cog in bureaucratic machinery. Moreover, in some institutions they are expected to be no more than the “secretary” of the faculty, while in others (at least according to the ‘manual’) they are endowed with dictatorial powers. In any case, they are surely “responsible for the department,” although realistically, their powers are so sorely limited by established procedures, bone-marrow budgeting, a freeze on hiring, that they are fortunate if they can even maintain the status quo.