“THE Chair” is a recent release on Netflix that has captured the interest of many, especially those who are in the academe. A relatively short movie of six episodes, it is about the politics inside the academia in its various depths and shades.
On the spot is Professor Ji-yoon Kim of Pembroke University’s English Department. She’s got a load of challenges at the onset of her leadership. Early retirement, securing tenure, and academic freedom are just among the issues she’s to confront. Not to mention the internal struggles among faculty members when they become so naïve with their own interests.
The movie is about the real academia. A world believed by many to be free from problems and sin. “The Chair” has depicted what a lot of people in the academe would not say in public about their own state either because of fear or pride.
Apparently, the situations would vary depending on where you are on the globe. But truth to tell, regardless of where an academic is on this planet, he or she shares in the universal experience of the academia’s own kind of bad politics. Politics in the academe is the microcosm of politics in larger society. This covers a lot including mudslinging, mismanagement, and inequitable practices and administrative decisions.
We hear from the learned professors the importance of democracy and how our government should uphold the importance of human rights and due process. But sometimes these are the very “real” things that are often violated and disregarded even by the most venerable higher institutions of learning. There is so much clamor from the great minds for the liberalization of ideas in the “public sphere” but never “inside the classroom.”
Then there are the practical issues of tenure. Although the practice of granting this to academics differs say between the US and the Philippines, however, there is an essential issue that is common in both countries. The anxiety that a junior faculty should experience would run for years before he or she could be granted security of tenure. One must do thousands if not millions of curricular and co-curricular gymnastics just to please higher administration. It may not sound pleasing, but again, truth be told, tenure is sometimes acquired not through academic merit but partisan loyalty.
And then there is the issue of survival. The movie highlights the low enrollment of some of the tenured “dinosaurs” (professors) of the University’s English Department. But if one will come to think of it, eventually it is the “whole” English Department that is seriously threatened. The Chair had to think of creative ways to salvage the career of her professors. But she also has to face the key administration (represented by the Dean) that is seriously pushing its institutional agenda.
The movie is not far from the reality where many schools are in. Even in our own beloved Philippines, departments in the Humanities and Social Sciences have been threatened through the years. Preference has always been for the so-called “practical” or “relevant” disciplines. Sadly, both words are understood to mean “income-generating.” The more unfortunate thing is that when people are made to lose their job without dialogue and consultation.
How can universities convince humanity that what they’re teaching is relevant if their own existence is threatened from within?