A new series has recently dropped on Netflix: The Chair. It chronicles the trials and tribulations of a Korean-American female professor as she assumes leadership of the Department of English at “Pembroke College,” a small, teaching-focused liberal arts school in rural America. It’s about time a university was featured as a setting in a television series. There are plenty of shows depicting medical doctors and lawyers, but we academics can be pretty dramatic, too.
The plot follows Professor Ji-Yoon Kim as she manages an English department suffering from declining student numbers and corresponding pressures to make job cuts. A member of her department, Professor Dobson, is filmed by a student giving an ironic Nazi salute in a lecture on fascism. The short clip is posted on social media, goes viral, and sparks a student protest and ensuing disciplinary procedures spearheaded by a college administration worried about reputational damage.
I can personally identify with the main themes of the story because I, too, am a Chair (or Head of Department, as we are called in Australian universities). It’s not an easy job because academics don’t typically like to be managed. That, coupled with the financial pressures many universities face, mean it’s a tough gig, as Professor Kim learns.
“I can personally identify with the main themes of the story because I, too, am a Chair (or Head of Department, as we are called in Australian universities). It’s not an easy job because academics don’t typically like to be managed.”
The show is filled with platitudes toward social justice—it is a university, after all—but the underlying dilemma pertains to academic freedom and the right to free speech. Professor Dobson’s story is remarkably similar to Bret Weinstein’s experience at Evergreen. Dobson is very clearly a left-wing progressive who was driven off campus by an angry mob of SJW students hellbent on banishing “hate speech” on campus.
Whilst I appreciate that the series threw a spotlight on an important issue, I’m disappointed that the story didn’t make clear who the protagonists and antagonists are. In my mind, anyone who fights for free speech is a protagonist, but the show depicted the students’ behavior as reasonable, or at least as not unreasonable. It seemed as if the creators of the series wanted to make a soft statement in favor of free speech on campus, but also to support the outrage mob and their righteous indignation.
In the end (spoiler alert!), Professor Dobson is fired, despite the fact that he has tenure. The final episode ends with his commitment to fight for his job back, but he admits that the chances of success are slim to nothing. In other words, the outrage mob wins again.
Professor Kim, “the Chair,” suffers a faculty vote of no confidence and is forced to step down. She seems okay with that because, as I said, a Head of Department role is a poisoned chalice.
Would I recommend that you watch this series? Yes, but only barely. Academics will appreciate some of the humor and identify with some of the departmental politics. But could the producers have done a much better job with the series? Absolutely. For my part, I don’t think we need a scripted story to showcase academic drama. A reality TV show of academic life would reliably show the world just how wild and scandalous life on campus really is for academics.
Professor Andrew R. Timming
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