What The Chair Gets Unexpectedly Right About the Ivory Tower

Despite the public attention paid to big egos, colleges and universities run on the generosity of the common professor.

Sandra Oh in a scene from 'The Chair'
Eliza Morse / Netflix

This story contains spoilers for Season 1 of Netflix’s The Chair.

The sheer number of column inches devoted to Netflix’s The Chair in the almost two weeks since its debut is impressive. This is no doubt in part because a central premise of the show is correct: Academics are a rather self-absorbed bunch, and even a series that gently mocks us perversely feeds our egos. As Saint Oscar Wilde put it, “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” For American academics, The Chair is our moment.

Tuning into the premiere feels at first like watching an adaptation of a campus novel. An early scene is straight out of Richard Russo’s Straight Man: The dean at the show’s fictional Pembroke University hands a list of names to the new English-department chair, Ji-Yoon Kim (played by Sandra Oh). “These folks have the highest salaries and lowest enrollments in your department,” he says. “Before I bring out the stick, maybe you could use your persuasive powers as chair.” To an insider audience, this moment is full of small jokes. The dean has no “stick” (he can’t fire a tenured faculty member except for cause, and pressuring an employee to retire is illegal); the highest salary on that list (a little more than $132,000), while quite comfortable, is hardly exorbitant for a senior professor; and as chair, Ji-Yoon has few, if any, real “persuasive powers.”

But as it unfolds, The Chair offers far deeper insight into the interpersonal and intergenerational dynamics of campus culture than any novel I’ve read. The show’s dramatic energies are focused on issues of free speech, the changing paradigms of scholarship and teaching, and the prejudice that women faculty and faculty of color face. Yet the subject that gets the most screen time is none of these, nor is it chairing. It’s parenting—although as the series rolls on, we slowly realize that, just possibly, chairing is parenting by other means.

When the show begins, Ji-Yoon is trying to figure out both parenting and chairing, and is pouring her heart and soul into both. An unmarried English professor, she is navigating a rough patch in her relationship with her Latina daughter, Ju-Hee (Everly Carganilla), nicknamed Ju Ju, whom she adopted as an infant. Kids at school tell Ju Ju that Ji-Yoon is not her “real mom”; her Korean relatives whisper that theirs is “a Frankenstein family.” She lashes out at Ji-Yoon, both cruelly and inaccurately: “You don’t know anything about my heritage. Puta.”

At the same time, Ji-Yoon finds herself parenting her once and future love interest Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass), who is careening out of control after losing his wife but whose connection to Ju Ju is as easy as Ji-Yoon’s is strained. Bill gets a lot of mileage out of his young–Mandy Patinkin good looks and his air of man-child helplessness. (Looking for his MacBook adapter in class, he asks his teaching assistant, Lila, a question no man ever should: “Where’s my dongle?” She replies, with a straight face, “It’s in your hand.”) Bill is on the verge of missing class for the second time in a week when Ji-Yoon finds him crashed on her office couch, wakes him, and literally ties his shoes. In the next episode, the scene is repeated—this time as it should be, with Ji-Yoon tying Ju Ju’s shoes.

Beyond the complications of her cross-cultural adoptive parenting, Ji-Yoon must navigate the banal exigencies of child care. The need for babysitting constitutes something like an existential crisis in The Chair, as it does for millions of working parents, married and single, every day in this country. The second episode opens with Ju Ju scaring off a potential babysitter with her aggressive precocity; on short notice, Ji-Yoon is forced once again to leave her father in charge of Ju Ju. He’s a sweet and long-suffering man, poignantly aware of his own limitations as a caregiver. When Ji-Yoon rushes back to her father’s because Ju Ju has “escaped,” Bill is the one who knows where to look for her. Perhaps because he is in many ways still a kid himself—Hua Hsu, in a piece on the show for The New Yorker, calls him Ji-Yoon’s “other, even more difficult child”—Bill is the child whisperer. In fact, by the end of the first season, having been dismissed by Pembroke, Bill is on retainer as Ji-Yoon’s full-time babysitter.

Parenting doesn’t come easy to Ji-Yoon—but as we watch her deftly negotiating the needs of her colleagues and the demands of administrators, it’s clear she was born to chair. Many, to mangle Shakespeare, are not born to chair but have chairing thrust upon them. We’re grateful for their service. But some have the disposition and the spirit—the mettle—that inclines them to put themselves out there to help others. Ji-Yoon isn’t great at the formal aspects of chairing; she seems to be driving her dean a little bit crazy. But good chairs always drive their deans a little bit crazy, because though they may not know the bureaucracy well, they’re inspired by a deep-seated desire to help their colleagues. The British have a term that I love: not caretaker or caregiver, but carer. Ji-Yoon is a carer.

Much has been written already by academics keeping score of the show’s little missteps. Its creative team, which includes writers with graduate degrees in English, certainly understands the students’ perspective. But it sometimes doesn’t grasp the faculty’s side of the operation as well. Thus the show repeats a telling mistake: Ji-Yoon’s appointment as chair is frequently referred to as a “promotion,” and it’s not. Moving from assistant to associate professor, and from associate to full—those are promotions. Being appointed to a named or endowed chair, though not quite a promotion, usually marks the pinnacle of a scholarly career. But agreeing to take on the task of chairing a department is different—it is an administrative assignment, and typically not a coveted one. When Ji-Yoon first enters her new office, she finds a note of congratulations on her desk from Bill; shortly afterward, as she convenes her first department meeting as chair, her young colleague Yaz McKay (Nana Mensah) whispers, “Condolences.”

Though the threatened old guard is too self-obsessed to see it, the English department at Pembroke couldn’t ask for better than Ji-Yoon. As she learns how to chair her department, she’s simultaneously learning how to parent her rebellious daughter. The two activities, and the two plot arcs, are beautifully congruent. But the vectors of influence run counter to our expectations. Viewers might think that Ji-Yoon’s experiences as a parent would quietly inform her work as a chair, but the reverse actually seems to be true. The intelligence and empathy with which she performs her work as chair give the audience hope that she’ll bring similar energy and imagination to her relationship with her daughter.

I’ve spent 13 years chairing two English departments, the past 10 at Pomona College, where I’m currently the acting chair for theatre and dance. I recently finished writing a book, How to Chair a Department, which will be published next year by Johns Hopkins University Press; in it, I flesh out the idea that a chair is the department’s “designated grown-up.” But I stopped short of saying that the best preparation for chairing just might be parenting, because I certainly don’t believe that one has to be a parent to chair well. Neither would I want those who have worked with me as their chair over the years to think that I had been secretly parenting them. Parenting as a metaphor for chairing is suggestive, to a point, but it is finally just a metaphor—a way of saying that to do the job well requires putting the needs of others before your own, putting aside the building up of your CV so that you can build up your department and its programs.

Chairing is like parenting not because faculty are like children (though certainly some are!) but because chairing requires you to recognize and appreciate the support and care that you received early in your career and to pay it forward to the next generation. Across the first season, Ji-Yoon attempts to shepherd Yaz’s tenure case through the institutional machinery: the department’s first woman chair mentoring the department’s first Black woman professor to promotion. While they’ve faced similar career obstacles, however, they harbor very different attitudes toward the institution. “You should be running this place,” Yaz tells Ji-Yoon. “Instead you’re running around playing nice.”

But Ji-Yoon has no interest in running the place. She doesn’t want to be dean or provost, operating at a remove from both faculty and students; she really, really wants to be chair. As she confides to Yaz: “Pembroke said and did all the right things to keep me here. But you know the real reason I stayed? It was because of Joan, and Bill, and this dazzling new hire named Yaz.” Ji-Yoon’s not in it for the power (good news, because there really isn’t any); she’s in it for the people.

What is Ji-Yoon’s future? She can continue to serve as a mentor if Yaz, the department’s only junior member, doesn’t jump ship for Yale (where she’s been offered an endowed chair); she can ensure that Pembroke remains a “refuge from the bullshit,” as she indelicately puts it, for her students, current and present—perhaps even a future student named Ju-Hee.

The Chair understands an important secret about American higher education: that colleges and universities, despite the public attention paid to academic stars and big egos, quietly run on the generosity of faculty such as Ji-Yoon. Another economy runs silently, invisibly alongside—or, more accurate, underneath—the academy’s official economy of prestige. Campus satires never plumb these depths. Those big egos, like Morris Zapp in David Lodge’s Changing Places, are irresistible targets, but behind every Morris Zapp or Yaz McKay (whose star is clearly on the rise) stands a Ji-Yoon Kim, who, having enjoyed her moment in the academic limelight, finds reward now in a supporting role. In one of its guises, then, The Chair is a fanfare for the common professor. Certainly this common professor is mighty grateful for it.