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‘The Chair’ Brings the Campus Home

We’re all living on campus now, and Netflix’s new dramedy shows how dreadful that life can be.
August 24, 2021
‘The Chair’ Brings the Campus Home

There is an old saying that “Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small.” But in recent years, the stakes of higher education have been increasing in both attention and intensity—and left the whole scene ripe for satire.

While there has always been campus drama, more and more news has started to highlight the variety of dramas that has rocked several American universities. You couldn’t escape the coverage of the “Varsity Blues” scandal in 2019, which featured parents trying to bribe their kids’ way into college. That’s on top of the interest in Cornel West’s tenure battle with Harvard, Amy Chua’s dinner parties with Yale Law students, and the firing of Garrett Felber for his criticism of the University of Mississippi. But this pales in comparison to the attention to the political climate on American campuses. From the protests at Yale over Halloween costumes, to the Evergreen State College controversy, to the protests of speeches by conservative provocateurs and right-wing intellectuals, not since the 1960s have so many colleges been roiled in so much controversy.

As a result, it was only a matter of time before the entertainment industry took notice and set a fictional dramedy on a college campus.

Netflix’s The Chair centers on Sandra Oh as Ji-Yoon Kim, a professor of English at the fictional Pembroke University, who has recently been appointed the chair of the department. While one might think this is a promotion, the reality soon sets in: Kim is at the mercy of Dean Paul Larson (David Morse), the university’s wealthy donors, and the social media power of the students. Adding to her stress is the all-too-real department infighting, particularly in the tension between the once-celebrated but now aged-and-unpopular professor of American literature Elliot Rentz (Bob Balaban) and the prominent and untenured Professor Yaz McKay (Nana Mensah). Kim also has to deal with the ongoing complaints of Professor Joan Hambling (the scene-stealing Holland Taylor) and the increasingly unprofessional antics of grief-stricken and alcoholic Professor Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass). In short, while the position comes with an unrealistically nice office, it’s also saddled with little-to-no institutional power. Professor Kim’s role as chair is more about damage control than encouraging the study of literature.

While Netflix originals notoriously suffer from bloat, The Chair’s season of six 30-minute episodes is incredibly crisp; perhaps someone at Netflix is finally picking up on what the BBC learned years ago. Created by Amanda Peet and Harvard English Ph.D. graduate Annie Wyman, The Chair tackles many of the problems plaguing the American university today, as well as the issues of the people who are in charge. Mixing cringe comedy with bureaucratic melodrama, the Chair exposes viewers to the gatekeeping, departmental bickering, and antagonistic culture that makes up much of elite higher education. Many of this season’s storylines feel ripped from the headlines, lending the show both authenticity and inducing anxiety in anyone who has personal experience in academia.

The Chair is ambiguous in its treatment of the various controversies and nontroversies that swirl about its professors and its students. The inciting incident that overshadows the arc of the first season stems from Professor Dobson’s satirical salute to Hitler while giving a lecture on absurdism and fascism. While Professor Dobson’s Nazi salute is clearly done in jest, his political unawareness and indifference to the consequences of his actions is hard to excuse, a point driven home by Professor Kim’s condemnation of his self-entitlement. Yet, the very students who claim to be offended by his totalitarian gesture (while also admitting to not doing any of the reading they’d been assigned) were filming him without his knowledge from the very beginning of his lecture. If they’d been better students, they might understand the totalitarian overtones of constant surveillance. Even so, soon the campus is embroiled in controversy, with Professor Kim facing mounting pressure from all sides.

The conflict between rising star McKay and the once-celebrated Rentz is also striking. Despite once being a giant in his field, Professor Rentz’s lectures on “American Letters From 1850 to 1918” are practically empty, passed over for the far more appealingly titled class “Sex and the Novel,” led by Professor McKay. When the pair are forced to share a classroom, the differences in their scholarly interests and pedagogy are only intensified. As a black woman facing tenure review (of which Professor Rentz has been appointed chair of her tenure committee, making it even more awkward), Professor McKay is all too cognizant of the perils of rocking the boat yet is constantly at risk at not being taken as seriously as her white male colleagues. Yet it is Professor McKay’s success and popularity that serve as a reminder to Professor Rentz how old he is and how out of fashion he has become. As different as they may be, their mutual love of Moby-Dick comes through, as does their mutual fear of being cast aside. The pair embody but a small slice of the racial, generational, gendered, and institutional conflict that drives The Chair’s most interesting moments.

Because of its niche setting and mildly nonjudgmental approach, the show gives everyone obsessed with the happenings of higher education exactly what they want. For those who see tenure as a shield for academics to settle into a cushy job, their criticism will be confirmed by the so-called “dinosaurs” of the department who refuse to retire despite their low enrollment numbers and negative student feedback. Viewers who believe universities have become nothing but student-driven resorts, with little concern for educational achievement, will be presented with scene upon scene of the dean scheming up ways to entice students (including hiring the actor and novelist David Duchovny). Those who believe students shouldn’t be catered to will appreciate characters who refuse to bow down to market pressures like enrollment numbers or rude student feedback. On the other hand, those who wish academics would find more dynamic ways to reach students, will love the unconventional educational methods, such as the moment when Professor McKay’s students channel the rap-musical stylings of Hamilton to sing “No Women Onboard.” But this scene is a rarity: most of the time students look disengaged, paying attention to their phones instead of the lecture, playing into the widespread belief that students just don’t take their study as seriously as they used to. If you have a pet hobby to cheer or jeer on the topic of American higher education, The Chair will provide it.

The picture of campus life painted by The Chair is often bleak—though if the action had been moved from an Ivy League-style campus to the more common world of regional and liberal arts colleges, and focused on the demands placed on adjunct professors, it might have been even bleaker. Students feel unheard by teachers, professors struggle to instruct their undergraduates, graduate students fight in vain for their supervisor’s attention, not to mention dean’s anxieties over enrollment, funding from alumni, the state of the endowment, as well as the university rankings. Though it is set in an English department, The Chair could have been set on any liberal arts or humanities department facing these very real concerns. Despite this vaguely dystopian setting, there are still more Ph.Ds. being produced than there are jobs to go around, more colleges are being closed due to shrinking enrollment numbers, and academic scandals continue to shock and fascinate onlookers. The Chair is at its best when it reveals the unruly and often contradictory nature of the modern American university.

Even so, one might finish watching The Chair and wonder who on earth would want to work in this environment? Hard to say. I’ll think about it a bit more after I finish up this dissertation.

Daniel N. Gullotta

Daniel N. Gullotta is the Archer Fellow in Residence at the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University, and a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University specializing in American religious history. Substack: The Letters of Wyoming. Twitter: @danielgullotta.