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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Searching for a Chair

Universities are very complex institutions. I'm sure the average person doesn't understand how they are run. The reason I'm so sure of this is because the average professor doesn't know either! In fact, I'm not sure anyone knows.

A typical large university is divided into several faculties like law, medicine, engineering, arts & humanities, science etc. Each faculty has a Dean who is head of the faculty. Large faculties contain many departments; for example, a faculty of science might have departments of physics, geology, chemistry, and biology. Each department has a chair who is responsible for the administration of the department and for making decisions about hiring, firing, promotions, salary increases etc.

My department is the Department of Biochemistry in the Faculty of Medicine. The position of departmental chair is a five year appointment that is renewable once for a total of ten years. The ten years are up for our current chair so we have to find a new one. This is always a traumatic time for a university department.

The process begins with an addvertisment that's placed in prominent science journals and distributed to various other departments in Canada.
Chair, Department of Biochemistry
University of Toronto, Faculty of Medicine
Toronto, ON

Posted: December 5th, 2011

Applications are invited for the position of Chair, Department of Biochemistry, Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto, for a 5-year term on or before January 1, 2013.

The Department of Biochemistry at the University of Toronto is a diverse and highly-productive department with a broad range of research areas including protein structure and folding, cell biology, computational biology, and genomics/proteomics. The department has 60 faculty members located at the university’s St. George campus, The Hospital for Sick Children, Princess Margaret Hospital, Mount Sinai Hospital, and other sites in the University of Toronto community. The department is an important component of the University of Toronto academic health science complex, which is among the largest in North America. The department offers programs leading to MSc and PhD degrees, as well as a strong undergraduate program in biochemistry.

The University of Toronto academic health science complex is among the largest in North America. The Faculty of Medicine ( and its nine fully-affiliated hospitals receive over CAN $700 million per annum in research funds.

In addition to a record of academic excellence, the successful candidate will possess outstanding leadership, administrative management, and communication skills to direct a geographically-dispersed department. The individual will bring entrepreneurial vision and execute strategies to enable the Department to build and to sustain effective partnerships. Candidates should have a track record of successful and innovative leadership in education and research. The successful candidate should be eligible for tenured academic appointment at the rank of full professor in the Department of Biochemistry. The next Chair must have the vision and ability to take the Department of Biochemistry to a new level of international recognition and achievement.

Applications consisting of a letter of interest and CV may be submitted online at (Job # 1101059) or by sending to:

Prof. Catharine Whiteside, Dean
c/o Anastasia Meletopoulos, Academic Affairs Specialist
Office of the Dean, Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto
Room 2109, Medical Sciences Building
1 King's College Circle
Toronto, Ontario M5S 1A8, CANADA
Fax: 416 978 1774

The closing date for this position is January 31, 2012, or until filled.

For detailed information on the department, visit its Web site at

The University of Toronto is strongly committed to diversity within its community and especially welcomes applications from visible minority group members, women, Aboriginal persons, persons with disabilities, members of sexual minority groups, and others who may contribute to the further diversification of ideas. All qualified candidates are encouraged to apply; however, Canadians and permanent residents will be given priority.
The applications are reviewed by a search committee chaired by the Dean. Other ex officio members are; a Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, a representative of the Graduate School, and the chair of a cognate department. The committee has an undergraduate from our department and a graduate student in the department. In addition, there are seven professors from our department on the committee. The departmental representatives are split between those in the academic core (on campus) and those who are employed by hospital research institutes but have an academic appointment in our department.

After reviewing all the applications, the search committee draws up a short list of suitable candidates. These candidates are then invited to visit the department and give a seminar on their work. After the seminar they meet with members of the department, faculty, staff, and students in a 45 minute forum where we can ask questions.

This is the stage we're at right now. The candidates will be arriving in a couple of weeks. We have two from Toronto and two from other cities in Canada.

During their visit, the candidates meet with the search committee where they will be asked a series of prepared questions. Each candidate will be asked the same questions. After all four candidates have been interviewed, the search committee will make a recommendation to the Dean. The Dean is not obliged to offer the job to the recommended candidate but it would be highly unusual if she were to ignore the recommendation by the search committee. The committee may decide that none of the candidates are suitable for the job.

Once a candidate has been recommended, the Dean negotiates a deal that the candidate is willing to accept. (Salary, research space, and various benefits to the department are usually on the table.) Negotiations can fail if the demands of the candidate aren't met. In this case, the offer will go to the second choice of the search committee, if there is one.

How does this process compare to other departments and universities?


  1. Sounds just like ours, although the actual formation of the search committee seems to be a major hurdle to pass hereabouts...

    1. We also had a problem with that. In fact, the entire department had to write a petition to the Dean to get the composition of the search committee changed. (We were only partially successful.)

      There a bureaucrat in the Dean's office who think they know which members of the department would be suitable members of a search committee.

      Guess what? They don't.

  2. The Soil Science department in the faculty of Agriculture and Bioresources here at the University of Saskatchewan went through a similar chair-choosing process last year; our new chair started here a couple of months ago.

    As a PhD student I was not privy to most of the details of the process, but from what I did see it seems quite similar to what you describe. Advertisements were sent out, applications were screened by a committee and a short list was created. Short-listed candidates were invited to present a seminar and have a series of discussions with members of the department. Feedback was sought from those members of the department as well as more in-depth evaluations from the committee, then the chosen candidate was contacted to negotiate the details of salary and lab space and so forth.

    I'm also curious if there are university departments that go through a very different chair-selection process.

    1. I'm also curious if there are university departments that go through a very different chair-selection process.

      Yes. The process has been very different in our own Faculty up until now. Our type of search is called an "open" search because the names of the short-listed candidates are public knowledge and people who aren't on the search committee have a say.

      All other searches in the Faculty of Medicine for the past eight years have been "closed" searches where the identities of the candidates are only known to the members of the search committee and they are sworn to secrecy.

      The other members of the department don't know who the next chair will be until the name of the successful candidate is announced.

      We fought hard to turn our search into an open search. The Dean finally agreed but the process is only partially open and that's still a problem.

      One of the advantages of an open search is that you can solicit comments from people who know the candidate. You can't do that when everything is secret.

      We've hired many senior people in our Faculty by the closed process. In some cases, the home university threw huge farewell parties (slight exaggeration, but you get the picture) when our successful candidate left. Unfortunately for us, they had the celebrations AFTER they had gotten rid of the candidate!

  3. Does the average professor know how to correct the sentence below?

    "The reason I'm so sure of this is because the average professors doesn't know either!"

  4. The final paragraph of the job posting seems pretty standard, but I continue to cringe when I read it. The word "women" should be omitted from the paragraph: women are not a minority group and there are women in all the other groups the paragraph mentions. Assuring women in general that their applications are welcome is insulting and the rest is just CYA speak.

    1. ... isn't that sentence admitting that women are under-represented within the university faculty, and they are seeking to remedy this problem? Nowhere does it call them a minority.

      -The Other Jim

    2. I agree with Veronica. The entire paragraph is demeaning and condescending.

      Unfortunately, it's the law.

    3. I interpreted her statement as only upset about the inclusion "women", and fine with the rest. Let me know if I'm incorrect about this.

    4. Anonymous

      You are incorrect. If you notice I said that "the rest is just CYA speak." Do you know what CYA stands for?

  5. Most departments I'm familiar with have chairs appointed from within the faculty. The term varies, anywhere from annual to five years. The appointment is made by the dean, but usually with input from the department in the form of a vote.

    Only in exceptional cases is the chair hired as a new faculty position from outside the university. Usually because the department has required some kind of restructuring or has undergone an external review that recommended major changes.

  6. What happens to the previous Chair in your Department? Does he/she tend to stay on as an ordinary tenured faculty member, or does he/she tend to move on to another institution?

    In my current Department, the Chair's positionis basically administrative-only and is filled by election of one of the existing tenured faculty by the faculty. I'm not aware of any outside searches. On the other hand, at the department where I got my Ph.D., the process was very similar to the one that you describe (except that, at that time, there was no term limit for the Chair - the previous Chair had occupied the position for something like thirty years).

    1. What happens to the previous Chair in your Department? Does he/she tend to stay on as an ordinary tenured faculty member, or does he/she tend to move on to another institution?

      In most cases the former chair stays on as an ordinary faculty member.

      That hasn't been what happened in our department. All of our former chairs over the past sixty years have moved on to other jobs (with one minor exception). One became President of the University, one became Principal of a college, one became a Vice Dean, one became a senior executive at a pharmaceutical company etc.

  7. I can't comment from recent experience but, when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley, the physics department usually assigned one of the existing faculty as chairman, a thankless job at best. The chair at the time was a man named Helmholtz, who, I understand, was descended from Hermann von Helmholtz, the 19th Century physicist and physician.