“The Chair” Offers a Critical Look at Campus Politics

“The Chair” Offers a Critical Look at Campus Politics
portrait of Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.
By Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.

Published on September 2, 2021

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(Warning: This review contains spoilers.)

The new Netflix series "The Chair" explores academic life, offering a scathing — and occasionally hilarious — critique of today's campus climate.

Throughout the six-episode season, viewers are bombarded with "-isms" — racism, sexism, ageism, even fascism. We encounter various headline-grabbing issues embedded in America's colleges such as race and privilege, cancel culture and Title IX.

And we're reminded that despite lofty rhetoric around the intrinsic value of teaching, learning, and the pursuit of truth, universities are first and foremost bottom-line institutions intent on getting butts in seats.

Meet the New Chair at Pembroke University

As the show opens, Ji-Yoon Kim, an Asian American professor played by Sandra Oh, is just beginning her stint as chair of the English department at fictitious Pembroke University. She's the first woman and first minority chair in the department's history.

It's a big deal for Pembroke, whose faculty are predominantly white and male, especially in the English department. Pembroke is described as a "lower-tier Ivy," though it's often hard to tell just how Ivyish it really is. It certainly has an Ivy League moniker; Pembroke is the name of the former women's college at Brown University.

A running theme centers on Pembroke's enrollment crunch, which hardly characterizes today's near-Ivy schools. And the faculty salaries we see early on aren't on par with Ivy standards.

The show deals with serious issues mostly in a serious way, with humor punctuating uncomfortable situations.

Still, the school looks the part. Manicured grounds, stately buildings, wood-paneled walls and crimson-carpeted floors, stained-glass windows, opulent offices, and a Princeton-like coat of arms lend the right gravitas. Campus scenes actually are shot at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pennsylvania, and at the Shadyside campus of Chatham University in Pittsburgh.

In case there's any doubt about the show's genre, we're soon clued in to its comedic intent. Settling into her new office, Ji-Yoon unwraps a nameplate replete with f-bombs, sits back, and promptly falls to the floor as her chair collapses beneath her — a metaphorical foreshadowing if there ever was one.

Yet it's not a traditional sitcom in the truest sense. Some critics label it satire, while others say it fails on that count. Some call it a drama. Perhaps it's best described as a dramedy or a dark comedy. The show deals with serious issues mostly in a serious way, with humor punctuating uncomfortable situations.

Generations and Styles Clash

Early on we meet Bill Dobson, played by Jay Duplass, Ji-Yoon's bumbling foil, faculty colleague, and ambiguous romantic interest. Bill's a middle-aged, white, tenured professor who's been at Pembroke for years and enjoys an almost cult-like following among his students.

Since his wife's recent death, he's become a depressed quasi-alcoholic and has let his teaching and scholarship slip. Ji-Yoon takes him to task for listing eight weeks on his syllabus as "TBD."

Most of the remaining English faculty are older and white. They include Elliot (Bob Balaban), who's grudgingly aware his glory days are well behind him, and Joan (Holland Taylor), a septuagenarian who's dubious about student evaluations and whose primary beef involves her office being moved to the gymnasium basement.

Then there's Yasmine "Yaz" McKay (Nana Mensah), the brilliant, Black junior professor up for tenure. Ji-Yoon's a big fan of Yaz's and wants her to receive tenure so she can help shake things up, add much-needed diverse perspectives, and revive the flagging department.

Yaz, who happens to look, think and act a whole lot more like her students than these crusty old relics do, is Pembroke's future.

Ji-Yoon pairs Yaz with Elliot so they can team-teach a course, which fails miserably when modern teaching methods clash with "sage-on-the-stage" lecturing and when discussions of "Moby Dick" turn to Melville's misogyny, which Elliot summarily dismisses and Yaz promises to explore.

The problem is, Elliot chairs Yaz's tenure committee. He treats her more like a TA than a colleague and perhaps perceives her as a threat. Let's just say Ji-Yoon's plan backfires a bit, and Yaz's tenure bid doesn't go swimmingly.

Throughout the show, Ji-Yoon is caught between trying to do what's right for her department and trying to placate the dean, Paul Larson (David Morse). He's an officious administrator intent on boosting enrollment by any means, cutting budgets by weeding out overpaid faculty, and bowing to the whims of donors and trustees.

A Classroom Gesture Ignites Controversy

"The Chair" delves into "cancel culture," free speech, and tenure through a dramatic turn of events. In a lecture on absurdism and fascism, Bill blithely delivers a Nazi salute, which of course is captured on a cell phone, doctored up, and distributed over social media as a disturbing meme.

Things unravel quickly. We meet Pembroke's robotic communications director, who blathers on about reputation management and apology statements. Bill's first line of defense is his tenure, and he'd rather speak directly to students, town-hall style. The dean, ever cognizant of the bigger picture, mentions threatening calls from donors and alumni. Bill might have free speech, but money talks.

Pembroke's students aren't buying what Bill's selling. They're portrayed as self-righteous, almost dogmatic in their eagerness to expose and disrupt a system that protects people like Bill. "Universities are supposed to encourage dissent," Bill tells the dean. "We should be proud of these kids." Yet they are ultimately responsible for his undoing.

Or are they? "The Chair" never lets Bill become a sympathetic hero. Neither does Ji-Yoon, who's torn between her self-proclaimed role as Bill's "boss" and her feelings for him as a friend and would-be love interest.

In fact, none of the male characters are portrayed as entirely competent, let alone heroic. Everyone in the show has flaws, but the male characters come across as one-dimensional tropes: the scruffy, middle-aged, alcoholic prof; the overbearing, sycophantic dean; the mindless automaton PR guy; the Einstein-haired old coot who sleeps through meetings and indiscriminately farts.

An aging, white, male-dominated faculty clinging to ancient pedagogy and traditional narratives doesn't reflect the diversity, worldview, and learning preferences of today's college students.

Meanwhile, the female characters are far more nuanced. Even Ji-Yoon's adopted young daughter Ju Ju, precocious to a comic fault, seems to have a solid grasp on reality. "Why are you a doctor?" she asks Ji-Yoon. "You never help anybody."

And that's exactly how Ji-Yoon feels — powerless in a system set up to perpetuate the status quo while everything around it is changing at light speed. An aging, white, male-dominated faculty clinging to ancient pedagogy and traditional narratives doesn't reflect the diversity, worldview, and learning preferences of today's college students.

The smallest of skirmishes prove unwinnable. When a trustee offers a lectureship to the actor and faux-academic David Duchovny that Ji-Yoon already promised to Yaz, Ji-Yoon must capitulate. To the dean, star power equals enrollments.

Finally, in her effort to prevent Bill's death spiral, Ji-Yoon gets accused of being complicit in the cover-up and is tarred by students with the same contemptuous brush. Now she's perceived as more of the problem than the solution. Her chair is on its last legs.

As the series winds down, a faculty coup leads to a change in departmental leadership, and Ji-Yoon seems relieved that she can return to teaching. Academic governance can be messy and frustrating because very little power is actually wielded, and one's ability to effect change relies on the cooperation of many factions that may have competing agendas.

What's Next for "The Chair"?

Given this turn of events, we might conclude "The Chair" was conceived as a six-episode miniseries and that its run is complete. Yet Netflix calls its offering "season one," implying there's more to come. Rumors of season two are already afoot.

And why not? "The Chair" has plenty of fertile ground to till. We haven't seen any adjunct faculty, nor heard any word of their worsening plight. No mention of online learning, COVID-19, vaccines, or facemasks. What about athletics and the new generation of millionaires spawned by name, image, and likeness deals? We have enough fodder for a few more seasons.

But for now, let's appreciate the show for its thoughtful, if somewhat jaded, exploration of campus politics and the fascinating peculiarities of faculty life.


Feature Image: NurPhoto / Contributor / Getty Images

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