The Chair Is a Case Study of the Glass Cliff Phenomenon in Higher Ed

For many in the academy, the new Netflix program hits all the wrong notes in the right way.

university building symbolizes need to reexamine tenure

#AcademicTwitter was aflutter over the weekend with the release of Netflix’s The Chair—a dramedy starring Sandra Oh set on an idyllic college campus. Oh is supported by an outstanding ensemble cast including Holland Taylor, Jay Duplass, and David Morse. Oh is brilliant in her role and the show is receiving rave reviews. I binge-watched the entire series with delight and, if you haven’t yet, I encourage you to check it out. The show’s writers pack a lot of content into the dialogue-rich series that may warrant multiple viewings.

Oh portrays Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim, the first BIPOC woman to be appointed chair of her institution’s English department. Among the many plot lines is Kim’s struggle to get a young Black woman faculty member (portrayed wonderfully by Nana Mensah as Dr. Yaz Mckay) awarded tenure despite the floundering department’s white professoriate who are determined to maintain the status quo.

We soon find out why the status quo remains a hard battle to win for Oh’s character. The older, white professors have the smallest course loads and enrollments and yet they have the highest salaries. We also discover, of course, that it is the sole junior Black female faculty member who has the lowest salary, the highest teaching load, and largest course enrollments. There are several key subplots involving Oh and Mensah that warrant discussions including career-damaging professional jealousy from peers.  

Oh’s character simultaneously negotiates the perilous yet invisible difficulties BIPOC women administrators face, single parenthood, and honoring Korean cultural traditions within her family. The nuanced and deliberateness of her performance delivers us a rare, but realistic representation of BIPOC women higher education leaders (paywalled preview). 

While there are stories in various publications that vet the accuracy of the program, discuss its realism, and even highlight the fashion choices of Oh’s character (which bothers me deeply because I don’t see this happen with shows centered around men), several scholars on Twitter are observing how triggering the show is for them. Not surprisingly, many of these scholars are BIPOC women.

I believe BIPOC women in the academy find Oh’s character so relatable because she articulates the glass cliff phenomenon (paywalled) that many of us experience. Far too often, BIPOC women are wooed into higher education administration with the promise to influence an institution’s future only to be stymied at every turn. 

Moreover, BIPOC women higher education administrators are assigned to intensive crisis management “clean up duty,” tasked to solve for decades of systemic neglect of problem faculty and staff and student unrest. BIPOC women higher education administrators also frequently find their efforts to advance transformational DEIA initiatives undermined at every level of their units. 

I feel like someone handed me a ticking time-bomb because they wanted to make sure a woman was holding it when it explodes.

Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim, The Chair

All higher education leaders and staff must spend time in dialogue and action and, when appropriate, research, to determine why the glass cliff phenomenon exists for BIPOC women in higher education administration. It’s one thing to celebrate the presence of BIPOC women administrators on campus. It is another to support the advancement of their vision, goals, and well-being. 

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Header image is a detail of This is Harlem by Jacob Lawrence. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. For more information, click here.