When some of the most popular films set in universities include Animal House, Old School, and Legally Blonde, it’s safe to say that pop culture hasn’t done a great job at capturing what higher education is really like. The Chair isn’t perfect either, but at least the new Netflix dramedy series attempts to get the academic side right and actually nail the sorts of conversations that are going on in the faculty lounge.
Created by Amanda Peet and Harvard PhD Annie Julia Wyman, the show stars Sandra Oh as Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim, the first woman chair of the English Department at a stuffy “lesser Ivy.” Over six biting episodes, it tackles structural issues like sexism and racism in a way that’s refreshing and novel. It also features a stellar cast of supporting characters, including Joan, a flustered, close-to-retirement Chaucer scholar and second-wave feminist who spies on the students who are posting about her on RateMyProfessor.com (Holland Taylor); Bill, an unstable, Joy Division-loving star professor who comes under fire after mimicking a nazi salute in class (Jay Duplass); and Yaz (Nana Mensah), a rising, talented, and underappreciated assistant professor who has her sights set on becoming the first Black woman tenured in her department.
The Atlantic has called The Chair “Netflix’s Best Drama Series in Years,” while The Washington Post raved it was “a timely exploration of how institutions are often resistant toward fresh approaches and diverse candidates, even to their own detriment.” But what do people who actually work in universities think? We decided to survey several academics who’ve watched the show. (You’ll notice that everyone polled identifies as a woman: every man VICE reached out to has yet to respond to our request for comment as of press time.)
What did ‘The Chair’ get right about academia?
Professor Lisa Zeidner (English, Rutgers University Camden): The pouty small-mindedness and sense of entitlement of a lot of faculty. The doddering old-timers, mystified that they’re not lecturing to legions of adoring students, are hilariously spot-on. And yes, university administrators actually use the phrase “butts in seats.”
Dr. Mai-Linh Hong (Literature, University of California Merced): It was hilarious and unnervingly true to my experience as an Asian American woman English professor. It's like they peeked in my brain and made me a custom dark comedy/horror show. Glad I watched with a crew and not alone! It especially captures the culture of small liberal arts colleges (SLACs), which embrace lofty academic ideals—the life of the mind, inspirational teaching—sometimes at the expense of attention to everyday social injustices. It also gets the intergenerational dynamic where younger scholars tend to be more diverse, more versed in critical approaches like ethnic studies or women's and gender studies, and more inclusive in their teaching. It's a rude awakening for them and some of their senior colleagues (mostly white and male, but not always) when they get hired and both groups realize the culture wars of the 80s are actually not over but are now being fought through tenure cases and in faculty meetings
Dr. Imani Perry (African American Studies, Princeton University): What I think is successful about the show, for me, is not its message per se. It is politically ambiguous in a way that leaves things much murkier than they are in the real world. I like that it homes in on pressure points, ideological, emotional, intellectual, and so it is interesting. And it wasn't a simple faculty vs. students, or chair vs. faculty divide. The tensions cut so many different ways. And I loved that they showed the PR cynicism that exists throughout academia. Institutional reputation is frequently a stronger driver than equity, inclusion and academic freedom. And that does produce all sorts of crises when it comes to creating community.
Professor Julie Schumacher (English, University of Minnesota): [There are a lot of] daunting, all-encompassing, sometimes wacky and sometimes dispiriting aspects of university administration. Sandra Oh, as chair, has to handle not only her own teaching and the academic leadership of her department, but financial crises, PR, Title IX issues, and dysfunctional faculty—while combating an increasing disdain or disinterest in literature and the liberal arts.
Dr. Whitney Pirtle (Sociology, University of California Merced): The show's treatment of women and women of color did accurately reflect academia and the way we're often sort of visible. [Sandra Oh’s character] jokes that we're on the brochures, but our visibility is heightened by the institutionalized invisibility of white privilege throughout that space.
Dr. Elizabeth E. Tavares (English, Alabama University): There's really a finger on the racial and sexual politics of being in an academic department, which shows the ways in which women are stuck in positions to not help each other. For example, the scene with the Title IX office, which I found really distasteful to make fun of Title IX. There's a situation where Sandra Oh's gets tied up quite literally tying a man's shoes so she can't be there to help her colleague at the Title IX office. The system is putting them at odds. As a woman, I've been put in situations where I can't actually support my female colleagues.
Aireale Rodgers (Graduate Student in Education, University of Southern California): I've been in higher education as a student, as an instructor, and I've attended historically white institutions for my entire post secondary career. I am a Black woman and graduate student applying for faculty jobs right now. Women of color in academia deserve the opportunities to be curious, self determined and to learn and grow. Our contributions exist well beyond our ability to persist or fix things or work twice as hard for half as much. Of course, we do that because we have to, but we also deserve to exist beyond that. The Chair also shows how those things come at a personal cost because we have to juggle and compromise to fit in. The show does an excellent job of highlighting some of those tensions that many women faculty of color face as they navigate the minefields of academia while also trying to stay true to their purpose and values.
What did ‘The Chair’ get wrong about academia?
Perry: So, "academia" isn't a monolith, which makes it hard to say easily what The Chair got wrong or right. But the most significant absence for me was that there were no adjuncts. Given that they're such a huge part of the academic teaching community, and so marginalized within it, I would have liked to see them depicted.
Zeidner: Adjuncts make up 56% of college professors. And 73% are on contracts rather than the tenure track, with no job security. On every walk through an actual campus, a breathless, tearful adjunct would have been trotting alongside Sandra Oh, pleading for a class assignment. With an entire class paying an average of $2,500, you need five a semester to eke out even a pathetic living.
Pirtle: The chair is a horrible job. This is not a position I would ever want. I don't know that the chair has as much power as the show portrayed it to have. Also, particular departments aren’t as insular as you’d think from this show. For me, maybe I don't have other Black women faculty in my department, but I know where my allies are at the university and we rely on each other in really important ways,
Schumacher: Sandra Oh being told that she should persuade less popular/older faculty to retire? I think the show's creators failed to take the ins and outs and the power of tenure into account.
Rodgers: I was also disappointed in how the show portrayed student activism. I know personally that my experiences in education were only as good as they were because of the predecessors’ struggle to have a more self determined educational experience. There's a Black Studies Program at Northwestern because in the 1960s Black students took over the Bursar's Office and demanded it. There's an Asian American Studies program because students went on hunger strike in the 1990s. I thought that The Chair cheapened that legacy and made it a kind of plot device rather than honoring the ways that students of color paved the way.
Perry: Professors are not attacked by left wing thought police nearly as often as right wing students are enlisted to perform surveillance on professors deemed leftist.
Hong: There are nuances that aren't perfect reflections of academia, but I don't think the show needs to be a perfect reflection. It's dramatizing academia for a larger audience. So, faculty meetings don't look like board meetings with the department chair presiding like a CEO—often, everyone's a bit rumpled, including the chair—but that doesn't really matter.
Can you name a visual detail from the show that struck you as spot-on or not?
Hong: The old buildings, wood paneling, stately but also kind of decrepit furniture, ring true to a certain kind of school that glorifies its past architecturally and culturally. Pembroke looks almost identical to some institutions I've been at as student or faculty.
Schumacher: The first thing that struck me as out of place: Sandra Oh's office. Good lord, who has an office that large and that well appointed? Pembroke supposedly has financial difficulties, but it's amazingly well furnished.
Tavares: I think some people who actually work at that filming location have tweeted about the office being a special room set aside for provosts and no one actually has an office like that. I think that it really tries to foster a particular image of higher ed that just doesn't exist. It's really homogenizing what college means. It's such a dated vision of college, especially after a year of teaching online.
Zeidner: I loved Joan’s subterranean office, with the thudding of weights from the gym overhead.
What was most personally resonant?
Tavares: In my first teaching job I was put in, I was given a shoebox of an office, which was fine, because previously, I didn't have an office. Then, one of my colleagues was fired for a series of sexual assaults the following year, so his office became available. The university told me, “You can stay in the shoe box, or you can have his nice corner office, which had been taped over with blackout blinds and was really dirty and creepy.” I took that other office and made it gorgeous and turned it into a safe space for students who had previously felt really threatened and terrified of that room.
Zeidner: Everything said in the series about unequal salaries for female profs.
Perry: The challenges of Sandra Oh's character as she managed home and work resonated deeply with me. She's such a brilliant actor and the anguish of being pulled away from her child by work, feeling unsure about her relationship with her daughter, and then feeling like the institution left her with so much dirty work, all of that was palpable.
Rodgers: The scene where Yaz was teaching and the students were performing in response to a reading. Everyone was so engaged and Yaz was just looking admirably at her students, but then the camera pans to Elliott, who is literally off in the distance grimacing with anger and jealousy. I immediately thought: I've seen this face. In presentations, when I'm presenting, I've seen this face before. There's this pervasiveness of silent hostility.
Pirtle: The gut-punch was when Ji-Yoon was telling Yaz, "You could be the first Black woman tenured." Yaz pauses and says, "That's the problem." That was so poignant. Both of them had to overcome so many obstacles to get there, and it's just like, is this a win? They're going to decide on my tenure case this year, and in my department, I would be the first Black person tenured.
What would you have wanted the show to spend more time on that it didn’t?
Tavares: At the end of the day, there is no moment, at least in the first episode, where anyone says anything about why [an English] major would matter? I don't understand what is gained by making fun of the major that teaches the skills of research, assessing expertise, and combating fake news.
Pirtle: We saw how Yaz has to push back gently against white men who aren’t being supportive because they feel slighted. I think decentering those white men more and really trying to do the work to center more women of color, I would have liked to see more of that. It would have been a better push to where I think we should go in the academy as well.
Rodgers: What were they hoping to portray? Because I was infuriated by the ending. The fact that Joan literally betrays Ji-Yoon for white male patriarchy then gets rewarded as the chair. It felt like I was supposed to perceive this as being justice. It's not. These weren't wins.
Hong: I've talked with other women-of-color scholars about the show, and there are things we wished had been more visible or had turned out more justly, but we recognize the realism in some of the unsatisfying nuances. For example, we wish the relationship between Ji-Yoon and Yaz was a more satisfying alliance, rather than kind of wishy-washy. Most of all, we wish so much attention hadn't been lavished on Bill. Yaz surely could use a backstory, more lines, more ideas, and more ways to engage with Ji-Yoon, who is trying to be an ally but doesn't quite make it. Bill is a self-absorbed, mediocre white man who doesn't shower, but he gets so much screen time and a sympathetic backstory. I guess that's reality, though, that sometimes folks like him get more space in academia as well as in Hollywood.