Netflix’s “The Chair,” released Aug. 20, depicts the fictional Pembroke University’s English department.
Although fictional in creation, “The Chair” speaks to the realities of higher education’s struggles with and contributions to uplifting the voices of students and marginalized groups and providing an inclusive, diverse example for departments and student bodies.
As “The Chair” opens, the camera pans to portraits of white male scholars, insinuating that higher education was formed and maintained by the intellect of white men.
However, the lack of historical representation contrasts with the present moment of Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim, played by Sandra Oh, a woman of color, walking to her office as department chair.
As a Netflix audience, we are urged to think: What voices have been historically muted? Do students see their identities represented in faculty?
Do marginalized faculty feel as though their intellectual contributions are valued by their contemporaries?
These questions not only attempt to challenge the notion of historical, dominant narratives, but also demand that higher education reconceptualize what is taught, how educators teach, and the impact on students.
Notably, Dr. Yaz McKay, played by Nana Mensah, understands the assignment(s): Professors must connect with their students creatively and critically.
Departments must validate the presence of people of color to effectively revitalize the kinds of intellectual, creative work that universities should be supporting.
Promote change, whether it be within literary canons or in rusty policies and procedures – tenure being one of the show’s main focuses.
The first season of “The Chair” ends with Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim’s content at being back in the classroom and Bill Dobson (played by Jay Duplass), the controversial professor with a record of student admiration, fighting for his professorship after accusations of Nazi sympathies.
Resolution, however, does not always reverberate in American higher education.
In Maine, conversations concerning voice and representation are on the rise. In a July 2020 article by Maine Public, University of Southern Maine faculty and staff voiced their concerns.
In a letter penned by Faculty and Staff of Color Association, one point of action was to “take active steps to not only recruit, but retain faculty, staff, and students of color.”
Additionally, in a 2015 article written for Bowdoin College’s student-led newspaper, The Bowdoin Orient, racial disparities between faculty and staff were named as a continued obstacle, location being “The Maine Problem,” as one of the article’s subheadings notes.
The implications of location create a lack of presence and, thus, voices of people of color.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, roughly 94 percent of Maine’s population was white in 2020, leaving 6 percent identifying as Black or African American; American Indian and Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander; two or more races, or Hispanic or Latino.
A report released by the University of Maine’s Robert Dana in January 2019 and updated a year later found that 76 percent of the university’s faculty and staff identified as white and 6 percent as nonwhite (18 percent was reported as unknown).
Comparable to the student body, 82 percent identified as white and 12 percent as nonwhite (6 percent was reported as unknown).
In a comparison to Kamala Harris’ swearing in as vice president of the United States, her victory instilled hope in little girls, who saw their identities represented in her, that they too could hold high positions.
The same goes for higher education.
As “The Chair” enables viewers to comprehend that the presence of faculty and staff of color validates their and their students’ voices and scholarship, attention must be drawn toward inclusive pedagogies in real life, adopting readings by people of color and providing the space for student experiences to be considered academic, a classroom and community effort.
Although Netflix has not announced a second season of “The Chair,” we might expect that it would continue to highlight the role of higher education in positioning people of color and, specifically, women of color, as the show already posits, as emblems of a generational understanding of anti-racist, anti-sexist conversations in intellectual, creative spaces such as English departments.