In the fall of 2015, a Yale lecturer sent an email objecting to the university’s guidance on controversial Halloween costumes. She advocated that the students should police themselves according to mores that would mutually evolve between them. What made the story into a national headline was a 20-minute video of the lecturer’s husband, a Yale professor himself, engaged in an emotional discussion with students outside on a college quad. You might remember it. The students were audibly and visibly upset; the professor was defensive. Regardless of how you felt about the initial email, the showdown was hard to watch.
Bill Dobson kicks off episode three of The Chair with a fun new Hitler joke and a plan for dealing with the nuisance of being held accountable for his original Nazi salute, now a viral sensation. The university wants him to sit down with its PR guy and write an apology, but Bill’s not sorry; he’s misunderstood. If only he could talk it out with the protesters in an open forum, he’s sure they’d see he’s no scourge on Pembroke. If anything, he’s its Socrates. It doesn’t faze Bill that the chair of his department and the dean of his college think the scheme will fail; the terms of his tenure prevent anyone from stopping him.
To be fair to Bill, at least he is concerned with the ideals at stake. Pembroke isn’t worried that Bill’s a Nazi; it’s worried that Pembroke donors might think he’s a Nazi. The university wants alumni to quit calling the president, and it wants the meme to fade from its Google search results. And if this all ends in Bill’s resignation, so be it. The university needs to trim the English budget anyway.
Meanwhile, Bill is so impressed by his own charm that he’s oblivious to his chauvinism. “I like when you act like you’re my boss,” he condescends to Ji-Yoon. In the space of the same conversation, he has the nerve to ask her on a date and dismisses everything she says, including that she is genuinely upset over the trouble he’s causing. She wanted to bring the English department into the 21st century, and now she’s stuck defending its puffed-up enfant terrible. (Seriously, how does he manage so much pomposity while walking around in an Aircast?) Thankfully, Ji-Yoon pinpoints exactly what’s so offensive about Bill’s reaction to the situation: He’s too comfortable making other people uncomfortable for no significant reason. It’s not his fascism on trial, she explains, it’s his limitless arrogance.
Bill’s self-righteous crusade is just one more thing on her plate, which is always Thanksgiving-dinner-level full. Yaz’s tenure case is going off the rails; Joan is still dwelling in a dungeon without Wi-Fi; and, while it hardly comes up, she has actual students to advise. Every little thing that touches the English department runs through the chair, from the purchase order for an internet repeater to the mental health of its Ph.D. candidates. Ji-Yoon meets with poor Lila, who is getting hounded by reporters about Bill’s screwup, which endangers her own academic future. When Ji-Yoon warns her not to comment, though, the collegial advice sounds like a threat.
And now Yaz is unhappy too. Her co-taught course on Moby-Dick is sinking faster than the Pequod. The students want to address Melville’s rumored domestic abuse, but Elliot insists on staying so close to the text that he’s liable to suffocate it. It’s not just that he hasn’t updated his lectures in 30 years — it’s that he hasn’t been listening to the conversation. Yaz assures the students that they’ll revisit the wife-beating in her section, but pitting herself against Elliot comes at an immediate personal cost. When Ji-Yoon instructs him to include feminist and critical race theorists among Yaz’s external evaluators, the old fogey all but blows a raspberry.
Meanwhile, Bill’s classes have been postponed, which somehow surprises him. Everyone but Joan thinks this town hall is a bad idea, including the usually fawning Dafna, who wants him to understand the broader anti-Semitic context he insists on goose-stepping into. There are already campus copycats posting knockoffs of his meme. But Bill doesn’t trouble himself with anything so vulgar as consequences. The ease with which he blows off everyone’s advice reveals him to be a very specific kind of shit.
Joan, too, would prefer to ignore the world of consequences. Having read enough of her student evals to understand she’s boring, she sets them on fire in her office, which is just about the least boring thing you can do to student evals. She is still dripping with extinguisher juice when an IT guy with an ambiguous crush on her comes to install the internet. He reads aloud to her — not from her beloved Chaucer but the minuscule font of RateMyProfessors.com. The anonymous posts are mostly nasty remarks about her looks, so maybe she was better off without Wi-Fi.
Perhaps the worst part about the chair’s workday so far is that it never seems to end. Tonight, Ji-Yoon is beholden to dinner with Dean Larson and Mrs. Whittenden, the board trustee who endowed Yaz’s distinguished lectureship. Except it’s not Yaz’s anymore. Mrs. Whittenden offered it to David Duchovny, who almost got his Ph.D. in English. (He is also a New York Times best-selling author.) The dean, increasingly the villain of our story, is tickled at the prospect of butts in seats and cash on hand. The kids want movie stars and creative-writing degrees, so someone better find Mulder an office.
But if Larson is the enemy of intellect, then Bill can’t be all bad. Right now, he’s babysitting the unassailably shrewd Juju, who can tell when an adult’s evading the truth. Sadly, she still seems to be harboring anti-Ji-Yoon sentiments, insisting to Bill that she wants to be both young and married when she has a baby. More softly, she confides that she doesn’t remember her birth mom. As if to underline this moment of identity crisis, her teacher has named Juju the class leader for Día de los Muertos, and she sweetly offers to build Bill’s wife an altar. The pair fall asleep holding hands, and, yes, he did the Kims’ dishes, but the Juju whisperer can still be a dick. When Ji-Yoon asks to game-plan the town hall, he lapses into “Springtime for Hitler.”
It’s snowing on the morning of the town hall, which is well attended but not overwhelmingly so. Though the students are clearly upset and their questions can be pointed, Bill does well to stay relaxed and nonconfrontational. The students occasionally misunderstand him, and it doesn’t really matter if the confusion is willful or not. The breakdown is happening. It reveals something about what’s going wrong on campus.
But when Bill perceives blame in a question about a recent anti-Semitic incident — someone drew a swastika — he balks at the implication that his actions contributed to an atmosphere of permissiveness. Suddenly, time’s up. The students want an apology; Bill can’t commit. It’s a perfect storm. The dean arrives, though he’s actually trying to clear the quad for a donor event. The students are upset at Bill, but, man, they really hate that guy. Campus police roll in at an intimidating moment, though my guess is that on this campus they’re a mostly benevolent force that opens locked dorms and provides drunk-rides.
The Pembroke town hall never gets as emotional or personal as the Yale video — a story with its own twisty resolution. Eventually, that tenured professor stepped down from his community role as a head of a residential college within the university, though he continues to teach there. The controversy ushered in an era of reckoning that saw Yale change the name of a college honoring a famous proponent of slavery. The term head of college was subbed in for master. Then, in 2018, with no comment about the 2015 protests, the professor from the combustible video was awarded Yale’s highest faculty honor.
The town hall is a total bust, and episode three ends precisely where episode two did, with chants of “Dobson out.” Finally, panic flickers in his eyes. Bill might lose his job, which would, at the very least, free up a desk for David Duchovny.