For those in college right now, The Chair might hit a little too close to home. (And for those who are out of school and have gone into teaching, it will hit way too close to home.) One of the reasons for this is Pembroke University, the stately institution where the action takes place. From the old buildings to the kids carrying coffees through the quad as they hurry to class, it all feels super real. So, is The Chair’s Pembroke University a real college? Let’s do some academic research.
Warning: Spoilers for The Chair Season 1 follow. Like many colleges, Pembroke University is struggling in its attempt to move into the 21st century. As an institution that’s stood for most of the 20th century, it’s old and set in its ways, and its faculty, especially the English department, is not exactly full of forward-thinking individuals. But they have at least tried something: giving the department’s chair position to Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh), thus making her the first woman of color to hold the position.
Unfortunately, it’s not an enviable position. Enrollment is down across the board, the older white male teachers are resistant to change, and the younger professors coming up behind them are struggling to be taken seriously. It’s all too much like the real-life college experience that’s going on now in 2021.
But that doesn’t mean Pembroke is a real place. Although it certainly feels real, the characters (and some of the situations) are fictionalized. There is no standalone Pembroke University, although there is a Pembroke at the University of North Carolina as well as a Pembroke College within Cambridge in the U.K. Instead, however, Pembroke is a stand-in for many colleges that dot the Northeastern landscape of the U.S., especially the Ivy Leagues, for whom these situations are all too familiar.
The Nazi scandal that envelops the college also didn’t happen, but it is evocative of real-life incidents in which college professors were accused of doing something racist or sexist or generally scandalous in the classroom and then claimed it was the privilege of education that allowed for such things.
That said, Pembroke doesn’t seem like a bad place to go to school (although perhaps it could use a few retirements). At least there are up-and-comers like Yaz (Nana Mensah) and professors like Dr. Kim, who genuinely believe in the power of what they do.
The Chair is streaming on Netflix now.