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The One True Thing

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So, yesterday, I found this

http://junctrebellion.wordpress.com/2012/08/12/how-the-american-university-was-killed-in-five-easy-steps/
on Facebook, posted to share by Cathy F.
It’s from a blog called The Homeless Adjunct, which I may look into over the next few days.
 
What struck me about it was that, although the author is obviously left wing, his core observation about what has gone wrong in colleges and universities in the United States was the same as mine–and his identification of the machinery that is driving that wrongness is also the same as mine.
 
Ack.  Sometimes, for a writer, I have a very hard time trying to figure out how to put things into words.
 
I want everybody to read that thing.
 
And then I want everybody to look past the superficial–corporations have done this to us!–to the real insight, which is that in the last 40 years or so, colleges and universities have been restructured so that they run like any other bureaucracy anywhere.
 
I think the “bureaucracy” and not “corporations” is the right target, because corporations are actually a subset of bureaucracies. 
The institutional mindset The Homeless Adjunct describes is certainly true of large companies, like General Motors or Bank of America or even Microsoft, but it is also true of the Department of Environmental Protection, your local social services departments, and the Red Cross.
 
Somewhere in the last half  century, all organizations and all the people charged with running those organizations seem to have been homogenized into one particular type.
 
Whether you’re talking to the guy who runs your health insurance company or the woman who runs the local Catholic university, you’re faced with the same personality, the same assumptions about people and operations, and the same loyalty to the continued existence of the institution as an institution, above everything.
It is important to pay attention, here, by what is meant by saying that the only loyalty is to the continued existence of the institution as an institution.
 
In the old days, some people dedicated themselves to maintaining their particular institution as something in particular–to making sure that their Catholic university was authentically Catholic, for instance, or that the Widows and Orphans Refuge treated the people it was trying to help as individuals and not social statistics.
This is not what is happening now.
 
What is happening now is concerted attempts–on the part of virtually all existing institutions and organizations, right and left, for profit and not for profit, it doesn’t matter–to keep the structure of the organization in existence by any means necessary.
 
If the Catholic university can only survive in its brick and mortar, organizational sense by ditching the Pope and providing abortions in the infirmary–then that’s what we do, because it’s the only way for the institution to “survive.”  If the Widows and Orphans Refuge can only survive by shutting down its charitable work with people and dedicating itself to producing tracts on public policy–then that’s what we do, because it’s the only way for the institution to “survive.”
 
Note that “survive” here does not mean “continue to be what it is.”  It means only “continue to be.”
 
One of the most obvious ways in which this operates is in the way institutions now almost universally respond when trouble hits, as trouble always does sometimes.
 
You can see it in the response of the Catholic Church to the priest pedophilia scandal, in the response of Duke University when it turned out the lacrosse players were guilty of nothing, to the response of Penn State in the Sandusky mess and of BP to the oil spill.
 
The first act is deny responsibility and do everything possible to make the mess go away.
 
The second act is to make a formal statement that you “take responsibility” and then do everything possible to make the mess go away.
 
If you can’t avoid taking some consequences, then you do everything you can to make those consequences as close to negligible as possible.
 
We’re all so used to this these days that we don’t remember that there were once other ways for people and institutions to respond. 
 
We forget that actually taking responsibility would mean saying so at once, doing everything in your power to fix the situation, and risking even the survival of the institution rather than to lie or to evade.
 
Nobody does this any more, because to do so would be to risk the possibility that in the aftermath, the institution would have to close up shop and cease to exist. 
 
The people running these places do not see their job as keeping their institutions authentically Catholic, or even authentically General Motors.
 
They see their job as keeping their institutions in existence, period, even if that existence can only be maintained by a total betrayal of what the institution is supposed to be.
 
I’m not trying to say, here, that issues like affirmative action or political correctness are negligible.  They’re not.  And political correctness–an atmosphere in which some ideas are declared anathema and made impossible to express without official punishment–goes to the very heart of what the university is supposed to be.
 
But I do agree with this writer that those issues are, now, secondary. 
 
If we cleaned them all up tomorrow, we would still be left with universities that are not universities, because they have become institutions run by people who care only for their nominal existence, and nothing at all for what they’re supposed to do.

Written by janeh

August 15th, 2012 at 9:15 am

Posted in Uncategorized

16 Responses to 'The One True Thing'

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  1. Amen. (If you’ll pardon the expression.)

    Cathy F

    CAFiorello

    15 Aug 12 at 10:44 am

  2. Have you read Wannabe U?

    CAFiorello

    15 Aug 12 at 10:44 am

  3. Don’t forget that these days, with actual budget cuts necessary, an institution can be at war within itself, with each interest group in conflict with all the others to capture as much of the available funds as possible.

    That’s another reason focus on the actual mission is lost, because each area becomes an institution within the institution, and preservation is focused in ever smaller groups.

    The growth of administration far beyond any actual need of supervision for the working folks is part of this…more headcount means more power, more budget, etc. I’m firmly convinced that cutting all educational administration back to 1960s levels would be of tremendous benefit to the whole process. Remember when other than support staff, the only grownups in your school were the principal & assistant principal?

    My son was part of that “can’t admit to the Cal State U system” debacle. It used to be that CSU would admit everyone who successfully completed a two-year program at any state community college. Then they decided that admitting students actually cost them more than said students brought in through tuition & state payments. So now they only admit 15% of those who apply, as a cost-cutting measure. I keep wondering when they’ll realize that eliminating students entirely will save the most money. :/

    Unfortunately this evolution of “organization with a mission, serving people” into “institution with a mission to serve and preserve itself” seems to be a natural human progression. How to combat it, I have no idea, other than the periodic destruction and re-invention of all organizations.

    Lymaree

    15 Aug 12 at 1:17 pm

  4. Have institutions ever admitted they were wrong and done everything possible to make up for it? Lost their original aim in favour of perpetuating the group, sure. But the instinct to cover one’s institutional ass rather than repent and make amends must surely go way back.

    I’m also slightly baffled at the claim that gender and minority studies, sociology and anthropology are ” those very courses that trained and expanded the mind, developed a more complete human being, a more actively intelligent person and involved citizen” startling, to say the least. Not to mention the unthinking assumption that the best way to persuade your fellow-citizens that your proposed changes are the right ones is to have a nice demonstration or two, like that asinine Occupy movement, causing them maximum inconvenience and possibly also bullying or threatening them.

    OK, I’m not going to agree with the author’s political perspective. I’d agree that the system could be improved, and that some of the recent changes have been for the worse. I suspect I don’t really know enough about the US situation, because the Canadian system is different – although even here, we have lots of administrators. Mostly lowly clerical types, but there are others.

    I’d be more impressed if one of the sufferers started another charitable program to teach potential students about the financial basics, or if some of them just walked away and found better work and left the colleges in the lurch. Sure, it’s pretty terrible to have to admit you trained for and possibly love a job no one will pay you a decent salary for, but it happens to a lot of people, and it’s best to move on.

    Cheryl

    15 Aug 12 at 3:45 pm

  5. That’s a LOT of leftist drivel and blame-shifting to expect me to ignore at one time! On the wider issue:

    Quite right: it’s not a corporate or a university thing, but a large institution thing, which we have made worse by democracy and share-holding. The king or owner can, and sometimes did, have someone’s head for not carrying out his orders. Ten thousand share-holders, let alone one hundred million voters, are hard-pressed even to influence the bureaucracy which claims to serve them. And (one more time) Pournelle was right: over the long term, the bureaucrats who promote the institution have the advantage over the bureaucrats who promote the institutional mission.

    So now we have a ruling class of “administrators” more expensive and arbitrary than most hereditary nobilities, and harder to get rid of with a good jacquerie.

    There are a dozen fixes to the problems of higher education, pretty much all of which would horrify your adjunct. I may do them later if I feel up to it, but they don’t matter, because no one in the present age will do the three things necessary:

    1. Put an individual in charge of the institution.
    2. Give him the necessary authority.
    3. Hold him strictly accountable for results.

    By “results” I mean no more than three things, prioritized, and none of them paperwork.

    If you do this, institution by institution, you can fix them. If you do not do this, you’ll find you can’t implement any other solution.

    This WILL be done, and the younger elment of the Bloggerie will see it done. But things will get worse first.

    robert_piepenbrink

    15 Aug 12 at 5:34 pm

  6. I have to agree with Robert about the leftist drivel.

    I lost interest in the blog at the point where the author wrote

    “Who didn’t like the outcome of the 60s? The corporations, the war-mongers, those in our society who would keep us divided based on our race, our gender, our sexual orientation.”

    I like the idea of a university as an Ivory Tower. I don’t like it as a hot bed of political activism. IIRC, students had a large role in the Civil Rights movement of the early 60s. They left the university campus and did their protests in Alabama and Georgia. They didn’t seize university buildings in New York.

    I lost my trust in universities during the Vietnam war. Students certainly had the right to protest but occupying university buildings that had nothing to do with the war was a very silly type of protest. And the faculties said nothing.

    Nor did the faculties say anything about howling down unpopular speakers. The Universities seemed to be unwilling to support the idea of free speech or
    free inquiry.

    jd

    15 Aug 12 at 8:30 pm

  7. After reading the comments all I can say is I’ve never seen so many slaves so willing to make their own chains and prison walls and put them on and lock themselves up for their masters.

    michaelwfisher@cox.net

    16 Aug 12 at 10:39 am

  8. Nah. Corporations aren’t my masters. Government bureaucracies are. Corporations can’t enter my house without a warrant, demand that I speak to them (no 5th amendment right to refuse self incrimination), and take my children away without a trial, without a conviction, and without any evidence beyond the subjective judgment of the investigator. Only the government can do that, and if they end up killing my child, I can’t even sue. If I don’t want to work for a corporation or can’t, I can always start my own business–if I can just figure out how to negotiate the hundreds to thousands of regulations, some of them contradictory that apply to me, never mind being completely forbidden to engage in work (like selling things from pushcarts) that my ancestors could do in a similar situation. If I want to start a college that does not engage in affirmative action, I’d better have LOTS of money to fight government bureaucracies who will try to shut me down. Corporations can’t compel me. Government can.

    janeh

    16 Aug 12 at 10:53 am

  9. Well, who do you suppose supports/provided sample legislation for all those regulations? The corps may make pious noises about regulations — but they know it kills upstart competitors. The corps are trying, and succeeding bit by bit, into turning gov’t into just another subsidiary.

    With the enthusiastic help of the RRR.

    It simply boggles my mind that “conservatives” are so ready to condemn legislators who are nominally accountable to voters, as self aggrandizing power hungry I-don’t-know-whats — but assume that the people, who share the same gene pool, sitting on each other’s boards, accountable to no one really (stock holders? Really? Give me a break.

    [ There’s a reason so many Corps are incorporated in Delaware, and it’s because Delaware laws protect the executives from the stockholders.]

    CEO’s sit on each other’s boards, voting on each other salaries and perks -and now, thanks to Citizens United, doing their best to consolidate their power over government.

    And since Reagan (I don’t know that it’s all Reagan’s fault, but it started on his watch) the CEO’s have been raising their (and other executive level) salaries at the expense of the middle class, who’s wages have been almost flat in real terms while the working poor have seen their purchasing power actually decrease.

    And when the whole scheme breaks down – because a consumer cash economy needs consumers with cash, which is rapidly going away – the rich won’t care, they’ll just move to their second or third or fifth home somewhere where there aren’t food riots in the streets.

    Warrentless searches will be the least of your problems – if the rich decide to still allow government to fund “Family Services” at all.

    michaelwfisher@cox.net

    16 Aug 12 at 12:12 pm

  10. I’m with Jane on this, more or less.

    The government has more power than the corporations.

    Sliding from ‘the corporations’ to ‘the rich’ is getting unpleasantly close to the ideas that underpinned such great successes as the French and Russian revolutions, not to mention so much of the violence that plagues us today.

    I don’t follow the logic by which “the rich” (or perhaps that subset of them which got rich from running corporations) are supposed to simultaneously not care about food riots or the collapse of the economy because they can just move away while simultaneously controlling the government, down to the point at which it decides whether or not to give money to family services.

    Sure, corporations – particularly what they used to and maybe still do call the multi-nationals – are big, scary powerful entities in modern society. I’m neither afraid enough of them, nor in desperate enough need of anything (food, meaning in life….) to run into the arms of those promising to fight the Eeeeeevil Corporations, hang the aristos, kill the pigs, and so on and so forth.

    I guess I must be part of the 1% – those who claim to speak for the 99% don’t speak for me and I resent their claim to do so. But somehow I missed out on the riches they said I have!

    Cheryl

    16 Aug 12 at 2:18 pm

  11. No more family services? REALLY? Do you promise? Because if you do, I promise to vote Republican for the rest of my life.

    Sorry, I don’t see “family services” as a benefit. I see it as a collection of vicious, destructive bullies who operate in a no-Constitution zone (it’s for the children!)whose goals seem to be to micromanage ever single part of my life and the lives of my family.

    Warrantless searches will never be the least of my worries.

    And yes, I do know that large corporations favor regulations–and especially regulations that are open to lots of interpretation, so that we truly get a government of men and not laws–because those regulations protect them from up and coming competitors.

    Libertarians have been saying that for years.

    What I don’t understand is why giving the government carte blanche to regulate even more and in more areas of life will in any way help that.

    How about this–

    Regulations are laws. They should be passed by elected representatives.

    They should be short and in language as clear as possible.

    They should be null and void if they contradict any other laws or regulations without getting rid of them. (For instance, in CT, you are not allowed to refuse to rent an apartment to a registered sex offender, but if that registered sex offender molests the kid in the next apartment, you are liable for his behavior, and can be sued for it. One of those things should be law, but not both, because they essentially contradict each other.)

    I’m with Cheryl, and other people here. I’m not in any particular danger from corporations. But everything I love most dearly is in danger of government, including my rights to freedom of speech and conscience (hate crimes laws! birth control insurance mandate! and about a dozen others).

    janeh

    16 Aug 12 at 3:50 pm

  12. Allow me to cast my vote with Jane and the others who don’t see the evil hand of “corps” in everything.

    Indeed, I had read Jane’s original message within minutes of it being posted and I had drafted a virtually identical comment long before Robert wrote his to the effect that there was more leftist drivel in the article than any sane person could possibly tolerate. Then I deleted it because I know nothing about the US education system except to the extent that it has been compared with ours, and not favourably – and that notwithstanding the stellar reputations of the upper echelons of the Ivy League and the best State schools.

    If the author of that article is typical of the faculty at American universities, then there’s a pressing need for re-education starting with remedial classes in logical argument.

    Mique

    16 Aug 12 at 7:44 pm

  13. Further to my last, Australia is a classic example of where neither elected governments, nor the evil corporations, control anything much at all. Effective control resides with the state and federal bureaucracies and, increasingly, with the “green” NGOs whose apparatchiks who have effectively colonised those bureaucracies.

    Mique

    16 Aug 12 at 7:47 pm

  14. I think anyone who believes corporations will use government power to their advantage–and I agree: they will–and also wants more powerful and intrusive government has a logical difficulty. He can get around this by wanting to abolish private business, of course. But then he has to deal with the question Kropotkin posed Marx and his followers: if you create a powerful state with no rivals, why would you expect it to behave benevolently, let alone wither away? I’ve never heard a credible answer to that one.

    But on the problem of America’s universities, let’s look at the fingerprints on the knife:
    Who worked at abolishing the core curriculm? It wasn’t “the corporations” out there chanting “Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho! Western Culture’s got to go!” and denouncing “dead white males.”
    Who fought to lower admission standards based on skin color? Then wanted students passed on the basis of said skin color? Again, not the corporations.(Query: why was it evil for Harvard to reject Jews in the name of diversity, but virtuous for it to reject East Asians in the name of diversity? I get confused.)
    Who fought to build whole Grievance Studies departments and majors to ensure that graduates would emerge without educations, but with the same prejudices they brought with them reinforced?
    And who consistently wants to respond to the Outrage of the Month by stopping regular classes–presumably because neither Ranke nor Homer have anything to say to the invasions of Afghanistan or Iraq? (And if what we study has nothing to say in moments of crisis, and we’re not studying it to get a job, why should it be studied at all?)

    Can’t find evidence of “the corporations” anywhere, but Homeless Adjunct and his friends–Hi, Michael!–seem to have left a lot of DNA at the crime scene.

    robert_piepenbrink

    17 Aug 12 at 10:07 am

  15. I have been in Australia for so long that I no longer feel competent to talk about US universities or US politics. But the things Robert just listed were reported here and leave me wondering if US universities deserve their high ranks.

    Our paper has just published a report ranking universities world wide. A number of Australian universities made the top 100. Harvard was number 1. I wonder how much teaching those famous faculty actually do. Do they actually talk with undergraduates or is that left to teaching assistants and adjuncts?

    jd

    17 Aug 12 at 2:44 pm

  16. JD, I’ve been out so long I wouldn’t vouch for the quality of undergraduate instruction anywhere. The comment I get from those who’ve checked is that it is often possible to get a first-rate education from schools which won’t insist on it, and that some universities are harder to get into than to graduate from.

    I’m never sure how to deal with rankings. Networking and the traditional prestige of certain schools and degrees count for something in some cases. I worry about the politics of our most prestigious schools–especially the very few which graduate our top politicians. But it’s the middle and lower-ranking schools where I worry about the actual standard of education.

    That could be giving some of the top-ranked more credit than the faculty deserve, though. I feel quite confident that if you assemble 4,000 bright, hard-working kids and leave them near one another and a good library for four years, they’d be much better educated at the end of that time whether any professors showed up or not.

    robert_piepenbrink

    17 Aug 12 at 3:33 pm

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