Symposium on Academic Bureaucracy

On July 1, a symposium at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts tackled the role of bureaucracy in academia. The event was framed this way:

Does bureaucracy go hand in hand with neoliberalism, or is it neoliberalism’s guilty secret, a riposte to its professed efficiency? How is bureaucracy represented in literature and theory – from Franz Kafka to David Foster Wallace, Max Weber to Michel Foucault; and what do these representations reveal about the relationship between bureaucracy and human nature in post-industrial society? We all recognise form filling and box ticking as the pointless paraphernalia of audit culture, yet we comply with it anyway. Could it be that for all its inhuman, lifeless character, we are somehow attracted to bureaucracy because it is untaxing, relaxing, and procrastinatory, in a world that prizes relentless hard work and high-speed commerce?

Times Higher Education covered the symposium, featuring some nice comments from the participants. Elaine Glaser, one of the event’s organizers,

questioned whether the red tape existed “to make us keep our heads down” and said that it smacked of a “punitive attitude: if you enjoy your work, you should be doing more form-filling”.

A related sentiment was articulated by Mark Fisher:

The real goal of neoliberal managerialism, in Dr Fisher’s view, was “to stop people talking to each other, by breaking up departments and bringing in professional administrators”. Although he was all in favour of administrators and managers whose basic roles were troubleshooting and providing support for academics to do their jobs, “‘professional administrators’ are neither professional nor administrators”.

Pathological bureaucracy is just one of the features of the modern university that have disenchanted so many scholars across the academic landscape. In fact, many of the Ronin Institute’s members have made similar observations in explaining their decisions to leave traditional academia.

The problem is that bureaucracy has an inherent growth dynamic that can be difficult to fight against, or even notice. And yet, fighting against that growth is a necessity. One of the principles we’re committed to here is the Minimum Viable Bureaucracy. The core of the idea is that you should never add any layer of complexity that is not absolutely necessary.

If that seems obvious, it may be that I have not yet explained it clearly enough. There are lots of things that are nice to have — things that seem like they should make life easier, or that will guard against some very specific disaster. But every one of these comes at a cost. Of course there is the cost of paying an additional bureaucrat, but there is also the cost of redirecting the time and energy of the individual scholars away from the activities that, in name at least, are the core purpose of academia: research and teaching.

That means that there may be certain things you don’t do, even if the local cost-benefit analysis seems to say that you should. Because once you add something — a layer of regulation or a formal procedure or a staff position — it almost never goes away. You wind up committing to the costs, but tend not to reevaluate the benefits.

So can we actually build something that can function in the modern world while fighting hard against bureaucratic creep? Let’s find out!

h/t Thanks to Ronin Institute Research Scholar Alex Lancaster