A Proposal to Save the University: Everybody Drives a Truck!

Reprinted from the most recent issue of the Ronin Institute newsletter, Kitsune.

If you talk to an academic, odds are it won’t take long before the conversation turns to how frustrated they are with the bureaucracies they have to deal with, both at the university and at funding agencies. The explosive growth of university bureaucracy has been well documented. From the point of view of your typical academic, the university bureaucracy is fundamentally parasitic, and both research and teaching would benefit from getting rid of it, or at least cutting it way down.

On the other hand, much of that bureaucracy is there for a reason, or at least there was a reason for it to have been created. If there is an office full of people keeping an eye on how you spend your grant money, it’s because someone mis-spent theirs in the past. When you have to fill out pages and pages of paperwork before your university’s Institutional Review Board will approve your experiments, it’s because previous generations of faculty researchers did some truly horrific things. When you are sitting through yet another harassment training session next year, it will be because one of your colleagues is harassing someone right now.

So that’s where we find ourselves. We’ve got faculty resenting administration for soaking up resources and keeping them from doing their research and teaching, administration made up of lazy parasites who don’t know the first thing about research, and who care more about making sure the right boxes are filled in than in actually advancing human knowledge. And we’ve got administrators resenting faculty for behaving like overgrown children who think that the rules should not apply to them, faculty who think they should not have to do anything they don’t want to, and who expect that someone else will clean up any messes they make.

Unfortunately, this dynamic is exactly what we should expect to develop when we establish a system in which universities are run by professional administrators. Historically, universities were run by faculty, and even today, most Deans, Provosts and University Presidents are former professors. But increasingly, the day-to-day running of universities is being handed over to career administrators. And many faculty members seem happy, or even eager, to hand over the keys.

On the surface, this seems like a reasonable move, and classic division of labor. Have professional administrators administrate, and let the professors spend their time professoring. The problem is that we have been moving from a system in which there are two kinds of work that need to happen — research and teaching on the one hand, making sure things run smoothly on the other — to a system where there are two kinds of people. This erodes the natural human capacity for empathy, as faculty and administrators increasingly view each other as, well, other. And pretty soon, you have these two sets of people who view each other as the problem, the thing stopping them from doing their job, when they should be working together towards a common goal.

This empathy gap and the resulting alienation mean that there is no check on the expansion of the bureaucracy. A certain amount of bureaucracy is necessary, but a lot of what exists today could be eliminated, or at least streamlined. The problem is that bureaucracy tends to expand by a ratchet-like process. New pieces are added all the time to deal with the latest problem or crisis, but there tends to be little incentive to eliminate anything — or even to seriously ask, “What is the least intrusive thing we can do that will address the problem at hand?”

When administrators are “pure administrators”, they don’t bear the burden of bureaucratic elements that disrupt research or teaching. If they are career administrators, they may not even understand that burden. The more cynical administrators may recognize that any reduction in bureaucracy reduces their sphere of influence, and maybe even their job security. And as they become disconnected from the core mission of the university, they naturally begin to see the bureaucracy in which they are embedded as an end in itself. As Oscar Wilde (allegedly) once said, “The bureaucracy is expanding to meet th needs of the expanding bureaucracy.”

In principle, the pressure to limit the scope and growth of bureaucracy comes from the faculty. But when faculty are “pure faculty”, who view administration as something alien and distasteful, they are unlikely to provide meaningful and productive input. In my experience, most faculty view all paperwork as an affront, making little effort to distinguish between the bits that are critical to running the university in a professional manner and the bits that are genuinely unnecessary and onerous.

The dynamic, then, is: Academics divest themselves of ownership of the administrative tasks necessary to running a university, because we all like to think of ourselves as Philosopher Kings / Queens, and we fundamentally believe that things like compliance are beneath our notice. So we bring in administrators to handle this for us, and we resent them for it. The administrators come to view us as spoiled children who can’t balance a budget to save our lives. Every time one of these children breaks a rule, they add another form. We complain about them, but we complain about everything, so they don’t pay attention. Gradually the fraction of the money we spend on tuition and research funding that actually goes to fund research and education dwindles, until the university become nothing but an enormous paperwork-circulating machine with a football program.

So how do we repair this empathy gap? Here’s a proposition for you: Everybody drives a truck!

A metaphorical truck, anyway.

Back in the my youth, I remember that one of the big delivery companies had a policy that everyone in the company had to spend one day a year driving one of their brown delivery vehicles, all the way up to the CEO. The rationale was that delivering packages was the core of the business — the reason the company existed. The idea was to tie every employee to the mission in a tangible way.

So what might that look like at a university? If the core mission of the university is education and research, then everyone working at the university needs to be involved in education and/or research at some level. Sounds impossible? It’s not!

A lot of the people who wind up in clerical positions at universities have pretty extensive training, often even a PhD. Let’s say you got your PhD in German Literature, and then wound up in an administrative position somewhere. What if you were permitted (or even required) to spend 5% of your time continuing your research? Everybody drives a truck!

What about the teams and teams of people who do accounting and bookkeeping? What if every one of them spent a few days a year working with undergraduate students who are struggling with math? Everybody drives a truck!

People could function as undergraduate advisors, help out with psychology experiments, or pick bacterial colonies. Everybody drives a truck!

It works the other way, as well. Faculty need to stop viewing administrative work as something that happens to other people. If professors are occasionally required to take on an active, hands-on role in some of the bureaucratic tasks, they would have a better understanding of what the people who manage that side of things have to do. And they might have a better understanding of which parts of the bureaucracy are actually necessary, and where their anti-bureaucracy railing should be focused.

Do you view bringing in grants as a core part of the mission of the university? If so, then maybe faculty members should spend a week a year working in the grants office. Everybody drives a truck!

If you doubt that having faculty actively participate in administration would limit the scope of bureaucracy, I urge you to ask around. I think you’ll find that in departments where the chair is primarily focused on their own research and teaching, faculty meetings tend to be short and to the point. If your chair is someone who took on that role in lieu of research and teaching, they drag on for hours. The same logic applies to the university as a whole.

I can imagine a few objections that might be raised, so let’s deal with those.

Some of the faculty out there might be thinking, “I can’t participate in something like this! My time is much too valuable!” Two things. First, yes, in the short term, it might take some additional time away from your research. But this is about halting, and even reversing, the expansion of bureaucracy. In the long term, you will get a more efficient, more rational university system, eventually reducing the burden on you and on future generations of academics. Second, you should not think that you are too important for administration, or to find creative ways to include people in your research, because those are the thoughts of a terrible person. Those are the thoughts of someone who believes that they should not have to serve on jury duty. Someone who thinks it is never their turn to do the dishes. Someone who skimps when splitting the check at a restaurant. A Defector in the Prisoners’ Dilemma of life.

Some of the administrative types out there might be thinking, “But this would just be adding inefficiencies to the system! Universities need to be run like a business!” I’m sorry, but you’ve been brainwashed by decades of propaganda from right-wing psychopaths. The purpose of a university is not to make money, or to maximize cash flow. Its purpose is the creation and communication of knowledge. Yes, it needs to pay its bills, but if you are not working to make sure that financial concerns are kept subordinate to intellectual ones, you’re part of the problem. It is attitudes like this that are destroying the American university system. If your university’s corporate personhood ever gains sentience and murders you, it will be acquitted under Stand Your Ground laws.

Both faculty and administrators might question the plausibility of having a big sector of university employees — the “non-academics” — participate in research or teaching. You may think the idea of having one of the administrative assistants, or one of the custodians, work in your lab a couple of days a year is an obvious non-starter. After all, they know nothing about what you do. Won’t it be more trouble than it’s worth? In the short term, maybe! But so is a lot of what we do. When an undergraduate works in your lab for a semester, you probably suffer a net loss of productivity, because the amount of work they do is small compared with the effort that goes into training and supervising them. Have you ever participated in “Take your daughter to work day?” Did you make sure that she pulled her own weight? Or did you recognize that you were doing something good for society as a whole. If you view having a custodian or a gardener work in your lab a few days a year as qualitatively different from having an undergrad, or a high-school intern, if you view that as a ridiculous endeavor or an unreasonable burden, you’re not a hard-nosed realist, you’re a classist. You’re willing to spend resources on people without training, but only if those people remind you of yourself. You’re willing to build a community, but only if it’s a community of the “right kind of people”. Your attitude is profoundly unamerican, and in a more just world we would exchange you for a truckload of Syrian refugees.

Everybody drives a truck!

This post is a perspective of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Ronin Institute.

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