Sunday, February 1, 2009

Academic Bureaucracy

1. Academic Bureaucracy

Many of our cultural institutions are medieval European in their origins, and universities are spectacularly so. From the cap and gowns at graduation to the architecture of many of our campuses, the Middle Ages are still with us. Significantly, they are also evident in our academic bureaucracies and when you are struggling to get what you need from the system you would do well to keep that in mind.
The primary organizational device of the Middle Ages was a principle later called, “subinfeudation.” Under this system (theoretically) all lands belong to the King. He, being a man of limitations, entrusts various parts of his Kingdom to the care of other men. They promise their loyalty and service in return for the livelihood and honor they receive as Dukes, Counts, Earls, Barons, and other ranks of nobility. These nobles, in their turn, entrust parts of their holdings to lesser noblemen, and so on, down to the commoners actually plowing the fields and shoveling the manure.
Again, in theory, the only person owning land is the King. Further, everyone is in service to the King (through their immediate superior) and without necessarily having anything good to say about one another. Each person acts to meet their own needs and those of the noble above them to whom they owe their fealty and upon whose pleasure they retain their homes and livelihoods.
To the fellow with the manure shovel, the King is usually a quite distant and unapproachable figure, and the interactions of the nobility are completely incomprehensible. The peasant knows only his lord and the other peasants within a few hours walking distance of home. Everything in the world beyond that is a mystery or a rumor or a wildly inaccurate story.
And so, you’ve walked into the Art Department office and the clerk (of unknown years or minutes training) has set you on a quest. You must journey to a different building, find within it a different office, and persuade someone in that office that you are worthy of a “Dean’s Stamp of Approval” or any one of dozens of other odd, seemingly symbolic approvals.
Every school is different, yet similar. And whether you think of yourself as the manure shoveling peasant or see the lowly office clerk in that role you must adapt. This is the world of the university and its individual character has been built up slowly over the years out of service and loyalty, territoriality and sovereignty, technology, personality, and whimsy. Shouting about your confusions or disappointments does not help (except alone in your home later where you will not anger any of the clerks steadfastly guarding their sacred trusts and oaths of loyalty).
Every now and again new technologies may be introduced to improve the system. Sometimes reform-minded Kings will re-organize the nobles and re-draw the seating chart, but the principles always remain the same. Local knowledge and local power rule.
Study the catalog and the other paperwork the school makes available in an attempt to explain the system to itself. Learn to see the clerks as individuals. No two are ever the same. Some are dim. Some are cheerful but incompetent. Some clerks simply know more about the mysteries of the labyrinth than others. Some are very defensive and anger easily. Some can see right through you.
Every administrative employee you encounter is trying to perform the duties of their job, as those duties have been explained to them, with the least amount of fuss possible. They receive very little in the way of thanks and the left hand hardly ever knows what the right hand is doing. They have habit, and procedure, and the often vain hope that somewhere a high and mighty nobleman (who himself owns no part of the enterprise either) has some organizational talent and the students’ best interests at heart. What do you imagine constitutes a ‘good day’ for them?
The most that we can do is to be polite, be articulate, and persevere. It could be worse. Be glad that vows of celibacy are no longer a requirement of university life. No matter what your role in the great medieval machine called, “the university” may be, each of us will need all the comforting we can get.

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