Saturday, December 27, 2014

On the Diseases of University Administration--Lessons From Pope Francis

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2014)

The Roman Catholic Pontiff's annual greetings to the Roman Curia at the end of Advent usually goes unnoticed.  But the current Pontiff, Francis I, used the opportunity  to stress to his leadership, the highest levels of the Roman Catholic Magisterium, of the dangers  and errors into which they might have fallen. Presentation of the Christmas Greetings to the Roman Curia, Address of his Holiness Pope Francis, Clementine Hall, Monday, 22 December 2014

The importance of the Pope's message should not be underestimated.  Indeed, it is even more applicable to the rigid bureaucratism, cronyism, and self referencing blindness, born of arrogance and insularity, that afflicts many offices of senior leadership throughout American academic institutions. The issue, as one will see, is not that the diseases point to conduct that is of itself bad, but rather to an unbalance that produces bad results when the shared space of the institution is overwhelmed by personal agendas.  And the remedy is simple--to restore balance, administrators at all levels, and the faculty and staff complicit in unbalancing behavior, must engage in the sort of open criticism and self criticism that restores the objectives of the institution of the university, and its mission, to its central role.

And so, in the spirit of this Christmas season, and for the edification of our colleagues serving in senior administrative positions, I offer the wisdom of Pope Francis tuned more precisely to the dangers and errors to which the great authority with which these hard working officials, because of the frailties of human nature and the weakness of the institutions in which they operate, is sometimes subject. 

Francis reminds the curia, as our senior administrators require reminding, that they are mere mortals, and mortals with a principle office that does not include their own personal aggrandizement, or the care and nurture of the cults of their personalities within the institution.  Rather, like the Roman Curia, the university
 is a complex body, made up of a number of Congregations, Councils, Offices, Tribunals, Commissions, as of numerous elements which do not all have the same task but are coordinated in view of an effective, edifying, disciplined and exemplary functioning, notwithstanding the cultural, linguistic and national differences of its members.
 That body must function in service to its members.  But it is subject to diseases, because of the weaknesses and vanities of the officials called on to undertake work the powers associated with which sometimes produces too great a temptation to error.
And yet, like any body, like any human body, it is also exposed to diseases, malfunctioning, infirmity. Here I would like to mention some of these probable diseases, “curial diseases”. They are the more common diseases in our life in the Curia. They are diseases and temptations which weaken our service to the Lord. I think a “listing” of these diseases – along the lines of the Desert Fathers who used to draw up such lists – will help us to prepare for the sacrament of Reconciliation, which will be a good step for all of us to take in preparing for Christmas.
Francis lists 15 variants of the diseases of power.  He acknowledges that "Healing also comes about through an awareness of our sickness and of a personal and communal decision to be cured by patiently and perseveringly accepting the remedy." It is to those diseases and their healing that we turn next.

"1. The disease of thinking we are “immortal”, “immune” or downright “indispensable”, neglecting the need for regular check-ups. Curia which is not self-critical, which does not keep up with things, which does not seek to be more fit, is a sick body."  
This is probably the greatest sickness of contemporary university senior administrators--from the dean level all the way up to the level of University Presidents and Boards of Trustees. For many officials, rising to prominent positions is deemed to carry the benefit of insulation from criticism, and especially from self-criticism.  Both are understood as disloyalty and punished. The rejection of idea of 360 degree reviews (with the exception of leadership at places like Chicago), the fear of self criticism and criticism from inferior officers suggests both fear and arrogance. Senior administrators have resisted not only self criticism and criticism but even the simple exercise of transparent administration--of producing even the simplest annual reviews of what they had sought to do, what they accomplished and what they failed to achieve--is resisted as somehow disruptive of the administration of the university enterprise.  The expedient of the periodic display at university senate meetings, as and to the extent it appears not to conflict with an infinity of other more important appointments, is hardly a substitute and may intensify this symptoms of this grave disease.  

"2. Another disease is the “Martha complex”, excessive busy-ness. It is found in those who immerse themselves in work and inevitably neglect “the better part”: sitting at the feet of Jesus (cf. Lk 10:38-42). Jesus called his disciples to “rest a while” (cf. Mk 6:31) for a reason, because neglecting needed rest leads to stress and agitation." 
Administrators are engaged in a manic production of the signs of productivity.  The rate of production of the detritus of busy-ness abounds within the university.  We are buried by data; we are choked by the production values of ever slicker meditations on our respective greatness. We are treated to the theatre of the constantly producing administrator--with no time to stop and speak with or consider the thoughts, ideas, inputs of others, or to reflect on the folly that may sometimes be the most constant product of the busy soul.  There is both an emptiness to busy-ness--it permits no genuine and well considered thought to emerge from the administrative mind.,  But it is also a technique, and a cruel one--a technique designed to build a wall between the administrator and the objects of administration, a wall built brick by brick through data and appointments, and an ever increasing flood of "talking to" effects on social media and related sites.
 "3. Then too there is the disease of mental and spiritual “petrification”. It is found in those who have a heart of stone, the “stiff-necked” (Acts 7:51-60), in those who in the course of time lose their interior serenity, alertness and daring, and hide under a pile of papers, turning into paper pushers and not men of God (cf. Heb 3:12)."
Francis speaks to the petrification built with walls of paper.  I have suggested data and its related products--reports, analyses and the like.  Worse, of course, when administrators hide behind these walls of petrification for which they have paid--the use of consultants, like Renaissance Italians warlords, drains the university of its funds, its creativity and its vitality.  It substitutes mercenaries for creativity and the expenditure of money for the purchase of thought and of devotion to the university provides the excuse and the source for the stiff necked responses of university officials when the error of these paid for endeavors are exposed. Several universities suffered through the results of this combination of paper and petrification last year when they sought to impose oppressive benefits regimes (e.g., here).  An administrator that serves her consultants, that hides behind the mountain of data generated to avoid discussion--or to manage it--is as diseased as any official inadvertently coming to disloyalty for the best of reasons. 

"4. The disease of excessive planning and of functionalism. When the apostle plans everything down to the last detail and believes that with perfect planning things will fall into place, he becomes an accountant or an office manager."  
Francis here takes what ought to be a point of pride for the administrators and deftly reminds us that "Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall." (Proverbs 16:18).  Senior administrators are not office managers.  Neither are members of a board of trustees.  Yet they insulate themselves within walls of rigidity and "planning" designed as much to protect them as to run the institution.  A university is not yet a factory (here).  Its critical factors int he production of knowledge are not yet machines.  And yet, and yet, and yet--universities have increasingly sought to give over the management of the institution to its accountants and to its chief financial and compliance officers, to its general counsels and other non-academic administrators. The university has sought to eliminate risk (here and here), it has sought to bend the academic enterprise to the bureaucratic formalism of the assembly line (here) for which it requires ever greater numbers of officials to oversee comparatively smaller number of academics (here).  

"5. The disease of poor coordination. Once its members lose communion among themselves, the body loses its harmonious functioning and its equilibrium; it then becomes an orchestra which produces noise: its members do not work together and lose the spirit of fellowship and teamwork."  
Coherence in any administrative organization is difficult.  Within complex bodies like universities it is even harder.  And within multi-campus universities the problems of coherence can be daunting indeed.  And yet that coherence is an important element that binds the university together.  All too often senior leadership engages in bureaucratic battles, pitching factions against each other or allowing such factional fighting to flourish--as a means of controlling the institution and protecting senior leadership against internal opposition, or out of weakness.  In decentralized governance models, like those at some CIC institutions, the result is sometimes extraordinary leeway to favored subordinates at the decanal level--subordinates who have been able to operate without check--as long as they kept order and brought in finds (or explained the lack of funds as caused by disaffected faculty).  Poor coordination is a disease related to that of the avoidance of criticism and self criticism--it is the product of arrogance and the cultivation of systems fo cronyism that values personal relationships above virtually everything else. That imbalance between personal and institutional causes great harm, usually unseen by senior administrators already well insulated from such "bad news."

"6. There is also a “spiritual Alzheimer’s disease”. It consists in losing the memory of our personal “salvation history”, our past history with the Lord and our “first love” (Rev 2:4). It involves a progressive decline in the spiritual faculties which in the long or short run greatly handicaps a person by making him incapable of doing anything on his own, living in a state of absolute dependence on his often imaginary perceptions." 
Many universities suffer greatly from this  affliction. Especially in universities that have suffered through scandal--the effort undertaken to forget, to erase history is morally, ethically and institutionally dangerous.  Scandal ought not to produce institutional acts of amnesia.  Nor should efforts at reform be driven by an sometimes not well hidden drive to restore things to the way they were.  It requires confrontation with the cultures, the institutional governance gaps and the missteps, that produced the sort of ruptures to which institutions are sometimes subject, to learn from them and to proceed in the knowledge of those lessons and that history. That is something most institutions are incapable of fully realizing--confession (maybe), contrition (only at the expense of others), penance (under duress). That is hardly the way to build the foundations of stronger institutions. 
 "7. The disease of rivalry and vainglory. When appearances, the colour of our clothes and our titles of honour become the primary object in life, we forget the words of Saint Paul: “Do nothing from selfishness or conceit but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil 2:3-4)." 
Little need be said here.  Fawning servility among senior leaders covering sometimes furious rivalries in which the institution itself serves as trophy and object, can substantially drain the institution of its resources and the ability to move forward.  Leadership is required to contain this most human disease.  It is sorely lacking in places.  And indeed, it is no secret that rivalry and vainglory are sometimes understood as the easiest way to manage an institution. It is also the easiest means of ensuring its mediocrity.  It also effectively requires staff and faculty to continuously subsidize such bad conduct for the resources it drains from the university. It is the humble who pay for senior leadership's vainglory, and from whose labor power is sometimes over-rewarded. 

"8. The disease of existential schizophrenia. This is the disease of those who live a double life, the fruit of that hypocrisy typical of the mediocre and of a progressive spiritual emptiness which no doctorates or academic titles can fill. It is a disease which often strikes those who abandon pastoral service and restrict themselves to bureaucratic matters, thus losing contact with reality, with concrete people."  
Here again, a near fatal disease of senior leadership--but also and perhaps especially of deans and their subordinates. It is far too common to see the senior leadership of a university, or even a college, lose all contact with the people they serve.  Oh, they feel they have contact aplenty--but usually only with those who share their views or who do not commit the error of disagreement.  Senior administrators like their servants well trained--and obedient. And thus it comes as no surprise that these individuals are constantly surprised.  But no matter, those who lose sight of reality have also enveloped an extraordinary ability to rationalize the obvious to suit their own perceptions. There are precious few leaders who avoid this trap--and even fewer deans. This speaks to the sort of bloodless administration that seeks to "protect" its investments, and to maximize its "revenue" from "customers, who view the production of knowledge as a risk minimizing event assessed only by its ability to bring funds into the university. None of these are bad in an of themselves--but when they become the sole measure of the university, then an institution created for the production and dissemination of knowledge that is sustainable becomes little more than a machine designed to perpetuate its administrative overlords. 

"9. The disease of gossiping, grumbling and back-biting. I have already spoken many times about this disease, but never enough. It is a grave illness which begins simply, perhaps even in small talk, and takes over a person, making him become a “sower of weeds” (like Satan) and in many cases, a cold-blooded killer of the good name of our colleagues and confrères." 
We all gossip, and we sometimes give in to the temptations of back biting and grumbling.  Those are natural to the institutional body.  When checked these might even serve a useful purose for exposing problems that might be resolved before they become difficult.  But we are all aware of the temptations, many witnessed across the academy--and especially at the decanal and associate dean levels--where gossip and back biting become a substitute for sound administration.  How many of us have not witnessed associate deans marginalize even senior faculty members through gossip and backbiting, usually with the aid of their faculty claque, as a means of stifling "opposition," eliminating "threats" and avoiding discussion? How many of us are unaware of the offices of senior administrators that are not run by gossip and backbiting with a healthy dose of strategic grumbling?  This is a poison the damage of which can run deep into an institution--it substitutes personal aggrandizement and personal agendas for those of the institution.  It turns shared space into a battleground of ego and ambition. Uncontrolled, it can bring an institution to ruin. 
"10. The disease of idolizing superiors. This is the disease of those who court their superiors in the hope of gaining their favour. They are victims of careerism and opportunism; they honour persons and not God (cf. Mt 23:8-12)." 
Indeed, the great danger of cults of personality run deep in this litany of institutional disease.  We have considered it in its various aspects--but the cult of servility runs especially deep at the university.  During my time as chair of the Penn State faculty Senate I spoke often of the dangers of servility--of cultivating a set of "pet" faculty through which administrative policies might be seen to have been run through a "robust" consultation. This applies especially to the way that administrative arrogance (and expediency) can sometimes hollow out even the most robust institutional frameworks for collaboration and partnership. Faculty, of course, are complicit--servility has its rewards for individuals seeking the sort of personal aggrandizement, at institutional expense, that is often cultivated by the worst sorts of administrators. I have written (Enablers, Servants or Stakeholders?: Thoughts on the Role of University Faculty Senators), "But a University Faculty Senate's failures can run deeper.  Much of it might be a long time in the making--bad habits and the cultivation of cultures of servility against which I have spoken quite publicly in the past (e.g., Remarks on Assuming Duties as Chair of the PSU University Faculty Senate; and On the Institutional Role of a Faculty Senate: Part 1). "

"11. The disease of indifference to others. This is where each individual thinks only of himself and loses sincerity and warmth of human relationships. When the most knowledgeable person does not put that knowledge at the service of his less knowledgeable colleagues. When we learn something and then keep it to ourselves rather than sharing it in a helpful way with others. When out of jealousy or deceit we take joy in seeing others fall instead of helping them up and encouraging them." 
The disease of indifference is fairly easy to cultivate at the university--and at every level, from senior administrator to lowest level staff.  The sin here is not in the impulse toward indifference but in the construction of institutional cultures that reward and intensify the tendency toward indifference. Universities have, in moving toward a corporate model, accelerated a process of cultural change in that direction. How does this culture of indifference manifest itself at the university--by unbalancing consideration of ethics and mission from those of cost savings and income manifestation, by encouraging a destructive competition among staff through variations of zero sum institutional structures for reward and advancement, by creating strong cultures of cronyism covered only by the thinnest veneers of neutrality, and by encouraging secrecy in everything from the work of senior administrators to the research of faculty.  I have come to loathe the phrase "low hanging fruit" in reference to personal and institutional decision making precisely because it tends to mask the sort of sometimes aggressive indifference at the heart of the disease that Francis exposes. And that indifference has marked  decision making from decisions to terminate even some of the most august programs to decisions about the composition of faculty and  the hypocritical defense of that policy on the basis of "irresistible" market forces. Lastly, indifference is marked especially by the reduction of individuals--especially faculty, staff and students--to mere abstractions.  Universities have become more willing to see students as "streams of income," faculty as "costs of production of income" or "income generators through grants", and staff as cost centers.  That dehumanization is the first step in the process of turning a people centered enterprise with a strong public mission into nothing more than a stamping plant for the generation of factors affecting markets.  That is hardly the conception of the university that we might actively seek to embrace--at least not openly.

"12. The disease of a lugubrious face. Those glum and dour persons who think that to be serious we have to put on a face of melancholy and severity, and treat others – especially those we consider our inferiors – with rigour, brusqueness and arrogance. In fact, a show of severity and sterile pessimism are frequently symptoms of fear and insecurity." 
The increasing turn toward hierarchy within the university has itself both exposed and expanded this disease.  It is one born of fear and of arrogance.  It is the first step toward exploitation, and an essential ingredient in the process of dehumanization that has marked the progress of the large university at the start of this century. How many administrators manage through crisis, how deep do cultures of pessimism run?  We have all been aware of the use of pessimism, even at the decanal and associate dean level, as a tool for managing discussion and forcing decision-making on artificial terms. Artificial in the sense that challenges are always constructed pessimistically in ways that permit no consideration of alternatives other than those that vest authority to wither an institution away at the discretion of decision makers "in the know" and who share information selectively and in the service of their agendas. How many of us have not been the subject of Potemkin Village discussions grounded in the operational premise that "the sky is falling". But it is in the cultivation of hierarchy, especially among the petty nobility that constitutes the "gentry" of colleges within universities that this sin is often and most grievously manifested--with the complicity of those senior administrators who view this as an acceptable technique of managing inferiors.

"13. The disease of hoarding. When an apostle tries to fill an existential void in his heart by accumulating material goods, not out of need but only in order to feel secure. The fact is that we are not able to bring material goods with us, since “the winding sheet does not have pockets”, and all our earthly treasures – even if they are gifts – will never be able to fill that void; instead, they will only make it deeper and more demanding."  
At the university, the disease of hoarding usually manifests itself through empire building--either through great physical works (the construction of buildings or other objects that may immortalize its builders) or in the reshaping of a department or college, or the university itself, to suit the vanity of the builder. Few at the university speak of the responsibility to educate, or facilitate the advancement of knowledge as such; they speak instead to the rewards of that mission.  And for administrators for the perks that come with such work--the pay, the office, the control. The hoarding of power and its rewards--the insiders' meetings, the clubby circles of power, the power to exclude; all of these are manifestations of hoarding that may not be counted by the number of houses or the richness of the clothing worn or of the cars driven, but of the hoarding of effective control.  Yet Francis reminds us that posterity belongs to those who advance knowledge and disseminate it well to future generations--administrative empire builders are forgotten almost before their farewell dinners are over.   

"14. The disease of closed circles, where belonging to a clique becomes more powerful than belonging to the Body and, in some circumstances, to Christ himself. This disease too always begins with good intentions, but with the passing of time it enslaves its members and becomes a cancer which threatens the harmony of the Body and causes immense evil – scandals – especially to our weaker brothers and sisters."  
Aaaaah, cronyism. This is as much a disease of faculty as it is of senior and petty administrators.  It does start out well intentioned--but it becomes a perversion of  its intentions with little help.  The pet faculty members used for "consultation" on administrative project, the inner circles fo powerful administrators, the board of trustees who form the effective voting block and who build walls around their power to exclude others. (see, e.g., here) All of these are manifestations of the detrimental face of cronyism. Virtually all universities have experienced the crises that come from cronyism, especially a cronyism that then insulates its members from the reality around them. Cronyism breeds indifference among staff and reduces the willingness of students, faculty and staff to participate more actively in the life fo the university.  It is efficient--a group of tightly bound individuals can arrive quickly to decisions--but its costs are high as well--in bad decision making, in alienation, and ultimately in the accelerating of error that may lead to scandal. Every administration might well engage in self criticism that goes to the issue fo cronyism, and that seeks to avoid or minimize its effects.

"15. Lastly: the disease of worldly profit, of forms of self-exhibition. When an apostle turns his service into power, and his power into a commodity in order to gain worldly profit or even greater power. This is the disease of persons who insatiably try to accumulate power and to this end are ready to slander, defame and discredit others, even in newspapers and magazines. Naturally, so as to put themselves on display and to show that they are more capable than others." 
Here we come to the heart of the issue--the selfishness at the core of the institutional diseases that have been described above. When the accumulation of power in the service of personal ends becomes the primary motivation of administrations, and when institutional structures are redesigned to reward such behaviors, then one has built the structures necessary to convert the university from a shared space to a gladiatorial arena whose function is to entertain through constant battles designed to hone and display personal power.  It is quite healthy for individuals to seek to do their best--and to be rewarded for those efforts. Recognition of accomplishment is essential for the well functioning institution and personal growth within it. But where those efforts cease being bent to the ultimate welfare  of the institution within which they are accomplished, where the individual is substituted for the institution, then one has inverted the institution as a space for the leveraging of personal power for personal ends. Personal ends well marbled within institutional objectives is a sound approach to governance--but increasingly that has rung hollow within university administrations, and has served as a cover for personal agendas.  We have come back to the vainglorious age of the caudillo in university administration. It produces not merely a move toward self-exhibition, but also increases the temptation to use institutional mechanisms to instill cultures of passivity among key institutional actors. That cultivation of passivity among institutional inferiors will more effectively rot the institution from within any any external force or "market" pressure.  When crisis actually comes, administrators will then reap the whirlwind ("For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind: it hath no stalk: the bud shall yield no meal: if so be it yield, the strangers shall swallow it up." Hosea 8:7). There will be no one, no effective internal force ready or willing to work to save an institution that has reduced them to abstraction--to a bondage to their personal agendas, and to an institution that treats them as fuel for the production of funds.

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