Bureaucratic versus rhetorical views of the university, via James Boyd White

Yesterday was one of those exhausting days where I spent my whole time on-campus moving from one room to the next, working to persuade a succession of audiences, large and small, about the succession of topics that have momentarily defined my life: Michel Foucault, the historicity of sex and sexuality, the future of the university and our incoming president, classroom assignments, the college readiness standards coming out of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, and of course, SACS accreditation and its Quality Enhancement Plans for my college.

As I try to understand the coherence, or at least the potential coherence, of what I do on days like this, I keep returning to a passage I found in James Boyd White’ s “Rhetoric and Law” about “bureaucratic entities, which can be defined in Weberian terms as rationalized institutions, functioning according to end-means rationality.  These institutions are defined by their goals, purposes, or aims, which they achieve more or less perfectly as they are structured and managed more or less well (299). 

Laura Rosenthal and I have previously discussed, on and off this blog, how much faculty time nowadays is spent servicing this Weberean view of the university, which is built into the entire process of public higher ed assessment and “accountability,” and which seems deeply hostile to, or at least indifferent to, the educational goals of the humanities.  And White drops into a footnote a revealing aside: “this bureaucratic language[of means/end rationality] is very deep in our ordinary culture as well; think of a conversation at a curriculum committee meeting where someone says, “Let us first state our educational goals and then determine how we can arrive at them.”  That is a dreadful way to talk about teaching, yet it is dominant in our world , and once the conversation has begun on those terms it is almost impossible to deflect it to address any true educational concerns.”  (n.1, 316-17) 

We should think for a moment about White’s use of the 1st person plural here, and how it functions rhetorically, and perhaps unintentionally, in comparison with the coercive “we” suggested by the Weberean hypothetical “someone” addressing him in the commitee room.  I suppose I would like very much to be part of White’s “we,” meaning those with a genuine feeling for “true educational concerns,” but feel that I belong instead to the other “we,” as part of the “ordinary culture” (whose culture? whose world?) in which “dreadful ways” of talking about education ordinarily, and as a matter of course, prevail, usually without debate. 

Is this simply the difference between private and public higher education nowadays?  That the well-known academic author securely situated in both the humanities and the professions can feel that he has scrambled far enough away from the Weberean apparatus of public policy that he can view it from the outside?  And what would be the point of debating the Weberean administrator who wishes to begin every discussion with goals and end with appropriate outcomes?

Nonetheless, for all my qualms about some of these aspects of White’s prose, I read the following passage with gratitude, because it captured so much of the rhetoric I am subjected to while doing my work at a public university, even as a teacher of the humanities.

In this way the government, of which the law [or the university–DM] is a part (and in fact the entire bureaucratic system, private as well as public), tends to be regarded, especially by lawyers, managers, and other policymakers, as a machine acting on the rest of the world; the rest of the world is in turn reduced to the object upon which the machine is acts.  Actors outside the bureaucratic world are made the objects of manipulation through a series of incentives or disincentives.  Actors within the legal-bureaucratic structure are either reduced to will-servers” (who regard their obligation as being to obey the will of a political superior), or they are “choice-makers” (who are in a position of political superiority, charged with the responsibility of making choices, usually thought of as “policy choices,” that affect the lives of others.  The choices themselves are likewise objectified: the items of choice [or what we might call “taste”–DM] are broken out of the flux of experience and the context of life so that they can be talked about in the bureaucratic-legal mode. 

None of this is surprising, but the organizational metaphor of the university as a machine constitutes a form of rhetoric that has been so internalized by all parties that no one involved–not administrators, not students, not legislators, not even the voting public–can perceive this as a metaphor anymore.  It is simply “how things work,” or how they should work ideally , and there seems little point in debating the terms upon which public support is given, however it is given.  Whatever agency university faculty might have seems to be predicated on their ability to master this kind of rhetoric, and use it for their own purposes.  How long would a department chair last, if she simply refused to compare the cost/benefits of lecturers vs. T.A.s for composition instruction?

So this is how we arrive at a culminating description like this one of bureaucratic thought, which is perfectly anti-rhetorical in its desire to keep discussion on its own terms, without any acknowledgment of its limits:

This [bureaucratic mode] commits the system to what is thought to be measurable in material ways; to short-term goals; and to a process of thought by calculation.  the premises of cost-benefit analysis are integral to the bureaucracy as we normally imagine it.  Whatever cannot be talked about in these bureaucratic ways is simply not talked about.  Of course, all systems of discourse have domains and boundaries, principles of exclusion and inclusion; but this kind of bureaucratic talk is unselfconscious about what it excludes.  The world it sees is its whole world. 

And, as White concludes: “The overriding metaphor is that of the machine; the overriding value is that of efficiency, conceived of as the attainment of certain ends with the smallest possible costs.”  And how else could we describe the attitudes, if not of our administrators (and some part of any administrator’s job includes answering questions like these), then certainly of the state legislatures who dole out an ever-shrinking proportion of money to higher education in their states, while attempting to dictate on all sorts of matters of curriculum.

And yet what I spend increasing amounts of time on is talk.  Persuading various constituencies within the university to agree upon something.  Coming up with arguments to present to visiting politicians.  And sitting in what has to be at this time one of the most anachronistic entities ever devised, a university “Faculty Senate” whose deliberations are guided by Robert’s Rule of Order.  Where else nowadays does anyone even read, let alone consult, Robert’s Rules of Order?  We have “assemblies” and meetings, but those kinds of heavily formal and rhetorical assemblies and meetings represent one of the last obstacles to the complete takeover of the university by the Weberean, administered model.  And I think at most research 1 universities, the rhetorical model of governance doesn’t stand much of a chance against the corporate money that flows through those places, or the voter initiatives that rumble through like a lost herd of bison.

When I think about the possible rhetorical responses to this kind of bureaucratically enforced myopia, I think one of the most effective strategies is to focus upon consequences, because this diminishes any “choice maker’s” aura of managerial competence, once you can show how easily foreseen problems followed a particular decision.  If there has been a widely-acknowledged organizational catastrophe, what decisions (whose decisions?) led to this outcome?  Was a short-term goal, narrowly conceived and incompetently executed, pursued to the exclusion of lots of other possibilities?  Etc. Etc.  Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s easy to question (or debate) these kinds of styles of administration or management, until some kind of scandal or catastrophe captures a wider public’s attention.  But that’s where I think our opportunities begin.



2 responses to “Bureaucratic versus rhetorical views of the university, via James Boyd White

  1. I think you would love Paul Goodman’s little 1962 book The Community of Scholars. Goodman, an anarchist humanist, puts the rationalization of the university in historical context; like in all of his essays, the diagnosis is devastating–and the alternative tragically distant.

    “The colleges and universities are, as they have always been, self-governing communities. But the personal relations in such communities have come less and less to consist in growing up, in the meeting of veterans and students, in teaching and learning, and more and more in every kind of communication, policing, regulation, and motivation that is relevant to administration. The community of scholars is replaced by a community of administrators and scholars with administrative mentalities, company men and time-servers among the teachers, grade-seekers and time-servers among the students. And this new community mans a machine that, incidentally, turns out educational products.”

  2. Thanks, Greg, for the suggestion.

    My sympathies on this issue cut in a lot of directions, because one aspect of the mission of democratized higher ed is about access, which is about consistency and predictability, after all: will there be a teacher in the classroom ready to teach the class you’ve been assigned? etc. etc. But the notions of education that maximize this kind of consistency look more and more nightmarish and vocational, the harder we lean upon them.

    Scholars have never been an easy lot to get along with when they’ve been left alone, but squeezing them in this manner doesn’t seem to improve things, either.