Sorry, I’m still fixated on the Bousquet Wire post I put up yesterday, because it recognized something that I’ve been thinking about for some time: the fate of the “common good” among institutions intended to serve the public. We see this dynamic as often in universities as in municipal governments, and in both cases the erosion of the common good occurs when these institutions find themselves ruled by a new complex of local and remote managers. This cost-cutting style of management, supported by a language of continual assessments and self-improvements, seems to be favored by local managers struggling under the gaze of a yet more distant management class indifferent to local concerns. And, of course, the language of institutional self-improvement cannot conceal the deep failure of these institutions as they attempt to meet people’s needs.
Significantly, The Wire paired its tales of institutional dysfunction in the public domain (public schools and police departments) with analogous tales of dysfunction in the corporate domain (the newspaper). Though these interlaced narratives puzzled the critics (why complain so much about newspapers, the print critics wondered?), it seems to me that the show’s creators were trying, as Bousquet recognizes, to show that the cause of this dysfunction lay in a management style common to both, in which the primary obligation of the manager is to shrink his organization and his workers’ wages to the smallest size, so as to minimize its claims upon the public. It is a quintessentially defensive institutional strategy, emblematic of the era in which Grover Norquist dreamt of cutting government to the size where it could be drowned in a bathtub.
Bousquet notices this cost-cutting dynamic running throughout the The Wire’s depictions of Baltimore, and he immediately applies it to the contemporary public university, where assessments and accountability receive far more administrative discussion and support than educational goals, and yet the results of those assessments seem curiously open to manipulation “from below”:
What the [The Wire] grasps is that private corporate and public institutional managers both employ “quality” in an Orwellian register in which a “quality process” is one of continuously increasing workload and continuously eroding salary and benefits, with a single, doltish mantra employed everywhere—in police departments, in social services, and school systems, just as on college campuses: the perpetual command to “Do More With Less.”
As [one critic] observes, what this actually means “is doing less with less and cutting corners to make it look like more.” Hence the need for assessment instruments that everyone inside an organization understands to be trivial and easily spun to nearly any purpose by agile institutional actors.
The instruments are supposed to be easily defeated. As upper management continuously urges lower management, who in turn urge the workforce: “Be creative” with the numbers. Being creative with the numbers allows managers to survive in their own culture of claiming ever-larger improvements in productivity while papering over the enormous human cost.
The human cost isn’t just the immiseration of the workforce. It’s also the failure of these intrusively and anti-socially managed institutions, “highly productive” on paper, to actually deliver the policing, health care, and education they exist to provide.
What I find most intriguing about Bousquet’s account of the university is the degree to which it echoes the complaints of journalists like Jon Talton, who diagnoses a newspaper industry in decline largely because it grew too monopolistic, money-hungry, risk-averse, and detached from local communities and their needs to sustain any “sense of a public trust.” And once again, the indifference of upper management to the actual purposes and values of journalism have helped to erode whatever public support or authority journalism might have had at one time, while driving the most capable people out of the organization. Sound familiar?
Which leads me to my final question: are universities run nowadays by people who can speak credibly about the public trust? And what, exactly, would “the public” demand if it could ask universities to change their practices or their priorities?