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How To Save Our Public Universities From Bureaucrats

24/05/2017 8:55 AM IST | Updated 24/05/2017 12:35 PM IST
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I have been publishing a series of articles on philosophy in contemporary India in order to force personal introspection, initiate public debate, and encourage institutional reform. The latter is crucial, because — as I have been arguing from the start — philosophy is a public good.

Within the distributive model of justice, public goods should be equitably distributed, and it is only through properly functioning institutions that a just distribution of goods is accomplished. Are our public universities properly functioning institutions?

Not by any stretch of the imagination, nor by any objective metric (such as international league tables, or other quantifiable measures of output or achievement). This failure ripples throughout the humanities and social sciences, where a discipline like philosophy finds its academic home.

We scholars bear much of the responsibility for this, but not all of it. An enormous amount of responsibility for the failure of our academic institutions (and of course all the rest of our public institutions) falls firmly at the feet of the country's civil servants.

Now, prepare yourself to be scandalized.

Public universities should disband their administrative structure, chuck out the bureaucrats, and reconstitute their university administrations along completely new lines, with the administrative roles increasingly filled by students and faculty.

I am proposing that public universities should disband their administrative structure, chuck out the bureaucrats, and reconstitute their university administrations along completely new lines, with the administrative roles increasingly filled by students and faculty instead of civil servants.

I know that our nation is so deeply mired in its behemoth bureaucratic infrastructure and the (unjustified) belief that there just is no other way to do things, that the majority of my readers will probably not even be able to mentally process the proposition I have just forwarded. For, whenever I have advocated jettisoning administrators during various committee meetings, it seems as though I have just interrupted a perfectly rational conversation to sing a Yoruba nursery rhyme. People respectfully wait until I've finished, stare blankly through a few seconds of awkward silence, and then tuck back into the earlier discussion at the point where it had been left off.

While my proposal might be scandalous, it is actually realistic. I have participated in this type of radical reform within a public university setting (at Michigan, during an era of students protests), and desirable results were achieved. Let me explain how and why.

A core problem is that the bureaucracy sent by the state to administer public universities is not a stakeholder in the academic or pedagogic success of the university. Generally, the administrative staff have not benefited from higher education themselves; they have not experienced the benefits of a liberal education, and they are skeptical about whether we who are engaged in providing such an education are even offering the public any goods or service at all. What is the importance or value of the content within the files to those who push (or hinder) the files?

For these bureaucrats, rather, it is the file processes, the hierarchies that constitute the formal framework of bureaucracy as such, the sacralization of administrative procedures — these are the only values available to file pushers when the content (academic, pedagogical, scholarship-related) is so totally alien to them.

For bureaucrats, it is the file processes, the hierarchies, the sacralization of administrative procedures – these are the only values available to file pushers when the content (academic, pedagogical, scholarship-related) is so totally alien to them.

Look at all of this not from the side of faculty, but of admin. What is the use for the admin for there to be thriving scholarship, high-output, vibrant activity, an animated and engaged student body, a buzzing reputation, and so on? The desk officers get paid the same salary either way. If an institution is barely working, if it is somnambulant and packed with zombies, there is less work, less need for efficiency, fewer demands on the administration, and more power and control by them. And, again, the same pay and package. In short, public university bureaucrats have an entrenched and quite justifiable interest in lethargic, poorly functioning institutions.

This suggests that whoever administers universities must be a stakeholder in the vibrancy and success of these institutions. The people who push the files need to be in a position to understand that the content of these files have axiological priority over the sacralization of bureaucratic processes.

For this sea change to occur, civil servants need to be in a position to understand the value of scholarship, to support innovation in pedagogy, and to appreciate the need for high-quality education. The most effective way to bring about this change is to hire students — the true stakeholders in the success of educational institutions — to serve as administrators.

Whoever administers universities must be a stakeholder in the vibrancy and success of these institutions.

And, as long as civil servants continue to serve as administrators for public universities, the candidates could be selected from among the pool of bureaucrats within the state services on the basis of favouring those who indicate their desire to receive further education. That is, the admin would preferably themselves be enrolled part time in life-long learning and adult education programs offered by the universities. Along with these changes, bureaucrats of public universities must be mentored by faculty members. The faculty members can explain the content of each file to the administrators, so that the latter can understand its importance and meaning in concrete terms.

Three decades ago, when I was a student — frustrated by the oppressive bureaucratic machinery that had vitiated into a corps of debilitators rather than facilitators, who collectively stifled creativity and innovation, and thwarted excellence — we protesting students along with faculty occupied nearly all of the administrative positions of our public university. We circulated through all of these positions, each of us volunteering only an hour of our time each week to cover the required administrative workload, modeling our activities on Aristotle's dictum that "everyone take turns ruling and being ruled."

Then I saw first hand that a public institution could actually attend to the task of serving the public rather than the narrow interests of its cadre of bureaucrats, and that a public university, when administered by those who have a stake in its excellence, could actually fulfill its role of equitably distributing the public good of a liberal education. Abolishing bureaucracy is actionable, and not the ravings of a madman.

A public university, when administered by those with a stake in its excellence, could actually fulfill its role of equitably distributing the public good of a liberal education.

So I propose again, in plain English — let's dump the civil servants, and start running public institutions such as our universities ourselves, in the public interest and for the greater good.

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