The Genius of Bureaucracy

I’ve been working at a faculty development retreat all week, and the stories at lunch are always the best part. And one of the things that struck me was the number of great ideas that have been turned into bloodless procedure. Yes, it’s brilliant to name the learning outcomes that your course will promote… and easy to turn that into yet another set of bland bullet points to be checked off by your department chair. Yes, it’s crucial to have peer review of your scholarly life before you’re promoted… and easy to turn that into a burdensome recipe of the sequence of documents in your dossier. One person described a four-year journey to get a coffee maker in the grad student lounge. If you imagine even thirty or forty hours spent across ten people and four years, that’s a gross undervalue of your time, a dollar an hour or less: how about instead if everybody chips in five bucks and someone goes to Bed Bath and Beyond for a $30 Mr. Coffee?

Almost everything that an organization does was once brave and bold and out of line, and has been tamed and straightened and sequenced to suck all of the courage out of it. The genius of bureaucracy is to make genius into bureaucracy.

How many coordinating meetings do we go to? How many task forces and cross-campus initiatives do we support? What happened to letting smart people work together in a classroom and see what happens? When we make standardized products, we develop standardized procedure. When we take risks, miracles happen.