Bureaucratic Blues

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It’s increasingly evident to me that accreditation is an instance of Oscar Wilde’s observation about “knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Wilde used that as his definition of a cynic, and accreditation increasingly feels cynical to me.

Bureaucracies are almost by definition cynical enterprises. They have to believe that everybody who participates in them is about to cheat somehow, or at least is too stupid to organize their work properly, and so must develop policies and flowcharts and rules for documentation. And every one of those rules was derived, in fact, from a cheat or a pettifogger in the past. That one moment of malfeasance was hardened into a code that we all must live by, one that takes up valuable time and goodwill from those of us not interested in cheating. We all have to take off our shoes in the airport line, have to bring our birth certificate to the DMV. Bureaucracies are born of fear, grow from fear, harden and become rigid from fear.

It’s a shame that classrooms, those potentially most open and courageous of spaces, only live within bureaucratic structures. Higher education is increasingly a category mismatch, invention housed within rigidity.

How does a school lose its accreditation? Not for producing insufficient scholarship. Not for having its graduates unable to pass professional exams. Not for abusing thousands of grad students and post-docs, or for having a 30% success rate in their doctoral programs. No, the only problems that seem to threaten accreditation are a) being broke, b) taking way too much federal financial aid, or c) lying on your paperwork. I wait for the day in which some fourth-tier college loses its accreditation because its faculty just isn’t very bright, or because their students drink far too much and have a rape-culture problem covered up by the dean of students.

So when we write about our schools in our accreditation reporting, we can never write about what matters. We can never write about the curiosity and goodwill with which we approach the work. We can never write about the generosity with which we support our students. We can never write about the day-to-day collegiality that enlivens the corridors. We can only demonstrate that the accounts balance.