some of us are brave

Rationalization of Higher Education: We’re All Bureaucrats Now

I have been working on a project with a good friend and mentor about the rationalization of higher education. It has been a joy.

I am less happy with the survey I did as part of the preparation for this project. I had read most of this literature over the past few years. This was one of the first times I had an opportunity to step back and synthesize it all without competing demands from exams, teaching and the like. It was not easy on the stomach.

My understanding of rationalization is neo-Weberian. It necessarily involves authority. I have argued before that in our culture, ruled as it is that anything in the pursuit of profit is right and moral, that authority is increasingly being transferred to the primary unit of market functions: organizations. One does not walk up to a structure of class or gender or race to negotiate the terms of her oppression.

What happens in reality is that one tries to negotiate for some goods, services, rights from some organization — the department of motor vehicles, the utility company, or the college admissions office — and something in the arrangement offered (or not offered) defines that person’s relationship to the greater social structure.

I am meditating on this as I re-read Bousquet’s “How The University Works” and Siva Vaidhyanathan’s “The Googlization of Everything” and classics from Randall Collins and Tuchman and Slaughter these past few weeks. I am also thinking on this after an intriguing session on hybrid pedagogy led by my colleague Pete Rorabaugh at Emory this week, during which someone effectively asked if we can ever work our way out of institutional powers that define what is a student.  And there is no small amount of cultural and ethnic and racial conflict at play here. The authority in organizational arrangements that define who is who and what is what is not benign, even though we theorize it as if it is. As I say in a recent paper:

It is likely that we are experiencing a rationalization not just of higher education but of cultural conflict over access to higher education. It is projected that the average college student in the year 2020 will be non-white. Already, the typical college student (often called by the misnomer “not-traditional”) is not at all the ideal college type that reigns supreme in the social imaginary. Instead, she is likely black or Latina and attending college after a multi-year break after high school. She may be a parent or responsible for a family. She often works and is juggling competing social roles. Many of those roles, like being a mother, can carry severe social consequences for failing to perform them in normative, socially acceptable ways. Are for-profit higher education and online-only programs like MOOCs being championed by cultural and economic elites because they offer an access “solution” by providing a college stratum that serves the student that is the numerically typical student and the projected likely student?

I used to be more hopeful. But if you can’t fight the State and win, I’m increasingly wondering if you can fight the organization and win.

There is hope that de-centering production through things like 3-d printing and subversive digital connected learning spaces and social media will empower individuals in their negotiations with organizations for social and civic rights.

I remain intrigued. But, one thing this project crystallized for me is that none of us is beyond the domain of the bureaucracy. Even when we are subverting its authority we are in it and of it. To teach freedom in classrooms we must first be in the classroom, and that is owned and defined by bureaucracy.

We are all bureaucrats now and I’m not sure there’s an immediate way out of that.


One comment on “Rationalization of Higher Education: We’re All Bureaucrats Now

  1. Elena J.
    February 13, 2013

    This is really interesting to me (and I actually would have happily read another couple thousand words of it!), as a bureaucrat in a non-profit educational setting. I often struggle with the dichotomy between on the one hand wanting to appropriately hold boundaries for our students (ie, enforce our policies) and on the other hand, worrying that our policies, while hopefully well-intentioned, function in a destructive way, unduly penalizing those who are already marginalized. The question that plagues many of us at my institution: How can we uphold our values, which emphasize justice for the marginalized as much as they do our strictly educational mission of teaching a specific curriculum, and also continue to exist as an institution? How can we do right by our students (and by those who would be our students if school wasn’t so damn expensive, and if the barriers to access were lower/different), but also do right by our faculty and staff, and to the external stakeholders that depend on us to continue training practitioners in our field?

    So I guess my question (to myself, more than to you), is that if we are all bureaucrats, how can we infuse bureaucracy with justice? Can bureaucracy make friends with anti-racism? (and gender equality, and, and?) In my day to day work, I try to do this as much as I can, and I am happy to say that my institution is also actively engaged in this work – but to what extent do our institutions need to change not just in our policies and procedures, but in the very thing that makes them institutions? How does one even begin to effect such a transformation?

    I am stirred both to anxiety (another giant conundrum/inequity/monolith to struggle with!) and excitement by this idea – so thank you for the provocation, and I will look forward to seeing more of what you have to say.

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This entry was posted on February 13, 2013 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , , .
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