• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Ask the Administrator: The Panopticon is Frequently Stupid

Power, optics and logic.

April 7, 2016

A longtime reader writes:

Our university has recently had a slight decline in enrollments, and the administration thinks the sky is falling. (A few years ago, we were supposed to curb our enrollments: the sky was falling over that, too.) We've all been given marching orders to boost enrollments, complete with the barely veiled threat "we must to choose whether to grow or to shrink". So, my department has recently gone through a lengthy process to devise new sexier first year courses. Since all of our first-year courses are team-taught, and additionally have to be theoretically capable of being team taught by more than one team, the negotiations are protracted and delicate. We've also been told to offer a summer course. So, fine, we've been through this process.

When our Head of Programme went to submit the paperwork to actually get the new courses approved, however, she was told we can't add a new upper-division course without deleting an existing course. The summer course was to have been an upper-division course - but we don't have any courses to delete. We've had some new hires, the new hires understandably want their own permanent upper division courses. We're supposed to teach more without introducing new courses - in an institutional setting where "different sections of the same course" doesn't exist. From the faculty point of view, it's nonsensical: teach more, but don't teach more.

The really interesting thing, though, and the thing that I'm really writing to ask about, is the "you can't add a new course without deleting an existing course" rule. Nobody seems to know why that rule exists. In today's staff meeting, our head of programme reported that she's asked three different administrators for an explanation of that rule, and has been told "I don't know what that rule is for," "I don't know what that rule is for," and "ah, it's because having lots of courses on the books gives the impression that the university costs are higher, but since that impression is mistaken, the rule is actually very stupid." So, even though the sky is falling over low enrollments, the administration is preventing my department from implementing the changes the administration itself demanded, because of a rule whose rationale no administrator cannot explain.

Do you have (1) any speculations on what that rule is for, but more importantly (2) any explanation for the dogged and persistent defence of a rule that nobody can justify? I mean, is there perhaps a secret reason nobody will tell us? or ... well, any possible insight you can offer?  

The institutional setting is different from my own, but I recognize the habit of mind.  A few thoughts, before I ask my wise and worldly readers to suggest what I’ve missed.

Some rules live well beyond their purpose due to risk aversion or fear of forceful (difficult) personalities. If Otto in the registrar’s office is a real bear, and he has some weirdly powerful attachment to this rule, then it may live for years because nobody wants to challenge Otto. Sometimes rules like that survive even after Otto retires, because with time, it has acquired the status of local legend.  

From the outside, those rules can look silly. From the inside, they can be incredibly difficult to change.

I’ve seen some variations on that in different settings.  In one, a local myth had developed to the effect that the state had a “health and wellness” gen ed requirement. It didn’t, but the department that taught the course (and used the FTE’s to justify its budget) liked to claim that it did.  I discovered the bluff by accident, earning the enduring enmity of the chair. At another, a rule about running courses on an experimental basis (i.e. before formal approval by curriculum committee) was written based on publishing deadlines for the (paper) catalog.  When the catalog moved entirely online, people continued to follow the old rule, even though it led to some bizarre outcomes.  A rule that made sense in one setting outlived that setting before anyone noticed.

In this case, though, I’d guess it’s a matter of “optics.” That’s the management word for “appearances.” Having too many courses on the books can look, to the casual observer, like the college isn’t serious about cost control.  If it’s facing economic pressures anyway -- and most are -- then a savvy manager will try to avoid painting a target on herself.  People on the outside will pass confident and loud judgments based on single-glance impressions. Their judgments may be factually wrong, but they’re often consequential.  Get burned that way a few times, and you develop a sense of the kinds of signals that are likely to be destructively misconstrued.  

For example, I’ve endured discussions at a couple of colleges around having “too many programs.” Many of the programs in question were simply different combinations of existing courses; closing them would have made literally zero difference to the budget.  But if you’re predisposed to hear an explanation like that as an “excuse,” mere facts won’t stop you. A rule like the one you cite is a way to avoid attracting destructive, if confident, judgments.

Back in my grad school days, we were taught about the panopticon as a model of the exercise of power. Foucault used the panopticon -- a guard tower in the center of a prison with one-way mirrors all around -- to illustrate the point that if you don’t know when you’re being watched, you start to watch yourself.  Power enlists the self as a subject of discipline, in both senses of both words.

But what we didn’t cover back then is that the panopticon is frequently stupid.  Just because you’re being watched doesn’t mean the watchers are getting it right, or know what they’re seeing.  Surveillance is as susceptible to illusion as anything else.  And as with optical illusions, those misunderstandings aren’t random.  They tend to follow patterns.  If you know that, and you know that certain signals tend to set off false alarms among the watchers, it may be worth avoiding those signals.  

So for what it’s worth, my guess is that your administration is trying to shield your university from unhelpful critique by managing the optics.  To those who know the actual details of the operation, that can seem silly, and in some ways, it is. But if you think of it as a sort of political etiquette, it can pay off in other ways.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is there another, better explanation?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.


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