• 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.


Institutional Memory

A real issue and sometimes not the relevant issue.


June 20, 2016

The story about the purge at the University of Louisville set off a series of comments about “loss of institutional memory.” It’s a phrase I’ve heard nearly everywhere I’ve worked.

I’m a bit of an agnostic on this one.

And I say that having seen what happens at an institution that has the memory of a fruit fly. In the years I was there, DeVry switched directions on a dime. At one point, it had three different versions of College Algebra running alongside each other, each fitting into a different curriculum. As an exasperated math professor put it, “it’s _algebra_.”  

The danger of having the memory of Dory is obvious; you can’t learn from mistakes. Nobody remembers them. Or, more accurately, the people who do remember them are too low in the food chain to effect any meaningful influence. They can put sand in the gears of implementation, but by then, it’s too late. And the grinding of gears simply justifies the next radical change.  

So I’m not opposed to institutional memory. Some of it is a good thing.

But at most community colleges, I don’t see the issue being a lack of memory. If anything, there’s an issue of too much memory. We get trapped in the past.

That version of entrapment takes many forms. “That’s the way we’ve always done it” is the most obvious. “Past practice” is “that’s the way we’ve always done it” with a dash of litigiousness.  Sometimes past practice gets reified as “identity,” as in “that would mean a loss of identity,” or, more basically, “we don’t do it that way.” And then there’s the old standby “we tried that twenty years ago and it didn’t work.”  

In other words, the usefulness of memory follows a bell-shaped curve.  In fact, that curve probably leans a bit to the left. Some memory is great, but more isn’t necessarily better, and too much is devastating.

“Institutional memory” that comes embodied in actual people -- as opposed to documentary or data records -- is subject to the same flaws as any personal memory.  People remember in fragments, or as they wish to, and the stories get reshaped every time they’re told. That’s not to say they’re lying; they may be offering the truest recollection they can. It’s just how memory works.  

I’ve seen that in action when I’ve been in meetings in which several people “who were there” give conflicting accounts of the birth, or content, of an alleged policy. One will swear it says “we can never do x,” while another thinks it says “we can only do x if y,” and another thinks it was tabled. Nobody is consciously lying, but they can’t all be right. Losing that kind of memory amounts to losing nothing at all.

Institutional memory, by definition, reflects earlier times and different conditions. When conditions have changed meaningfully, memory can mislead. Anyone middle-aged knows how that works. You forget that you’ve gotten older until you’re very much reminded, whether by a photo, an abruptly blurry paper, or the noises your knees make when you pick something up. The institutional version of that is habits formed in more prosperous times that linger into leaner times, or broad pronouncements based on old anecdotes that have taken on the force of truth over the years, despite being based on something a friend of a friend overheard ten years ago.

Sometimes the task at hand is less conservation of memory than liberation from it. Okay, you tried an online class ten years ago and didn’t like it. Both the technology and the students have changed since then. Okay, college looked a certain way when you were in it. The world has changed. You can get mad at it for changing, or you can embrace the possibilities that didn’t exist before. At the end of the day, there’s no end of the day; the world just keeps moving. You don’t get to be the exception, no matter how golden the golden age appears in retrospect.

Louisville’s, of course, is an extreme case. A purge of a Board, along with a president, and its replacement with an ad hoc group of hand-picked successors, is more about power than about memory. It’s a forced reset. From a distance -- and I have no privileged insight on the goings-on there, beyond what has been reported -- it looks like a case of both sides being wrong.  

But let’s object for the right reasons. The reason to object is a unilateral power grab. It isn’t really about memory at all.



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