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I devoured Paul LeBlanc’s latest book, Broken, over the weekend. It’s one of those books that takes a while to digest fully—I mean that as a compliment—so I’ll split this review into two posts, of which this is the first.
LeBlanc is the president of Southern New Hampshire University. The book is an extended reflection on the difficulty of maintaining a human touch within institutions as they scale. In LeBlanc’s telling, the gravitational pull of daily operations, revenue goals and competing deadlines in an organization can lower employees’ sights over time. Gradually, through no one person’s fault, the organization starts to develop a logic of its own; frequently, that involves dehumanizing its students/clients/customers. The drive toward quantification may be well intended, but it tends to privilege that which can easily be counted.
As social safety nets have weakened and a cultural ethos of extreme individualism has taken hold, particularly in the U.S., a self-fulfilling cynicism has corroded many of our most important institutions. The cost of that cynicism falls most heavily on the folks already most excluded. The question of whether college is worth it resonates differently with folks who don’t see many other ways of making it. Rather than encouraging entrepreneurialism, it can encourage fatalism.
LeBlanc isn’t afraid to use terms like “love” in describing the work that caring institutions—colleges, hospitals, schools—should provide. I was reminded of Russell Lowery-Hart’s invocation of “loving our students to success” at Amarillo College. At the foundation of that notion of love is recognition that the other person—the student, the employee, the parent—matters. The task of organizational leadership is to establish a culture in which that love can flourish.
The issue of bureaucratization obscuring the goals for which an organization exists in the first place isn’t new; Max Weber referred to the “iron cage of rationality” over 100 years ago. A division of labor can lead to a division of, well, vision, in which each office only sees its own role and misses the larger point. But the speed of technological innovation has accelerated dramatically since then, usually in the service of using people as means to ends. As the old New Yorker cartoon put it, on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog; your humanity can easily be made invisible. Buying books on Amazon can be cheap and convenient, but to Amazon, I’m just a consumer to be milked for as much profit as possible.
Having spent plenty of time in very regulated and rule-bound organizations, I can attest that there’s much truth to LeBlanc’s critique. The credit hour, to pick an example on which he and I agree, becomes a sort of Procrustean bed for instruction: learning only counts if you do it in the prescribed amount of time. From a learner’s standpoint, that’s ridiculous; it survives because it meets multiple needs of institutions providing the instruction. (Amy Laitinen’s report on the credit hour revealed that it was originally devised to help harmonize faculty pensions.) Sorting people into categories can speed up production. The problem is that the categories take on lives of their own.
I would have added a few other villains to the narrative. One of the drivers of rule-bound compliance is fear of lawsuits. Love is unevenly distributed, given that people are flawed. To the ones who get the short end of the stick, that unevenness can look like favoritism or discrimination. The flattening out of particularities forced by many rules is intended to reward evenhanded treatment. In public institutions, there’s also a well-founded fear of negative headlines. When questions are raised, “I followed the prescribed process” is a safer defense than “I love some more than others.” One classic critique of liberalism is that equality before the law flattens out differences. The classic defense is “as opposed to what?”
Still, LeBlanc argues that we don’t have to choose between fairness and love. We can have both. In the next post, I’ll look at how he tries to do that.