For WLU By Peter Eglin, Sociology

A partial version of this text was delivered verbally at the February 26, 2015, meeting of the Board of Governors. It has been updated for publication now.

Management versus Democracy

In his 1970 lecture titled “Government in the Future” Noam Chomsky quotes Robert McNamara, US Secretary of Defence in the 1960s under Kennedy and Johnson: “vital decision-making … particularly in policy matters, must remain at the top.” Apparently this is a divine imperative, for McNamara continues as follows:

God … is clearly democratic. He distributes brainpower universally, but He quite justifiably expects us to do something efficient and constructive with that priceless gift. That is what management is all about … Management is in the end the most creative of all the arts for its medium is human talent itself. The real threat to democracy comes … from undermanagement … To undermanage reality is not to keep it free. It is simply to let some force other than reason shape reality (p. 51).

So, Chomsky continues, paraphrasing McNamara, “reason is to be identified as the centralization of decision making at the top in the hands of management. Popular involvement in decision making is a threat to liberty, a violation of reason. Reason is embodied in autocratic, tightly managed institutions” (pp. 51-2). For after all, ordinary people are stupid or emotional, and must be kept away from the instruments of power.

Stripped of its religious trappings such a view is, I believe, quite widespread in contemporary society. And it is not just apparent in the private sector. We need look no further than our own backyard – to the University Board of Governors and even the Senate – to see evidence of it.

At least an echo of this view can be found in the written comments on the Integrated Planning and Resource Management (IPRM) report submitted by one of the co-chairs of the Academic Priorities Team. This co-chair writes, in response to the charge of bias levelled by some of the IPRM’s critics:

In a process like this, where bias cannot be entirely eliminated, it is understood that the bias is that of the informed judgment of trusted peers. In other words, some value and trust is afforded to the assessments made by a committee of colleagues who were known to act in the interests of the university community.

Direct representation of every program is not possible in a process like this (my emphasis).

The management model represented in the IPRM is, then, one based on partially unelected colleagues “known to act in the interests of the university community.” It is what has come to replace the democratic model of self-governance envisioned in the idea of the university as a collegium and partially reflected in the WLU Act itself, where all faculty on Senate and its committees are both elected and are representative of their faculties.

A second feature of the management model reflected in the IPRM process is also revealed in the co-chair’s remarks. The author writes, quite candidly:

A significant insight emerging from the pilot process was the contrast between what academic programs and the AcPT considered to be important metrics of program performance, and what metrics could be practically collected and digested by the AcPT for 179 programs. In order to proceed, the AcPT realized that its focus must be on practical criteria and that this process was not, and could not be, a full blown academic program review.

In other words, the very process in which they were engaged was one which could not deliver the very outcome for which it was designed. And so a substitute was found, namely a focus on “practical criteria.” Practical for whom, one must ask. Practical for management.

Thus we have embedded and represented in the IPRM project the managed-democracy model of university governance in which a top-down initiative employed an elaborate consultative process staffed by partially unelected “colleagues who were known to act in the interests of the university community” to assess programs based on data that excluded “important metrics of academic performance.” I would like us all to measure the distance between this model and the ideal of democratic and collegial self-governance that is supposed to animate the halls of academe.

It’s not that the faculty and students are more important than the senior administration, though they certainly are. It’s that management and its IPRM have missed the phenomenon they were trying to evaluate. Their methods could never find it. Let me try and give you an example of what I’m talking about.

The case of SY203 Sociological Theory

My department was recently faced with the following question: should SY203, Sociological Theory, be changed from a two-term to a one-term course? It’s the kind of academic decision that is being made all the time, throughout the university. On the one hand there were the practical considerations. One is numbers: the number of sociology majors had decreased in the previous year, and so we had to get the numbers back up, otherwise we faced the prospect of more cuts to the program; apart from anything else more cuts mean fewer stipends which means less employment for Contract Academic Faculty (which is not a trivial matter for us in Sociology). A second practical consideration was ease of moving through the program for those students who declare the major in the course of second year. If they don’t do SY203 in second year it interferes with doing SY389 in third year (for which it is the pre-requisite) which interferes with doing seminars in their fourth year (because SY389 is the pre-requisite for these). This also leads to loss of potential majors. Thus, as a two-term course, SY203 was an obstacle to the efficient and sustained running of the sociology program. It was impractical.

On the other hand were the reasons why SY203 was a two-term course in the first place. These are academic reasons. It was the core course of the sociology program. It’s what generations of sociologists, in their wisdom, have judged sociology students must be exposed to early in their programs and in sufficient depth. Why? Because the writings of Marx, Weber and Durkheim are, rightly or wrongly, thought to be the foundation of the discipline. Just about everything else in the discipline is thought to be derived from or built out of the problems that they addressed in their work. Moreover, their work is inter-related – both Weber and Durkheim can be seen to be responding to Marx. In short, it was argued, it can’t be squeezed into one term without irreparable loss.

A long, long time ago, in my religious days, I read an essay in the magazine published by the Community of the Resurrection, or the Mirfield Fathers as they were known, in Yorkshire, England. It was about teaching. The author said that to list the elements that go into classroom teaching as the teacher, the students and the subject is to put them in the reverse order of their importance. Least important is the teacher, next in importance are the students, but most important is the subject. For university teaching I would embellish the last a little to say that open-ended, free inquiry into the subject is what is most important in the university – moreover, it should be “radical” inquiry (Noam Chomsky), arising from “loving the questions” (Ian Angus), to deepen and extend knowledge of ourselves and the world (Stefan Collini). The embellishment aside, do notice the order of importance being asserted here.

There was a further academic consideration. It’s about embodiment. If the academic life of a community of practitioners like a department is embodied first in its practices (like giving pride of place to sociological theory in the form of a two-term course in second year), it is embodied second in the persons who live that practice. Our regular teachers of SY203 had taught it as a two-term course for many years. One of them has written one of the textbooks in the subject. Another has contributed monographs and collections bearing on it. They know the subject, in its scope, its detail and its weight. And so, it was suggested, we may respect, not so much their opinion on the matter, as their value as its embodiment.

My point is this: members of the department met, in the curriculum committee, in the department meeting, and discussed the matter. It was decided internally – not externally – because the criteria, weighting, data, evaluation rubric and so on are all internal to the subject and its people. But it was done in consultation with the Dean, with approval from faculty colleagues, and signed off on by the Senate – that is, collegially and democratically, resting on the expertise of the faculty who know best, while taking into account practical matters, and subject to democratically organized collegial review. There never was and is not now any need for the IPRM. It should be shelved where it is now, on the WLU legacy website.


I started with a quote and I’ll finish with one. The late sociologist Egon Bittner, reflecting on the neoliberal capitalist order that now afflicts us, said in a 2007 interview:

What occurs to me is that the private official that runs the now worldwide international corporate establishment to my mind has more in common with the officialdom of the communist party in the Soviet Union than it has with the creators of the capitalist order. That is, the executives, the chief executives, do not resemble the Rockefellers or the Carnegies or the Stanfords. Instead they resemble … party officials up to the point of confessing to be motivated by an idea. Just as the communist party officials were spouting Marxism, so the officials of the corporation are spouting free market economics … And now what they are saying is, look, why stop with that? We’re taking over, for better or for worse, so many functions of the former welfare state, which is now being deconstructed progressively. Why not have all the state functions … commercialized? (pp. 119-20)

Including the universities where management, in seeking to aggrandize and streamline the enterprise, introduces processes like Integrated Planning and Resource Management that willfully forget what the enterprise is all about in the first place.
Works cited in this blog:

Brodeur, Jean-Paul. 2007. “An encounter with Egon Bittner.” Crime, Law and Social Change 48: 105-132.

Chomsky, Noam. 2005. Government in the Future. New York: Seven Stories Press. (Originally given as a radio broadcast in 1970.)

McNamara, Robert. 1968. The Essence of Security. New York: Harper and Row.

Peter Eglin
Department of Sociology
September 9, 2015

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