I'm a bureaucrat.
This is not a role I love, but as a Department Chair at a university I am a bureaucrat. I am a low level administrator who is a functionary within the larger administrative system that manages the university. When people ask me "What does a Department Chair do?" my main response is "Signing stuff." When I became Department Chair I was stunned at the amount of paperwork that moves through the office. All of which needed, as a part of the bureaucratic process, my John Hancock. To cope with the volume I started to shorten my signature. Moving forward, I think I'll just start marking stuff with a big X. That'd be cool.
The second most common question I get is this, "Do you like being a Department Chair?" My answer is complicated, a yes and a no. On the one hand I don't like managing the administrivia of a bureaucracy. I struggle with this part of the job.
Plus, I keep waking up expecting to find that I have dead, soulless eyes.
But on the other hand, as a bureaucrat I have a certain range of powers within the system. And my goal, in light of those powers, is this: humanize the system. This is the part of the job I like.
I've written about this before, about how bureaucratic systems demonically dehumanize people. As a part of that system one of the things I can do is to work against that process.
For example, the other day I had a student at her wits end. She was trying to add money to her copying account so that she could print off her homework and research papers. (The students start with a certain amount of money in this account and each time they print at a library or lab computer they are charged. If they reach their limit they have to add more money or they won't be able to print.) The student went to the office where she thought she could take care of this. She was informed that, no, this was not the right office, that this had to be taken care of at a different office.
So the student walks over to the other office. There she is informed that she's made a mistake. This office tells her that, in fact, the office she just came from is the office that takes care of this.
So she walks back to the first office. There she is informed that the second office was incorrect. And they send her back.
Now all this student wants to do is print her homework for my class. But what she finds herself doing for half a morning is walking back and forth on campus between offices getting nothing done and becoming increasingly frustrated. Why isn't anyone helping her?
So she asks me for advice. "What should I do," she asks "to get money put in my account so I print my homework?" I tell her to go to one of the offices and start screaming. People start to help you if they think you're a little bit crazy.
I'm half-serious in this advice. How many of us have had to throw a fit to crack through some bureaucratic logjam? Throwing a fit, while humiliating, is a way to get some help.
So my goal, again, is to humanize this system. To use my power and time to make the bureaucracy work for the student sitting in my office. Not everything falls within my power, but when it does those are good days. The student comes in tangled in a administrative snarl and I, with my shortened signature, can clear the way.
And at other times, when I don't have the final say so, I can advocate within the system on behalf of the student.
A story in this regard.
One year I got an email from a recently graduated student expressing alarm. Apparently she hadn't graduated at all. She had just received a letter from ACU telling her that, due to an oversight, she was actually lacking one class toward graduation. It was a glitch in how her transfer credits were accounted. Apparently, a history class she took at another university was the same as the history class she took during her final semester at ACU. No one spotted this as the two classes had different titles and the classes themselves were significantly different in content that the student didn't notice (i.e., same era of history but different take, content, and readings). Only when the student's final grade was posted, after graduation and the student leaving town to start her life, did the computer pick up the conflict. And, having taken the same class twice, the student was informed she was one course short of graduation.
Place yourself in the student's shoes. You think you've graduated. You're living in a different town and have started a job. And suddenly you are informed that you are not, in fact, a college graduate and that you have falsified your workplace applications in saying you were an ACU graduate. More, we are telling you that you have to move back to ACU for a semester to take this history class.
How would you feel is this were you?
Now, if the student had made a mistake all this might be a bit different. But ACU didn't catch the problem and, thus, the student was given the formal clearance to graduate. We told her, in her final semester, she was good to go. We only informed her of the error after she had left campus. So as I saw it, this was our mistake. And, given that this was our mistake, I didn't think it right or proper to make this student return to campus to take a history class.
This won't do, I said to myself. So on behalf of the student I filled out the form requesting that she be allowed to graduate with three fewer hours. And technically this wasn't even true. She took the same amount of hours, and paid tuition for them, as everyone else. The issue wasn't the number of hours but the accounting of them.
I figure this is a no-brainer. So I was shocked when I got the letter saying that this request was denied. You're freaking kidding me, I say aloud, ranting to my administrative coordinator. This is just awful. So I ask for a meeting to make my case face to face.
And I do, putting pressure on, respectfully and politely but firmly. I'm told that the powers that be will meet again to reconsider the case. Hearing that, I figure I've won the day.
I was wrong. After a few days I was told that the administration was sticking with their original decision. The student had to come back to campus to take a history class.
This is the stupidest thing I'd ever seen. Broken, I email the student that my efforts have failed. I can't get the system to budge.
Not a good day for the bureaucrat.
So what happened?
Well, a few weeks later the student and her mother appeared in my offices. They were beaming. Why were they so happy? Well, they had came to campus to resolve this situation and, miracle of miracles, they succeeded! The administration finally signed the paper making this problem go away. At long last my student was an ACU graduate!
After telling me how thankful they were to me for my work on their behalf and hugs all around I asked them, How did this happen? How did you get them to change their minds?
The mom smiled.
They pitched a fit and wouldn't leave until something happened.
I smiled back.
I'm a bureaucrat.