The Bureaucrat

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.

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21 thoughts on “The Bureaucrat”

  1. Oh dear, in America too?
    I am afraid you may, therefore, have hit upon a Universal Truth... L
    It reminds me of a particularly tragic incident in which a friend of mine became convinced that her son was seriously ill. The doctors looked at her boy and concluded that she was being paranoid and given that she knew nothing about medicine and so sent her away.
    She went back time and time again, both her and the doctors getting increasingly exasperated...
    Her mother’s intuition went into hyper-drive and she now felt that she KNEW her son was seriously ill. So, she went back to the hospital and demanded to see a consultant. They refused. She sat down in the middle of the surgery and started screaming. Not little gentle screams, but BIG terrifying screams (even her husband was scared!)
    Within a short while, a consultant came scurrying in and took the little boy for a scan and a full check up.
    He had brain cancer...
    Even as I write this I am chilled by the ramifications of this terrible tale. Remember it we must, however, if we really want something to be done...

  2. Richard, 
    Have you ever seen the Terry Gilliam movie, Brazil?  It's a black comedy that plays on a number of these themes, I think you'd really enjoy it if you haven't seen it.  The bureaucratic nightmare behind the making of the movie is an ironic twist, and almost as entertaining as the movie itself.  Those meddling studio execs.

  3. Rock on, Dr. Beck!  Way to be a subversive presence smack in the middle of the dehumanizing "system."

    My teenage daughter's favorite superhero is Spiderman.  (Her rationale for rating him #1 is that he has ethics; unlike Batman, say, who is a little too vengeful and violent in a punitive justice kind of way.)  You know what Spiderman would say:  "With great power comes great responsibility."  (a/k/a "To whom much has been given, much is expected.")

    Pitching a fit -- I can make like a squeaky wheel with the best of them, but I really hate it.  It exhausts me and I can't "live" in that place for any extended period of time.  Too easy to become the knee-jerk response.  Hence, why unhealthy churches (destructive doctrines and such) are not a place where I hold up well.

    I like the way you roll, though, and both the example and the message tend to be a very positive influence on me.  :-)

  4. Giorgio Agamben has this really interesting book recently translated called The Kingdom and the Glory. The sixth chapter is all about the historical relationship between angels and bureaucrats, which he sees as a good reason to despise both angels and bureaucrats. I won't go into the details. (There have been a few other studies on this relationship that Agamben doesn't bother to cite, but that's another story.) But you've made me think: Maybe he has it backwards. It's not that bureaucracies are too angelic, too reliant on transparent yea-sayers, etc. It's that bureaucracies aren't angelic  e n o u g h. And that's because they aren't human enough. I'm glad you're in there, humanizing/angelicizing the powers.

  5. It's truly terrifying to send your child into The College System, where you don't know whether or not there will be a Human Being like you in a position to help him sort things out, who cares one whit how things go for him. College kids are smart, but they're young, and The System/Powers That Be have been in place and wielding their powers a lot longer. Kudos for caring, and may your own sons also find that kind of caring within The System when they reach that point in their lives.

  6. I know this seems to fit every stereotype in the book, but my mother-in-law is great at this (in the best way possible). I'm terrible at confrontation (as is my own mother), so this asset has been beneficial to our family through the years. Maybe I'll try to take a page out of her book if it really helps to humanize bureaucracy. 

  7. A good friend of mine was chair of the English Department at (according to those experts at U.S. News and World Reports) a top ten university.  When I asked him what he did as chair he groaningly replied "I get to hear some of the smartest people in the world complain about what their colleagues down the hall are saying about them."  It was then that I discovered that "chair" actually means "staff psychologist."

  8. I was a 3rd semester senior because of a situation very similar to this.  No happy ending for me, however.  I had to go back and take Music Appreciation to finish my degree.  Nothing like not graduating because of a freshmen level course....

  9. My wife had an almost identical experience at ACU in 1995.  She graduated valedictorian, gave a commencement speech at chapel, received a number of plaques and awards in ceremonies leading up to graduation...and never received her diploma.  We had already settled in Houston and returned to Abilene several months later.  Upon inquiring about her diploma, she was informed that she was one credit hour short of graduating.  Not one class, one credit.  Her advisers never caught it and nobody realized there was a problem - or even informed her - until we asked about her diploma.

    Because we had taken band pass/fail for a number of semesters, she was able to get the requisite signatures to back-date one those into a for-credit course.  We needed to pay tuition, but she did receive her diploma after several months.

  10. For some reason blaming systems and bureaucracies seems like a bit of a cop-out. And right or wrong, here's my reasoning: When it comes right down to it, if we are engaging with people, especially face to face, what is their particular reason for giving us the run-around? What are their though-processes and motivations in those moments of bureaucratic dumbfounding? If they are sensible people, are they not aware of the situation that they place us or find us in? Are they simply lacking sympathy or compassion in regards to our plight? 

    Or is it a lack of understanding of the very system and bureaucracy that they are working for? If it is a lack of understanding, is it not their responsibility (if it is anyone's at all, surely it is those whom make up the system) to understand at least a bit of the ins and outs of their particular branch, department, etc? But ultimately, with the size of the larger systems and bureaucracies that make up global and national corporations, or even colleges for that matter, there is no way for any one person to be cognizant of the whole thing in all its parts, details and exceptions 

    Therefore, what bureaucracies and systems need are employees who not only care about getting their work done, but actually helping customers and having the time and concern to advocate for those customers.  "Having the time for others" structured into one's position is no doubt a substantial part of it I think. And yet I question whether you can really make any sort of systems or bureaucracies any more humanistic. Isn't it like attempting to make a hammer more humanistic? Aren't they simply tools whose humanity and effectiveness are dependent upon the user? So rather than trying to "humanize the system" perhaps our efforts would be better spent trying to "humanize the humans."

    More and more, I am coming to realize that at the end of the day, we have no one to blame for the state of things but ourselves (collectively speaking). Though it may be better for the sake of us all if we aim our anger and point the blame at the hammer that refuses to work right instead of the guy that just keeps missing the nail. But we'll probably never really fix the problem if all of our focus is on that darn hammer.

  11. Just make sure you're pitching a fit at the right people, about the right things. Don't make life worse for someone who doesn't even have any power to help you. "Pitch a fit to get things done" can, and is, used by many to treat people like store clerks and waitresses terribly.

  12. I love this. It's like Occupy Dean's Office. A lot of people in The System have a vested interest in maintaining The System and can only feel good about themselves if they make other people feel small and without power. Also, students sometimes have undue respect for stuffed shirts because of their position. I will always tell them not to be intimidated because everybody farts.

  13. Inertia vs. the squeaky wheel that keeps squeaking.  Or the butterfly on the wheel?  Some are broken, some are not.

  14. Yes, I threw a fit after a contract snafu when I was graduate assistant. The person available to witness my fit was a new hire who was powerless to fix it -- though she did tell the Dean, who worked out some convoluted solution.

    Ultimately, the "solution" wouldn't have been found without the fit but I still feel bad about the low woman on the totem pole had to be the one that I had a series of less than pleasant encounters over the phone, via email, and in person. Also, it is a little risky: getting on the bad side of the people who control the flow of said paperwork can have deleterious effects on the speed at which your paperwork moves through the system.

  15. Great post, Richard.  I worked as an administrator at a small college for a few years and you have laid out the advantages and disadvantages very well. I love the stories.  Joy!

  16. Yea! Yes and bravo! That's what I'm talking' about! Humans over systems. Principalities and Powers, eat your heart out! Great read!

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