Harvard In The Iron Age

Orin Kerr noted that the writing was remarkably good for a college sophomore, but even more remarkable was that Brooks Anderson, ’25, had the guts to write it, and the Crimson the guts to publish it. The “it” is a stinging takedown of Harvard University’s bureaucracy bloat, living proof of Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy.

Harvard is one of the world’s preeminent universities; surely it has used its billions of dollars of accumulated wealth to primarily invest in its educational program, building an unparalleled roster of top professors, expanding offerings to students, and reducing class sizes. Right?

Wrong. Harvard has instead filled its halls with administrators. Across the University, for every academic employee there are approximately 1.45 administrators. When only considering faculty, this ratio jumps to 3.09. Harvard employs 7,024 total full-time administrators, only slightly fewer than the undergraduate population.

I’ll neither vouch for the accuracy of his numbers nor put in the time and effort to check his math because that’s not what concerns me here. This does.

Most administrators have a legitimate function. I will happily concede that the University does need administration to operate effectively. No professors want to handle Title IX compliance or send institution-wide emails about Covid-19 protocols. Yet of the 7,000-strong horde, it seems that many members’ primary purpose is to squander away tax-free money intended for academic work on initiatives, projects, and committees that provide scant value to anyone’s educational experience.

Even in his denigration of bureaucracy existing to perpetuate bureaucracy, of the many millions of dollars dedicated to the occupant of the Office of the Assistant Vice Provost of Tuesday, et al., Anderson still presumes “most administrators” to have a “legitimate function.” How many admins does it take to put in a light bulb send out a Covid-19 email protocol?

But note how “handle Title IX compliance” found its way into “legitimate function”? This isn’t to say that Anderson has so deeply inhaled the taint as to be incapable of seeing how bureaucracy builds upon itself for its own sake. He offers a cute example.

For example, last December, all Faculty of Arts and Sciences affiliates received an email from Dean Claudine Gay announcing the final report of the FAS Task Force on Visual Culture and Signage, a task force itself created by recommendation of the Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging. This task force was composed of 24 members: six students, nine faculty members, and nine administrators. The task force produced a 26-page report divided into seven sections, based upon a survey, focus groups, and 15 separate meetings with over 500 people total. The report dedicated seven pages to its recommendations, which ranged from “Clarify institutional authority over FAS visual culture and signage” to “Create a dynamic program of public art in the FAS.” In response to these recommendations, Dean Gay announced the creation of a new administrative post, the “FAS campus curator,” and a new committee, the “FAS Standing Committee on Visual Culture and Signage.”

Mind you, all of this was dedicated to the critical cause of “visual culture and signage,” an outgrowth of “inclusion and belonging.” Was this to prevent any future Harvard student to be traumatized by a rest room bearing the legend “Men’s” or to remove the stained glass window showing black people picking cotton in the fields? Without such a task force, would anyone have the power to eradicate the title of “housemaster” because the word was too painful to endure?

Anderson’s point is that the campus is overwhelmed by well-paid employees who have nothing to do with what was once the core mission of a university, education. They don’t teach. Whether they facilitate teaching has more to do with how many gymnastic moves you’re willing to make to connect the feelings of safety with the learning of physics.

But on campus, students, and their enablers, have come to internalize the unquestioned necessity for a grown-up to fashion, maintain and fix their worlds so that they are never forced to suffer the slightest twinge of discomfort. It’s not just that they believe they are entitled to a discomfort-free world, regardless of what makes any individual feel uncomfortable, but they are entitled to have an adult official in an office with an administrative title on the door responsible for making it so. And Anderson, like pretty much any other student, sees this as a legitimate function.

If someone calls them a name that hurts their feelings, they don’t respond “eat my fuck,” but call the Belonging Hotline to report them for discipline. That there are admins to wipe the tears from their eyes is seen as if it’s some mystery that their campus deans are playing out on their dime when they have expected it, demanded it, and can’t conceive of life on campus without thousands of adults to smooth their way through the brutal world of Harvard life.

While the Iron Law has made it worse, and will continue to do so until every student has at least one, if not more, administrators dedicated exclusively to assuaging their misery, Pournelle’s Law doesn’t arise out of thin air. The students wanted, needed, this bureaucracy to sustain them because they can’t conceive of a world where they manage to handle their own affairs, their own occasional twinges of pain and discomfort.

And then there’s the Title IX bureaucracy. cesspool of dedicated adults who spy into the sex, lies and videotapes of students to make sure no woman has post hoc regrets that compel her purple-haired confidants to call the anonymous rape hotline. And this, even to Anderson, is a “legitimate function.”

This isn’t to be critical of Anderson, even though I have no knowledge of how much bubblewrap was used in his upbringing, but to note that this is how even the most skeptical student views a legitimately functioning world. Without some official to make their every problem, real, imagined or manufactured, disappear, how could they possible survive?

8 thoughts on “Harvard In The Iron Age

  1. Elpey P.

    When Title IX compliance and Covid-19 protocols are used as go-to examples of justified bureaucracy, the protection racket may be playing good cop bad cop with us. The best defense an obviously corrupted system has is to allow performative opposition that obliquely fortifies the mechanisms by which the bureaucracy asserts control. The visual signage committee can take one for the team.

  2. Hunting Guy

    H. L. Mencken.

    “The true bureaucrat is a man of really remarkable talents. He writes a kind of English that is unknown elsewhere in the world, and an almost infinite capacity for forming complicated and unworkable rules.”

    1. Rxc

      Mencken has wonderful comments on society, but I have to take slight umbrage here, as a former federal bureaucrat. The bureaucrats are supposed to effectuate the laws written by the politicians, who tend to write them in ways that are grandiose, undefined, illogical, confusing, contradictory, and even on occasion physically impossible.

      Throw in monetary interests and more politics, and season with a LOT of lawyers and judges, and you end up with the rules described by Mencken.

  3. Rxc

    They are very good, secure, high paying jobs for people with useless degrees from places like Harvard. And they spawn even more good jobs for the contractors that the administrators have to hire. So win, win, win

  4. Denverite

    John K. Galbraith on bureaucracy.
    Galbraith,The Great Crash 1929, p. 139.
    “Men meet together for many reasons in the course of business. They need to instruct or persuade each other. They must agree on a course of action. They find thinking in public more productive or less painful than thinking in private. But there are at least as many reasons for meetings to transact no business. Meetings are held because men seek companionship or, at a minimum, wish to escape the tedium of solitary duties. They yearn for the prestige which accrues to the man who presides over meetings, and this leads them to convoke assemblages over which they can preside. Finally, there is the meeting which is called not because there is business to be done, but because it is necessary to create the impression that business is being done. Such meetings are more than a substitute for action. They are widely regarded as action.”

  5. Chaswjd

    There was a hilarious episode of Yes, Minister where the minister learned that there was a brand new hospital which had administrative staff but no medical staff or patients. The minister suggested shutting down the hospital so that the funding could go to patient care elsewhere. The head civil servant of the department said this:

    We don’t measure our success
    by results but by activity.

    Those 500 people
    are seriously overworked.

    The full establishment
    should be 650.

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