The Honor Codes and Sins of Academic Administrators and Professors

Max Weber wrote about the nature of both the bureaucracy and politics in his essays. Central to his writings were descriptions of what a administrator actually is, and their reasons, incentives, and habits for doing the things they do. As a professor, of course I work for such administrators—they are the chairs, deans, provosts, and vice presidents who run the California State University. In their job they try to discern what their superiors want—and then carry out that order, regardless of whatever personal opinion they may hold about the goals of the university.In their job, they need to in effect separate their personal interests, from those of the institution.  In doing this, they must put a distance between their passions for a policy or academia in general, and take on the distant passionless perspective of the organization.  This is difficult for a human being to do, i.e. separate their personal opinions from a sense of duty.

In the process they risk becoming viewed as manipulative, duplicitous liars by the faculty, i.e. people like me. And what is the human response to the suspicions of people like me?   From their perch on high there are defensive responses, asserting that the faculty are lazy and duplicitous. I guess it is an old academic story—stepping back and looking at it from the perspective of someone who died almost 100 years ago will put these harsh words in context, I hope.   At least it helps me to see the job of administration with a bit more empathy.

I know that such judgments sound harsh. Many administrators give up a career as a professor in the hope that they will somehow improve higher education through their creativity, and idealism. But what the perspective of 100 years ago from Max Weber says, is that if that is their goal, they are likely to be disappointed. Such goals are unlikely because as Weber more or less put it:

The honor of the [Dean/Provost/Vice President] comes from the ability to carry out any order—regardless of his own opinion—with the same diligence, as if he is fully supportive of the order. Without this higher sense of moral discipline, renunciation, and self-denial the entire organization would collapse. In contrast, the honor of the [university’s chancellor/president], in other words the leading statesman, in contrast is solely responsible for his own actions, and cannot and may not pass responsibility on to others, unlike [administrators] he appoints to carry out his will.

[Administrators] who personally ascribe to a morally high value system become unpalatable and morally inferior when they act as if they have personal responsibility for the institution, and therefore do not calculate the consequences of their decisions on the greater order. Unfortunately, we have had the kinds of [administrators] time and time again in leading positions. (Adapted from p. 157 of Weber’s Rationalism, Tony Waters and Dagmar Waters translators and editors, 2015).

In other words, the ethic of the administrator is not to support faculty or to guide the university to meet abstract academic goals. Rather it is to carry out orders from above, irrespective of their own personal opinion. Indeed, Weber is implying that the best administrators are those who have no opinion at all, but just implement their orders with the greatest technical skill possible. Period. From the trenches where I sit, this often makes administrators appeared weak-kneed and duplicitous. Either you cannot get a straight answer out of them, or they reverse a position when their superior coughs, or otherwise indicates that a decision needs to be reversed. In this instance, the honor of the bureaucrat defers to the “greater order,” because this is the higher ethic. The bureaucrat believes that without such moral discipline that is unquestioning obedience to those above them.

An Off Topic Good Example: Honor and the US State Department

A good example of this was gifted to me by a student last semester when I had a “Diplomat in Residence” visit my sociology class at Chico State. He had worked at the very highest levels of the US State Department as an Ambassador, and Logistics Coordinator for Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State. In his 20+ years of experience as a career diplomat with the Department of State, he rubbed shoulders with Presidents, Secretary of States, and many other well-known politicians. The people he worked for were both Democrats and Republicans, or politicians in the many countries where he had worked. My student asked him if there were any politician that he particularly admired. He hemmed and hawed and the answer was basically “nope, won’t say anything, except I like everybody!” My student pushed him further, and he finally mentioned the retired former president of an inconsequential African country where he had worked, and whom admired. The diplomat was careful about being “morally inferior” by refusing to assume the role of the statesman, that is someone whose personal views might be consequential. As a Foreign Service officer, his work was to be in service to the leading statesman, the therefore “inconsequential.” Only carrying out orders.

Back to the Honor of Academic Administrators

Which brings me back to academic administrators. The best academics are engaged in the pursuit of truth, wisdom, and beauty for its own sake, and our job description (and tenure) permit us to pursue this where those values lead us. Such is the ethic of the tenured professor in both teaching and research. But what happens when a person who has the habits of pursuing truth, wisdom, and beauty for its own sake, is put into a position of “academic leadership” where there only duty is to discern and implement the will of their superior? What happens of course, is that their sense of honor will be challenged. The old honor rooted in the pursuit of truth, wisdom, and beauty is replaced with one rooted in obedience and the passing of responsibility to the one higher then them in the organization.

The transition is often painful both for the new administrator, as well as the those who still see the new civil servant as a professorial guardian of truth, wisdom, and beauty. “Switching ethics” is a tough thing for humans to do—as it should be. It means that your very source of honor and self-worth must change.

 Why Administrators and Professors Will Never Really Trust Each Other

Thus the reason why there is such a distaste between university faculty and administration in large part, I think, comes down to very different ethics. The frequent reversals and/or weasel words needed to sustain obedience to higher ups results in the oft heard assertion that “all administrators lie.” Indeed, perhaps from the perspective of the faculty, they do—since to not do so would require disobedience to authority, and the assumption of responsibility which is not theirs. I know that when I was briefly a Department Chair, I was accused of lying and being a weasel a couple of times.  It didn’t help that I didn’t mean to, but the appearance I will confess was certainly there, and it bothered me.  Perhaps that is why I have never again sought administrative responsibilities.

But as a chair, I also heard thought the complaints from Deans and other Chairs about the behavior of tenured faculty who, from their perspective, dragged their feet on the latest innovation handed down from high above, i.e. the Chancellor’s Office. Such initiatives are often unrealistic, and the tenured faculty member can continue to pursue their academic (and personal) agenda without fear of reprisal. The accusation hurled the way of the faculty: “lazy, and uncooperative.”  And perhaps in part this is true–particularly for someone who defines diligence as being responsive to the administrative hierarchy.

Ultimately Weber’s point about academic hierarchy is that you only really get to pick the sin with which you will be accused. Go into administration and eventually be accused of lying and duplicity, or stay in the classroom and be accused of laziness and lack of cooperation.

In systems of professional honor, not only do you try to define your task, you also need to define your sin.

One thought on “The Honor Codes and Sins of Academic Administrators and Professors

  1. An interesting and thought provoking post. Gives new meaning to the power relationship between school administrators and their boards, “You serve at the pleasure of the board.” Does this mean picking your sin is like picking the board’s pleasure? Hmmm.

    It is also noteworthy that administrators can resist without directly defying the authority of those above them in the hierarchy. Tony and I witnessed this in the ‘shifting sands’ of the CDCR. Some idealistic administrators were pursuing specific goals while others stood by with metaphorical fire hoses directed at the sand beneath idealists’ feet.

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