Walkabout 3: Distributional Coalitions and Bureaucratic Silos in Chico and Thailand

This post part of my continuing “Walkabout in Thailand”, after leaving my regular position at Chico State in northern California in January 2016. The subtitle for this series might be: “free unsolicited advice for university administrators.”

One of the reasons for this walkabout was frustration with the Chico State bureaucracy. Officially, Chico State is about busting through “silo walls,” and encouraging inter-disciplinary work and research. But in practice silos abound. Silos are the result of “distributional coalitions” which rigidify the past. “Distributional coalitions” is really just Mancur Olsen’s fancy word for silos, i.e. those bureaucratic structures which always endure. For me personally, it means that I cannot teach the inter-disciplinary classes I designed, and research support has disappeared.  So time for a walkabout to see what else might be possible.

What Mancur Olsen was writing about, is what has begun to restrict my flexibility as something of a maverick at Chico State. Years of bureaucratic accumulation (i.e. distributional coalitions) created “the rules” that tie faculty, departments, and colleges into tightly together in some type of Rube Goldberg structure. If one piece does not do its part, it means that a major, minor, certificate, GE program, etc., cannot be offered.   The rule becomes important for its own sake, irrespective of its utility for achieving a broader goal.

At Chico State, this means that atop each of these major, minor, certificate, GE program, etc., is an ever-vigilant administrator ready to protect historical interests, no matter what “strategic” planning may say about he future. Committee-generated reports in which each pre-existing “stakeholder” has a say, are classic generators of such coalitions. Indeed, Chico State’s new President just reinforced Chico State’s own silos by dividing the university into four stakeholders (i.e. staff, faculty, students, and rich “friends”), and then conducting a “Listening Tour,” which is really just another way of saying that she wants to know how the pie was divided up in the past, so that those interests can continue to be protected.  That is what distributional coalitions are all about.

And so old habits will remain. Classes remain on the books long after a distributional compromise reached via stakeholder committees. The result: Ever taller bureaucratic “silos” wary of anything new or different. These silos of course work like a machine, each one a cog connected to the next so that you have a self-protecting system which breaks down if on cog falls out. Doing something different it is (correctly) reasoned, will result an existential threat to the various majors, minors, certificates, GE programs, etc. Scheduling works the same way—everything is fine-tuned so that students can be processed in predictable ways which frankly, are pretty boring. And then of course there is the all-purpose bureaucratic excuse that there is “no money” is invoked because in reality there isn’t any more—all the money has already been allocated to those pre-existing distributional coalitions. Or in plainer English, what has been divvied up in the past is more important than the needs of the future.

What about my walkabout in Thailand? I am teaching in an International College which is only 12 years old. Faculty turnover is high at the International College (not so much at the older Thai college), reflecting salaries which are low by “international” standards, and continuing demands by “Bangkok” for international-level qualifications. But there are few “distributional coalitions.” Scheduling is often done at the last minute, and you are not always sure what class you will teach, or the exact day it will start.  INdeed, since I’ve been here, I’ve taught in four departments both on my on initiative, and that of the administration.  Unlike Chico, there is at the same time encouragement to tie my teaching to my research agenda.  It is indeed a somewhat chaotic “inter-disciplinary heaven!” As for “silos,” there are in fact few in the traditional sense. The “distributional coalitions” are in fact weak, because there is little looking backwards to protect a non-existent gloried past. But in exchange, it seems like what a colleague here at Payap told me the other day. We are all like gears spinning independently. Yes, we get to do our “own thing,” but the specialized offices which would ordinarily support us are missing. Freedom we have, but sometimes a little follow-through would be nice!