American bureaucracy is often nasty, not necessarily because of the excessive love for paperwork (although that certainly plays a role), but rather due to the tendency to follow every rule to the letter even if it doesn’t make sense. Perhaps surprisingly, the bureaucracy at American universities is as unbending as anywhere else.
Harry Lewis, a professor of CS at Harvard and former dean of Harvard College (and an active member of CRCS, where I was a postdoc fellow), recently quoted the following insightful paragraph on his blog:
But morality, not to mention common sense, plays little part in the functioning of our modern universities. The role of academic administrators these days – and this has been true for much of the past 25 years – is to prevent criticism of the institution. This has resulted in the growth of huge public relations infrastructures that team up with fund-raising (“development”) infrastructures. General Counsels have taken charge of much that goes on at the modern university. At their order, universities operate largely on this theory of “risk reduction” – that is to say, things are done not because they are right, nor because they enhance the institution’s educational or scholarly missions. Instead, they are done to protect the institution’s reputation, to protect the jobs of the administrators (for whom general counsel works), to keep the institution from losing government funds, and to keep the institution from getting sued. Truth, principle, and the education and welfare of young people have little to do with it. … The modern administrative university is a business machine without a soul. It is an administrative fiefdom that operates outside of the sights and controls of its governing boards or its alumni, with the primary goal of avoiding criticism.
Though this statement is perhaps too black and white, it does resonate with me. I have a few good examples of how strict bureaucracy can get in the way of doing science, based on my limited experience in Harvard and CMU (which presumably are representative of other good, private American universities), but I don’t want to air my dirty laundry in public. Instead, I’ll give two “harmless” examples from this past year at CMU.
A few weeks after I started working at CMU, CS faculty were required to attend a training session on sexual harassment. I naively assumed that the purpose of such a session would be to create a more supportive and pleasant working environment for men and women alike, thereby indirectly leading to better science and education. However, it quickly became clear that the purpose was to prevent the university from being sued. The discussion was led by a lawyer who explained that, as agents of the university, the university is liable for our actions, and illustrated how dire the situation was using detailed examples of other universities that did get sued.
As a second example, I taught my first lecture at CMU in mid January. It was bitterly cold outside, but it was warm indoors so I went down to class wearing a T-shirt. As I was plugging my laptop in, the fire alarm sounded. It would have taken a while to go to my office and get my three additional layers of clothing, so I figured I would just walk towards the exit and hang out indoors. As soon as I stopped marching towards the door though, I was informed that the university can be sued if I don’t actually leave the building; so I did. I wonder if the university would get sued if, under these circumstances, its employees froze to death.
Of course, Israeli universities take the opposite point of view: there are very few rules or requirements, which are moreover regarded as friendly suggestions. Sometimes things work out amazingly well, and sometimes chaos reigns supreme. Ah, those were the days!