One sociologist from the early 20th century, Max Weber, argued that the modern world is characterized by bureaucracy. He stated that rational bureaucracy was like an iron cage that we could not escape. As a young graduate student, this idea grabbed me and I resonated with it intellectually. I justified his ideas through contemporary examples, corresponding to the well-studied student I thought I was. In the role of professor, I attempted to make the idea of bureaucracy come alive by showing students how they are restricted by the rules and practices of the university and sports. I also explained how institutions had become the way our present day society has managed the needs of our population—such as healthcare, education, and government. And further, I demonstrated how each institution not only has its own bureaucracy but also that institutional bureaucracies can actually be in conflict with one another. What’s more, in the U.S., many institutions have adopted a neoliberal economic model as part of their decision-making protocol, which puts profit above the ideals the institution was originally designed to serve.
As I reflect on the last six months and the rising numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths, the flailing and uneven economy, the demands from Black Lives Matter demonstrations, atrocities in ICE facilities, and exponentially growing wildfires, I see the devastation and uncertainty institutions have created simply because their own bureaucracies have gotten in their way. In other words, institutions continue to insist on their own viability and indispensability despite results that suggest otherwise.
For example, Black Lives Matter demonstrations have called for a defunding of police with the added request that cities, towns, and counties put those funds into services that might more readily address the needs of the population—such as community psychologists and mental health experts, social workers, subsidized daycare, and community building resources such as recreation centers, public health clinics, job resource centers, etc. While there has been some positive responses from city councils, overwhelming the response has been to insist modern policing and the current institution and system of bureaucracy works and works well.
In addition, universities have scrambled to maintain their institutions has they have always been—just with online classes. Among the many things COVID-19 has revealed is the stunted ability of higher education to respond in an appropriate timely, student and community centered response. While I have read some reflective essays on what education means in the era of COVID-19, I have not seen a concerted effort to re-imagine universities and education that would significantly change the way education is done. In many cases, the overwhelming economic shortfall has been put on the shoulders of students, faculty and staff at the same time university municipal communities are suffering. Meanwhile top administrators continue to receive unprecedented salaries. Students are being asked to police their own and being punished when they don’t; yet, simultaneously, universities are insisting that sports competitions continue.
At the same time, universities are responding to the Black Lives Matter movement. On average I see four to five jobs a day for diversity and inclusion vice-presidents, deans, or directors. Many would urge me to celebrate the commitment of universities to diversity and inclusion. So far, I am struck by the steadfastness the institution has to its own current model of bureaucracy and the belief that hiring an individual will undo decades of racist, sexist, classist, and homophobic practices. Is it possible that if we change aspects of an institution, it can save us? Or are we seeking to save institutions so that they can serve us more justly?
Permit me to use a personal example. Part of all faculty responsibility in higher education is service through committee work and other educational endeavors outside of the classroom. It is true that in many universities faculty are well-protected. Nevertheless, this protection exists because of the commitment of the faculty and their work in institutional governance. In my years 18 years in U.S. higher education, I came to fully believe in faculty governance and devoted untold hours to this endeavor. I worked to protect LGBTQ+ faculty, female faculty, immigrant faculty, untenured faculty and to change policy and procedure so that faculty could focus on the educational endeavor without concern for their own welfare in the institution. I placed my faith in the belief that the system could change.
More than a year ago, I left a tenured position where I had seniority and could address the injustices within the university without endangering my station. What I came to realize is that whenever the faculty were not vigilant the system reverted to its normal practices. It was as though the door to just relationships was being held open by us and whenever we had a changing of the guards (or summer recess), the door slammed shut and the work we had done vanished. I left my position naively believing this problem was unique to my institution despite being a student of Max Weber’s ideas.
With this experience of faculty governance, directing The Center for Gender Equity, and years of teaching what are often called diversity classes, many have suggested I would be perfect for the newly created positions in higher education such as Associate Dean of Diversity and Inclusion, Vice-president of Diversity, or Chief Diversity Officer. I agreed. However, after one recent interview, I was faced with examining the interview process and my desire for the job. Alongside my internal searching regarding whether institutions can save us or we can save institutions, Joe Biden named his vice-presidential candidate. In reading an article about Kamala Harris, her words struck me, “I have chosen to work within institutions for change.” As the poets and mystics say, I took pause.
I recalled an interconnected idea of Weber’s–the charismatic leader. Through the work of charismatic leaders,societies and institutions can change. Charismatic leaders, Weber claimed, achieve their authority because their followers give it to them—followers believe the leader has the special skills, abilities, or ideas to create something different. Charismatic leaders often say something like, “You have heard it said that ________, but I tell you it can be _______.” Obvious historical examples of charismatic leaders include Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., César Chávez, and Nelson Mandela. Weber suggested that during the lifetime of charismatic leaders change was possible, but upon the death of these leaders, their authority also died and the changes that had occurred get absorbed into the bureaucracy once again.
In short, I now find myself, a sociologist who has studied social change, unsure of where to place my energies and my faith. As I reflect on our last six months this question haunts me: Is our only hope to live within institutions that cage us?