Can a Musicologist Find Happiness as an Administrator?

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In A Jerseyman at Oxford Robert Ranulph Marett wrote:

In those early days I was sometimes tempted to become myself a candidate for some position that would allow me to take an active part in the legislative and administrative business of the University. My friends were kind enough to promise me their support, and, though my opinions verged on the red, and as such were likely to excite the more taurine members of the Opposition, there were others whose sins were scarlet by comparison. But on reflection I came to the conclusion that I was not cut out for a committee-man. The democratic structure of the University would seem to impose on its senior members an inordinate amount of attendance at meetings of which one competent man is in charge, the function of the rest being so long as all goes well—and it nearly always does—to give their approval, mostly tacit, to what the king-functionary is going to do, or perhaps has quietly done already. Seeing, then, that such proceedings are constitutionally necessary, all honour to the worthy persons who sacrifice their afternoons to this rather supererogatory labour of standing at the bottom of the ladder while the expert does his job aloft. But original work, except it consist in the decoration of blotting-paper with fancy sketches, is rendered impossible for your inveterate committee-man, on whom a grateful electorate will shower any number of these gratuitous functions, when once he had been marked down as of a willing disposition. Hence nolo adminiculari seemed to me the more prudent attitude, if I was ever going to find time, after attending to the teaching and examining professionally required of me, to bring my research to a head, and write.1

As a matter of hard fact, Marett went on to become a "king-functionary": Rector of Exeter College, Oxford, in which position he served from 1928 until 1943. But what counts, what strikes one so forcefully, is the rapidity with which Marett's world has disappeared. The "democratic structure of the University" has been drastically redefined, and the prose style of those who work within that structure has no less drastically declined. Most of the passage no longer speaks directly to us.

The "king-functionary" is still very much a functionary—indeed one is sometimes inclined to think of his employer as an apparat—but there is no aura of the regal about him. In the name of redefined democracy, he has been surrounded by committees whose function often seems not to contribute collective wisdom but rather to cast doubt upon his competence and his ethics, and of course to "evaluate" him after having interfaced with the input of all facets of the community.

One of the reasons for this parlous state of affairs is doubtless that change widely perceived as good inevitably has side effects that are less than good. The expansion of colleges and universities, both in the sense of the number of people who find their way to them and what is perceived as appropriate to teach and study in them, demands more rigid organization than Marett knew. The notion that higher education must justify itself in economic terms that go well beyond living within one's means and accounting for what has been spent leads to construction of a bureaucratic organization busily involved in quantifying the unquantifiable by appropriately inappropriate means and seeking to justify the self-evident. We live in the faith that all data are desirable and must therefore be pursued with little regard to the intellectual, moral—and oddly even economic—costs of the chase.

About all of this, little, perhaps nothing, can be done. Railing at the Zeitgeist is a delightful occupation for those of us who are polemically inclined, but the practical effects are not likely to be great. What one can do is to select a few specific targets and to attack them, recognizing that in so doing one is taking time from things that matter in the hope that it is being used to create conditions in which time can be devoted to those things.

To begin with, there is the federal government by which is meant not merely the vast apparatus of the executive branch but also the Congress which, after all, supplies the statutory foundations for administrative structures. If, as a political matter, we could effectively end what Kingman Brewster calls the "easy and cavalier use of federal grants and contracts to purchase behavior which the government could not constitutionally command,"2 many, perhaps most, of the cumbersome, expensive, and time-wasting administrative idiocies now imposed by the government on colleges and universities would disappear. To concentrate on the technical deficiencies of federal regulation, awe-inspiring though they are, is short-sighted; if we do so, we find ourselves arguing about details when fundamental political principles are at stake.

It is of course reassuring and sometimes even pleasant to have an enemy without the gates. But there are enemies within the gates as well, enemies that are essentially tangles and confusions of half-understood notions and only incidentally those persons who happen to confound these confusions with orderly thought.

Let us return to the redefinition of democracy. Even a casual acquaintance with the theoretical structure and practical operations of many of our schools can easily lead to the conclusion that there is no limit to tyranny provided only that the measures adopted to enforce it are somewhere at some time approved by eight of fifteen people brought together by a more or less understood procedure and solemnly labeled a committee. And so, for instance, committees, initially endowed with reasonable authority to struggle against entropy by forbidding totally chaotic duplication of curriculum and combatting the wilder imperialistic ventures of departmental barons, end by trying to determine what happens in particular classrooms and laboratories without pausing to think that organizational consensus is a poor justification for invading academic freedom. Democracy, now virtually synonymous with majoritarianism, has entered those foreign temples, liberty and autonomy. Again, one is inclined to argue against the technical deficiencies of these procedures. Again, to do so is short-sighted because fundamental political principles are at stake. Committee consensus is here being used to coerce behavior that could not properly be commanded, a fact beside which the tedium and foolishness of the endless meetings and the no less tedious and foolish paper work they do and cause to be done are nugatory.

The confusion about democracy has a twin only slightly less monstrous: the confusion about the role and function of the expert. On the one hand, the expert and his works are clearly unassailable. The time is not long past when the Army Corps of Engineers, knowing more about dams than anyone else, was permitted to scatter them about the country at will. Few considered that dams are not entirely technological phenomena, that they have many consequences about which the Corps of Engineers was entirely naive.

To some extent, the primitive worship of alleged expertise is still with us. The computer and its programs are the work of experts. From this it is thought to follow that a college's grading system is necessarily determined by its computer program. He who suggests that the reverse ought to prevail is likely to be scorned as a Lake Poet or worse.

But since our capacity for tolerating cognitive dissonance is so highly advanced, it is not surprising that this set of attitudes quite happily coexists with its precise opposite: the marvelous, old, American faith that anybody can do anything, and its logical corollary, that anyone can judge anything done by someone else. And so everyone is asked to "evaluate" the president, everyone, that is, "except my wife," as one president remarked. These evaluations are of course gloriously comprehensive. Faculty members whose notions of the details of administration are vague and whose sense for state politics does not extend beyond the notion that they are at best contemptible are asked to judge the president as fiscal expert and master of legislative manipulation. Fiscal officers are asked to judge the president as philosopher of higher education, as scholar in his field (or more likely and unhappily his former field), and as inspiration to those intellectuals whom they daily scorn. All these elegant judgments are expressed in slogans of doubtful meaning, the president is then said by his judges to match/not match the slogans on a numerical scale, the numbers are tabulated, and the president has been evaluated. We have a printout to prove it. The printout also proves something else: that expertise has once again entered the picture and the two faiths have been reconciled. Once more, our tendency is to deplore and sometimes even to resist the obvious technical deficiencies of the procedure or its voracious appetite for everyone's time or such violations of the spirit of protocol as may have been committed in its name. And once again, to do so is short-sighted for an important political principle (in the broadest sense of politics) is at stake.

Of course, technicalities and politics are not entirely isolated from one another; sometimes they are quite inextricably mingled. Consider the following:

The principal implication of the studies is that universities, adapting to societal needs, cannot rely upon bureaucratization of structures; upon more formal organization or upon line administrators with greater official authority. Obviously no large enterprise with as many variegated functions as the major university today performs under the omnibus headings of teaching, research, and service can operate effectively without formal structure and line managers adequate to the organization's tasks. At the same time, there are equally compelling reasons today for a complementary social ordering that is designed to make university management more responsive to the needs and interests of academicians. This can be done, our studies show, by means of clear and known procedures for consultation, communication, and decision which serve to make easier and greater the faculty's participation in policy-making. To create and utilize such procedures in a university is to collegialize its management. Inasmuch as these things occur over time and in degree, there is a process, and this process we call collegialization.3

The plea for a "complementary social ordering" is a suggestion that the parties concerned mind their own business and assumes a measure of agreement about what is involved. But note that the parties are collectively defined; liberty and autonomy are excluded from the calculation.

All this seems to suggest that the musicologist who seeks to find happiness as an administrator must venture into politics (in all senses of the term) and dabble in sociology and such profound mysteries as Behavior of Large Organizations (the capital letters coming all unbidden to the fingers)in short, forget not only musicology but music itself and seek his happiness in his growing reputation as the humanist who can interpret artists to engineers and the procurement system to artists.

There is truth in this, but it is overstated. Of course it is possible to become what increasingly is called a "professional administrator." Many, as we all know, do just that, while the more delicate egos among those who do not may suffer during discussions of such arcana as the latest ERIC reports, reports they buy but do not read. (The learned tomes cited in the bibliographies are neither bought nor read.)

But it is also possible proudly to remain an amateur, to maintain that though the design of administrative systems is a matter for historical development and the expert, the principles of their operation can easily be mastered by anyone bright enough to have a faculty appointment. One drives the vehicle with reasonable skill; one does not try to become competent to design it. Thus one becomes a critic (no bad thing for a musicologist) who from time to time tells the experts that something they have done or suggested is "dysfunctional" (for it is useful to have a small acquaintance with their language) but does not prescribe the details of the desired improvement.

One may also take seriously the individual and collective authorities and liberties of others. Though a dean may (and probably should) glance over a department's proposed schedule looking for the sorts of gross incongruities that sometimes escape the notice of those who have attended to all the details and making certain that the more reasonable of the registrar's dicta have not been crassly ignored, it is foolish, arrogant, and a waste of time for him to pretend that he is a great consulting physician to whom a most difficult case has just been presented. A decent respect for the authority and liberty of others is not entirely selfless. Indeed, it is thoroughly self-serving in an important way: it saves time.

Through respect for some things and disrespect for others, it is possible to keep some time for what one still thinks of as one's proper work. It is also very difficult, not because of paper and meetings, for these are things that can be controlled, but because of the emotional fatigue caused by what people consciously expect of administrators: their presence to begin with, their supposedly highly developed abilities as mediators and sages, the brilliance with which they make the system work when others have failed, and so on. Great emotional fatigue comes too from a more essential but mostly less conscious expectation: that the administrator will have some notion of what the future ought to look like and will set out to make the notion real without, of course, ever telling anyone what to do or even what he ought to do. (It is proper to suggest that under certain circumstances he might wish to consider the possibility that it might be wise to do this or that.)

Inevitably, then, the compromise between administration and scholarship or art is uneasy, and it is in part this uneasiness that is causing the number of "professional administrators" to increase.

But there is a wholly different approach. We could return to (and in many cases newly adopt) the old idea that "from the faculty they come and to the faculty they return." Doubtless, faculty members who become temporary administrators in these complex times need help, and the offices they occupy need continuity. What is wanted is an official of the permanent undersecretary sort. Were such an official routinely available, our administrator from the faculty might do what he ought to do: consider larger questions, refer other questions to another person, keep in touch with the nature of the enterprise in his care by keeping in touch with his own field, and try to invest his memos with some of Marett's grace and wit.


1London, 1941, pp. 149-50.

2Kingman Brewster, Address to the Annual Dinner of the New York County Lawyers' Association, December 9, 1976, duplicated, p. 5.

3Nicholas J. Demereth, Richard W. Stephens and R. Robb Taylor, Power, Presidents, and Professors (New York, 1967), p. 216.

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