“Administratium” and the Modern Bureaucracy

Posted on February 28, 2014 by


I will admit, this blog is a bit of a rant.  Sometimes I read articles and studies on a single topic and it resonates with me—perhaps too much.  Nevertheless, to begin, I have below reprinted a well-known spoof entitled “New Chemical Element Discovered.”  It was first published in 1989 by Physics professor William DeBuvitz.  Here it is:

The heaviest element known to science was recently discovered by investigators at a major U.S. research university. The element, tentatively named administratium, has no protons or electrons and thus has an atomic number of 0. However, it does have one neutron, 125 assistant neutrons, 75 vice neutrons and 111 assistant vice neutrons, which gives it an atomic mass of 312. These 312 particles are held together by a force that involves the continuous exchange of meson-like particles called morons.

     Since it has no electrons, administratium is inert. However, it can be detected chemically as it impedes every reaction it comes in contact with. According to the discoverers, a minute amount of administratium causes one reaction to take over four days to complete when it would have normally occurred in less than a second.

     Administratium has a normal half-life of approximately three years, at which time it does not decay, but instead undergoes a reorganization in which assistant neutrons, vice neutrons and assistant vice neutrons exchange places. Some studies have shown that the atomic mass actually increases after each reorganization.

     Research at other laboratories indicates that administratium occurs naturally in the atmosphere. It tends to concentrate at certain points such as government agencies, large corporations, and universities. It can usually be found in the newest, best appointed, and best maintained buildings.

Scientists point out that administratium is known to be toxic at any level of concentration and can easily destroy any productive reaction where it is allowed to accumulate. Attempts are being made to determine how administratium can be controlled to prevent irreversible damage, but results to date are not promising.

It is funny, but the author has hit on a very serious problem in today’s world, particularly in the United States—the rise and pervasiveness of the so-called “Administrative State.”  In a revealing book by entitled Inside Bureaucracy (1967), political scientist Anthony Downs stated that the only reason a bureaucratic structure is desirable in the first place is to accomplish at less cost what we might do with other institutions.  Cost includes not only efficiency in operation but the various potential costs imposed on the “clientele” of a bureaucratic structure.  In other words, we use hierarchy when it gives the best outcome for the common good, and not otherwise.

Now many analysts and scholars have begun to wonder aloud whether we are “over-bureaucratized,” given what authors such as Downs have shown about the pathologies of bureaucracies that grow too large and intrusive. The reader might think I am going to talk about government bureaucracy, and I want to do that, but here I will focus on the problem as it manifests itself in colleges and universities, public and private.

 The administrator explosion is evident in the modern university, even the small ones.  Studies abound on the increase, compared to faculty growth.  At some large universities administrators outnumber faculty 3: 1.  Nearly everywhere the increase has been larger than faculty growth.  What do all these administrators do?  Why do we think we need them?  To answer the first question, I don’t know what they all do?  I am not sure they do?  To answer the second question, usually other administrators are the ones who think we need more administrators, and for all sorts of reasons.  An assistant dean here, an assistant academic vice-president there, an assistant to the assistant VP for some office created by the “higher-ups” to begin some new project or just to keep those cantankerous faculty in line.  Often these intermediate or mid-level managers are really only “pushing paper.”  We know from frequent studies that often they hinder innovation because they see their role as following rules to the letter.  Information intended for higher officials also often is obstructed as it goes “through channels” or is actually distorted by interpretation as it passes up (see Downs).  Spontaneity is severely discouraged.  “Administratium” is at work.

 What does all this proliferation get students and faculty?  By all accounts, very little, except additional costs.  Why do we keep doing it?  Motives obviously vary, but could include a desire to be insulated, or to get others to help enforce policies, or just to make life difficult for faculty, or to justify their own office (“mission creep”), or maybe simply in their minds to increase efficiency, to “get things done.”.  I have a bold suggestion for administrators.  Before you add more people and layers and functions, you need to think things through.  Is the cost really justified?  Does it make sense to make the functioning of an institution dedicated to serving others worse for those whom it serves?  Bureaucracy is one of our favorite modern institutions, but Max Weber warned of the “rationalization” it would bring to organization.  Rationalization however is only one side of the equation.  The other side is the people being served and those who need to be freed to be innovative.  Over-bureaucratization only creates the environment illustrated by Administratium.  Rationalization is stifling. 

 The basics of organization are of course essential.  We have to pay bills, get grades out, order textbooks, plan and implement curriculum, pay workers and faculty, teach students, do research, and make other decisions.  But when it all is boiled down, bureaucracy should be expanded only to the point where it does what we need to be done and no more.  And even what we think we need done is not always what really needs to be organized. 

 Let’s re-examine our love affair with bureaucratization.  As one public official put it, let us “find out what we do best and do it, and find out what we don’t do well and stop doing it.”  If it isn’t broken, so the old saw goes, don’t try to fix it.