October 4, 2013

The corporation and the community

Students should be aware of the University’s split personality.

To the new members of the UChicago community:

I’ve long felt that you can best learn about a person by focusing on which struggle plays out most prominently in his or her heart—which particular dualism is the most destabilizing. The same can be said for a community. Among many such conflicts here in Hyde Park, I’ve found that the problem of separating the University of Chicago, a corporate entity and global player, from UChicago, the home of Doc Films and your Sosc class, is central to the identity of this community. It is a question of how we wish to represent ourselves, both to each other and to the rest of the world, and subsequently how we choose to deliberate and make decisions together. It is a question well worth bearing in mind as you matriculate into this learned lakeside oasis.

It is natural to think that, as a young, intelligent person with nuanced opinions and clever ideas, you will now enjoy a newfound sense of empowerment when thrust into a more political environment. This would be, for the most part, a mistake. Your opinions will not be taken nearly as seriously as you may suppose and hope: Petitions and student government referenda will likely be ignored—or, at best, the power to resolve whatever issue you raise will devolve upon increasingly meaningless subcommittees until long after you have graduated and forgotten about your upstart views as an undergrad.

This is not to say that you are not taken into account when big decisions are made. But do not suppose that it is you, the person, who is taken into account. Rather it is the type of person you represent that decision-makers hold important: the socially mobile, pathologically hardworking consumer of higher education; the type of person who prefers social innovation and philanthropy to community service; the type of person who, more than a cherished informal coffee lounge, really needs more adviser meeting spaces. The surprise is often well distributed when the interests of the demographic “college student” do not align with the interests of the college students.

Most of the decisions will be made by a constantly reshuffling apparatus of mostly anonymous and well-meaning administrators with long, misleading titles, contact with whom will be mediated through a small number of invariably kind and tactful gatekeepers of information. Activist groups and journalists draw power maps that are irrelevant as soon as the Sharpie ink dries. Points of contact for various administrative bodies are only shortly outlived by those bodies themselves, which are soon subsumed under a new administrative category as part of the interminable uphill struggle of Administrative Innovation for Maximizing Leadership, Efficiency, and Smooth Streamlining. You may often feel like the victim of a bait and switch: Administrative Vice Presidencies for This and That are destroyed and created regularly; academic advisers come and go mid-year; carefully built relationships with RSO advisers are rendered nearly meaningless with every internal staff restructuring.

This is not merely a warning to those of you likely to suffer from abandonment issues. Rather it is a reminder that this is not only a unique community organized around aspirations of high-minded ideals and careful, honest argumentation; it is also a sprawling, transcontinental, multi-billion-dollar enterprise with thousands of employees and stakeholders. The problems arise when it becomes increasingly difficult to separate the two.

I admit (emphasize, even!) that nothing I have to say here is particularly original. Trends in higher education, including the disenfranchisement of faculty and students and the proliferation of the administrative apparatus, are analyzed well and often in publications like The Chronicle of Higher Education and almost every journal devoted to assessing the intellectual atmosphere in America. I simply want to color your orientation to the University of Chicago with a reminder that, as you arrive, it is just one of many communities experiencing these struggles. An honest assessment of what you can or should expect from the next four years ought not to leave that reminder out.

Colin Bradley is a fourth-year in the College majoring in philosophy.