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Friday, December 04, 2015

The CIA Learned From the Master

I'm grateful to Rick for posting an excerpt from that CIA document on organizational sabotage. I was surprised, when vast numbers of people started posting it on my Facebook feed, to find that the Slate article talked in general terms about "toxic workplaces" and that my 'friends' who were posting it--most of them academics--did not immediately relate it to university governance. For, as a commenter on Rick's post notes, it is academic governance to the life. It used to be even more so; when academics actually governed universities, and university governance also involved coordination among and between colleges, it could not more closely have resembled the CIA's pamphlet. Now university governance has been centralized and leadership has been assumed by, essentially, professional managers who may happen to have doctorates in some subject. (On the whole, and for all its costs and losses, flaws and absurdities, I think that is both inevitable and a probable improvement.) But it still very much characterizes the governance of individual faculties and departments.

I offer all this by way of pointing out that the much-shared CIA document bears a great similarity to a classic satirical work on academic politics, the Cambridge classicist Francis Cornford's Microcosmographia Academica. Indeed, I wouldn't be surprised if the author of the CIA pamphlet was aware of and cribbed from Cornford's essay. Every denizen, friend, or frenemy of the academy ought to read that short, hilarious, instructive work. I would add that it's short enough to print out and bring along to faculty meetings--mostly to have something to read, but also as a field guide and useful source of advice. (There is also a nice published edition with a historical and explanatory essay--makes a fine Chanukah gift!) Of course it applies more broadly than its original context of academic politics at Cambridge in the late 19th and early 20th centuries--if Wikipedia is to be credited, pieces of it pop up as dialogue in Yes Minister--but the university was its inspiration and it still applies there, at least within individual schools and departments. The CIA pamphlet is fun, but clearly some donnish young analyst recognized that for instruction in such matters, one must learn from the best.

Incidentally, it reminds me of a wonderful quote from the newest volume of letters by Isaiah Berlin. In it, Berlin is describing his friend John Sparrow, the long-serving Warden of All Souls College: 

In College, to which he was in a sense devoted, his principal achievement was blocking--with the greatest ingenuity, style and brilliance--the slightest change in its arrangements. He did not always succeed, of course, but his efforts in that direction were wonderful to behold . . . . [Despite occasional opposition on Berlin's part,] I cannot deny that I watched his manoeuvres to outwit and stymie his colleagues with the most fascinated, if somewhat disapproving, admiration. His virtuosity in that respect was, in my experience, unparalleled.



Posted by Paul Horwitz on December 4, 2015 at 10:25 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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