Hal on universities as control systems


To paraphrase sociologist Harold Garfinkel, one way to find some control
systems is to introduce conflict into social relations. I have been
actively involved in various attempts to modify university policy over the
years, from opening financial records to public inspection and promotion
and tenure files to candidates' inspection to advising faculty, staff and
students on grievances, and to being a pretty active union and faculty
council member on occasion. From this experience inter alia I think I can
infer how a university comes to operate as a control system, in cases in
which university employees feel obliged to say "no" on behalf of their
employer. There is another world of capital solicitation and investment
in which separate inputs are brought into play. I'll just start here with
an exploration of what may broadly called the grievance control system.

Let me take my five-year struggle to open promotion and tenure files as an
example (too late for myself, but ah well). As I began my involvement in
the issue by asking administrators concerned why the files could not be
opened, I set off two alarms in them. I could both see the alarm in their
manner and hear it in their words. One form of alarm was an awareness
that siding with me would entail explaining oneself and defending one's
position to any number of other faculty, administrators and trustees.
This is true of virtually any change. The probability of resistance to
sticking one's neck out rises across offices with a broader mood of what
might well be called antidisestablishmentarianism at a point in the
international cycle where intergenerational political transfer of power
occurs, as to Gorbachev from Chernenko and to Clinton from Reagan/Bush.
In times like this off campus and on, I am advising people not to (and
refraining myself from) expect(ing) people to enter appearances, schedule
hearings quickly, or even decide they are the ones who should decide an
issue. In so doing I become part of the social feedback loop which makes
it unlikely that anyone will say "yes" to a change in university issues.
The higher the level of justification presented for change, the more
dangerous it becomes for administrators to act except to say that they
somehow cannot undo a firing or a denial of permission to see a file,
preferably because "I'm not the person you should be dealing with" and if
necessary simply by affirming a lower-level decision.

The other alarm is personal. In the case of opening P&T files one
confronts the reality that in a threatening social world we all invest
ourselves in keeping secrets from those we evaluate about what we think of
them and their action. As I recognize that my position on file access
requires me to identify myself and give my address on all "blind" reviews
I write, or to send copies of letters to all evaluees including those who
waive their right to see what I say. I found administrators defending the
confidentiality of their own evaluation-writing in the context of telling
me why candor (oxymoronically) requires confidentiality in the P&T

The control referents are simultaneously personal and organizational. On
the one hand each of us has our own referent experience of pain to set off
the alarms and make us heed them. As PCT suggests, you need to address
that level of personal perception in order to have a chance of muting
anyone's alarm. On the other hand, my capacity to say no also rests on
the solidarity with which I and other no-sayers unite in resistance to the
change. Mixed in with personal referents one will find references to what
the mission of the university requires, and a developing rhetoric of union
among naysayers on organizational demands and principles. To assuage this
alarm one needs assurance that colleagues and superiors are entertaining
change themselves.

It also happens that administrators do say yes. When they do, I find that
they let go of their fears. When they do, and when they have experienced
dialogue with would-be changers in the interim, they suddenly find that
their room for no becomes much more restricted--for instance at IU in not
allowing the faculty member to see names of authors of unsolicited student
letters, and experimenting with change becomes more of intriguing than
threatening. I can see particularly in a settlement of a personal
grievance (as Mennonites find in victim-offender reconcilation meetings),
that parties suddenly begin taking off on new issues together (e.g., for
a ROTC student who lost her scholarship, on how she could now build a
strong military career), and virtually lose sight of what the conflict was
about. Goals become shorter term, and give way to new foci of interaction
rapidly. I would argue that in this mode concern for bringing perceptions
to referents gives way to celebration of the sensation of how the parties
are "going out of their way for each other"--on the sense that each is
coming up with new goals of the moment in response to the goals of the

I think it's a model, but many are those who have said I'm too anecdotal
and free with my language (as by using metaphors and the first person),
and that I am neither scientific in my inquirer nor a genuine modeler of
interaction. Who knows? I will say that much of what I write is a
shorthand statement of something I have spent a lot of time supporting and
deriving in past writing. Rather than start rewriting it all, let me just
say that I'll be happy to provide supporting data/literature for whatever
bald statements of mine seem particularly questionable to readers.