Bureaucracy is a tool that can empower the collective to accomplish what uncoordinated individuals cannot. In a functional system, the bureaucrats serve their constituents as their rightful duty. Mistakes are inevitable in the pursue of this ultimate goal, for those in office are humans as flawed as you and me. A healthy bureaucracy is one that can justify itself to others when challenged and avoid the messy self-destructive inefficiencies that comes with cover-ups, hypocrisy, and cognitive dissonance. If we think of the relationship between the bureaucracy and the people as symbiotic, then actions that prioritize the interest of the bureaucrats ahead of the people produce short-term gains at the cost of the long-term vibrancy, and perhaps even viability, of the entire community.
Stanford University is a bureaucracy and that is not necessarily a bad thing. By most measures, it is an extremely successful one that has done an excellent job of providing a conducive environment for talented individuals to share their ideas and do great things. However, like all bureaucracy, it is not perfect.
This afternoon, a crowd of Stanford students gathered at the White Plaza to protest the university’s decision not to renew the contract of the student-run Dining Societies that have served the residents of Governor’s Corner for the past 30 years, with a record that by all accounts is (at the very least) above average for an organization of its nature. The details of this on-going dispute are covered in great details in Miles Unterreiner’s multi-part Daily article. Students who live in the suites are overwhelming opposed to the loss of this unique part of their house identity and many are upset that the decision by Residential Education was only communicated after the fact, leaving no room for students to voice their clear opposition to the change.
In the Daily article, there are charges of corruption at play involving the relationships between various ResEd-affliated individuals who stand to gain from the corporatization of suites dining. I hesitate to go that far, but certainly there is a clear mismatch between the goals of the bureaucracy and the goals of the student body. ResEd has thus far been unable to give a convincing explanation for its decision, and the excuses (mismanagement, hygiene, etc) it has seen fit to offer ring hollow to students who actually live in the suites and the chefs who have worked there for decades. There is no clear crisis that warrants the dismantling of a beloved Stanford tradition, and as such ResEd’s unilateral decision can only be taken as a lazy attempt to do away with what it perceives to be an impediment to its bureaucratic reach.
Efficiency and benchmarking can become goals unto themselves in a bureaucracy and it is easy for decision makers to rationalize these as being for the “greater good” of the people. It is important for us to take a step back and ask the question: “What ultimate goals do these changes serve to advance?” If it is to serve the interest of the students living in the suites, then clearly something is seriously wrong: 96% of suites residents surveyed in the Daily article prefer to keep the student-run enterprise. Associate Dean Nate Boswell, who represented ResEd at today’s event, could offer no satisfactory answer to this burning question and fell back to vague suggestions of “liabilities” and “mismanagement”. The closest he came to offering a real reason was when he revealed that there is an on-going lawsuit by a former employee against Governor’s Corner Dining Society and Stanford University, but even that does not come close to explaining the need for such drastic actions against a popular student institution.
Given the overwhelming support for the existing suites dining system and the chefs employed by it, the correct way for ResEd to solve these problems, real or perceived, is to work with the existing Dining Society system and the students running it. Unless ResEd can provide a transparent and convincing argument for why the current arrangement is failing the suites residents in a way that is fundamentally unresolvable through such cooperative reforms, then the only logical explanation for its unpopular decision is bureaucratic expedience. It is a decision made to satisfy some arcane performance benchmark that pays absolutely no regards to the actual desires of the stakeholders. It is the bureaucracy advancing its own self-created goals with its self-justifying logic. It is an unwanted solution to an imaginary problem.
Without a clear justification, the default priority of ResEd in this case should be to serve the interest of suites residents who are unequivocally opposed to the abolishment of the Dining Societies. Regardless of how efficient or cost-effective it is to standardize dining services — the Dining Societies seem to be doing well on those fronts by all accounts — doing so against the wishes of residents renders the entire endeavor meaningless and fundamentally confuses the means for the ends.
The goals of the bureaucracy should serve to advance the goals of its constituent. Today’s demonstration highlighted a clear mismatch between the two when it comes to decision-making by the university. We need to change this.