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The following essay stemmed from a meeting of department and program chairs at Bryn Mawr College at which issues of academic and administrative organization were discussed. The issues addressed seem to have more general relevance, not only for academic institutions but for thinking about social and political structures generally. The essay is presented here for that reasons and, in addition, as a contribution to exploring ways in which ideas of complexity and emergence can have practical applicability in real life contexts.

Some Thoughts on Academic Structure (and Socio-Political Structures Generally):
A Biological Metaphor as an Alternative to Both State's Rights and Federalism
at Bryn Mawr College (and Elsewhere)

Paul Grobstein
November, 2003

Part 1. Theory

A recurring problem in the evolution of modern social systems is the relation between distributed and centralized responsibility/control, and I couldn't help thinking, as we were talking in our department chairs meeting recently, about a particular example of this: the recurring tension between "states' rights" and "federalist" positions in American history and, for that matter, in contemporary socio-enconomic life. The extreme "states' rights" position is that all responsibility/control should be in the hands of local units. The extreme federalist position is that all responsibility/control should be in the hands of a centralized authority. It is, of course, a caricature, but perhaps an instructive one, to think of our conversation as one that replaced "states' rights" with "departmental" or "disciplinary" and "federalist" with some combination of "administration" and/or "interdisciplinary" (with the latter referring not to existing interdepartmental programs but to the Centers and the College Seminar program, entities that encourage still broader engagements potentially crossing recognized borders of any kind).

There are, and have always been, reasons to promote the states' rights/departmental/disciplinary position. Foremost among them is that local entities have the most information about local circumstances, and are in the best position to respond flexibly and appropriately to local needs. This seems to me incontrovertible. Two other points seem to me also of significance, though they are not without problems that offer support to the federalist position. One is the idea that the whole is actually the sum of the parts, and so one can comfortably presume that if each part does the best possible job it can of responding locally to local needs, both the parts and the whole will be successful. The other is the idea that it is the parts that have historical precedence/familiarity, so that they have a default presumption of priority with the burden of proof of virtue falling on any ideas suggesting/promoting a more centralized character.

Both American and world history, as well as my own experiences as faculty member, department chair, and Center director, seem to me to say quite clearly that there are equally reasons to promote the federalist position. Here I think the single most important point is the fundamental interdependence of the parts that make up wholes. States/departments/disciplines may find it most convenient/efficient/comfortable to do their own jobs their own way on the presumption that this will suffice to assure the success of a whole on which they in fact depend, but that is simply not the case. States/departments/disciplines (and individuals) are interdependent elements in larger assemblies (nations, institutions, the intellectual enterprise). They draw from and contribute to each other as well as the larger assemblies, and themselves are healthier or less healthy in ways that reflect their mutual interdependencies and the well-being of the larger assemblies. Moreover the web of interdependencies is a complex one. There is no assurance whatsoever that what it is locally good for one entity is good for others, and so no assurance at all that local decision making based on local circumstances will assure the long term success of the larger assembly or even, in the long run, of the local entities themselves.

For many, this suffices to make the federalist argument, that centralized responsibility/control is essential to assure that the well-being of the larger assemblies is considered and to adjudicate between conflicting interests of the local entities. In fact, I don't think it does adequately make the argument, for reasons that are significant in the present (and other) contexts. The most long lasting, complex, and productive organizations known are the assemblies of cells that make up living organisms, and, even more dramatically, the assemblies of living organisms that make up the panoply of continually evolving life. And what is particularly noteworthy about both of these examples is that they lack any centralized responsibility/control structure (at least in the sense that we use such terms in relation to human organizations). They do, however, have mechanisms that assure that local components take into consideration the interests of both other local components and the well-being of the larger assembly. When these fail, one gets cancer, warfare, and widespread extinction.

From this perspective, the federalist argument, like the states' rights argument, is too narrowly conceived. It is not obvious that "centralized responsibility/control" is necessary. What is essential, however, is some mechanism or set of mechanisms that assures that "local components take into consideration the interests of both other local components and the well-being of the larger assembly", with a clear understanding these may require a recognition of values beyond those relevant to local decision making based on local circumstances.

In short, there are demonstrable alternatives to states' rights on the one hand and federalism on the other, and hence to the recurring sense of conflict between the two positions (here and elsewhere). Finding these alternatives involves starting from the position that two propositions are both incontrovertible and non-exclusionary

1. Local entities have the most information about local circumstances, and are in the best position to respond flexibly and appropriately to local needs

2. Local entities are interdependent parts of larger assemblies, so there is a need for local entities to take into consideration the differing circumstances and interests of both other local components and the larger assembly.

and then conceiving in human form (in the present and related cases) organizational structures and understandings that will satisfy both propositions. My guess, as a biologist, is not only that such structures can be conceived but further that there are an infinite array of versions of such structures, so variations of them can be matched to any local circumstance, including ours.

Part 2. Putting Theory into Practice

In the following, I make some concrete suggestions for how to proceed in further discussion of academic/administrative structures at Bryn Mawr that seem to me to follow from the preceding. The core notion is to eliminate the idea of "centralized responsibility/control", and to replace it with a more organic organization that adaptively serves the essential functions of assuring that local entities respect interdependent and collective needs and values. To achieve this, I suggest that we change our perspectives so as to see the "administration" and such interdisciplinary initiatives as the College Seminar Program and the Centers not as "centralized authorities" (or pretenders to that status) but rather as themselves important local entities serving the specific functions of assuring that interdependent and collective needs and values are adequately taken into consideration in our collective endeavors.

1 - It is not and will not be productive to engage in debates about the relative value of departmental/disciplinary prerogatives versus administrative/interdisciplinary ones, and we should stop engaging in such debates. We need to proceed together from a general acknowledgement that both local and broader perspectives are essential to the well-being of the College as well as that of the various entities which make it up.

2 - Some degree of centralized responsibility/control, an "administration", is necessary precisely to the extent that departments/programs insist that their sole function is to do local decision making based on local circumstances, or come to understand that they do not have the time/resources to adequately take into account broader perspectives. Those who adopt the extreme "states' rights" position need to recognize that they are themselves the causal agents making necessary exactly what they object to. To the extent that departments/programs are willing and able to incorporate into their own deliberations ideas/perspectives/information that relates in specifics to the well-being of other departments/programs and the College as a whole there is a correspondingly reduced need for centralized responsibility/control.

3 - Correspondingly, the College "administration" (indeed ALL comparable entities throughout our culture) needs to recognize that its primary function is precisely to assure that departments/programs act not only in relation to local values and circumstances but with an awareness of and sensitivity to the concerns of other departments/programs and the reality of broader issues. The optimal way to achieve this is not by centralized control but rather by facilitating communication among the various entities that make up the College. When this fails, which it will at times inevitably do for a variety of different reasons, centralized control needs to be exercised in a way that promotes rather than threatens the fundamental administrative task of facilitating awareness of the realities (both positive and negative) of interdependent systems. Administrative actions that fail to recognize, acknowledge, and appropriately value the differing agendas/issues/expertises/engagements of different departments/programs will themselves contribute to a breakdown of the mechanisms needed to assure effective collective action.

4 - Some explicit attention to "interdisciplinarity" is necessary precisely to the extent that departments/disciplines insist that their sole function is to do local decision making based on local circumstances, or come to understand that they do not have the time/resources to adequately take into account broader perspectives. Departments/disciplines are important, but should not be presumed to have default virtue. They emerged historically because they proved beneficial to the broader enterprise of intellectual exploration and education; they have evolved/disappeared/been created in relation to the ongoing development of that enterprise and will continue to do so. Those who adopt the extreme "states' rights" position need to recognize that they are themselves the casual agents making necessary exactly what they object to. To the extent that departments/programs are willing and able to incorporate into their own deliberations ideas/perspectives/information that relates in specifics to those of other departments/disciplines and the intellectual/education enterprise as a whole there is a correspondingly reduced need for interdisciplinary programs.

5 - Correspondingly, interdisciplinary entities need to recognize their fundamental interdependence with departmental/disciplinary programs. Interdisciplinary entities are neither a replacement nor a potential replacement for departments/disciplines. They serve the functions of detecting patterns in intellectual activity that are less apparent in more focused work and helping members of an intellectual community maintain a sense of engagement with the larger enterprise. For these reasons, they are and will continue to be essential components of a healthy intellectual/educational enterprise.

6 - In general, "federalist" elements are most appropriately seen not as "central authorities" but rather as additional foci of "local expertise and authority" with the distinctive task of facilitating information flow among all the elements that make up the system. When systems of this kind fail they almost invariably do so not because of a failure in any component but rather because of a breakdown in the coordination among components that is attributable to deficiencies in multiple components. I think it would behoove us to acknowledge our interdependencies and accordingly to

1) stop trying to find fault with one another
2) proceed on the assumption that we all have relevant and valuable local expertise
3) recognize that what problems we have are problems of coordination/communication to which we all contribute in one way or another
4) get on with the necessary (and endless) task of evolving our forms of information sharing to enhance the intellectual/educational enterprise in which we are all engaged and to which we are all committed.
Along these lines, I think the suggestion emerging from our meeting that departments/programs give some serious attention/time to re-evaluating and re-stating their primary missions for each other (as well as other audiences) is a reasonable direction to be going. I would suggest that the administration, the Centers and the College Seminar Program do so as well. I think we also could usefully pursue the aborted initiative of exploring successes at other institutions, not with the intention of copying them but rather with the objective of helping us to conceive of possible alternative forms of organization that could contribute to our going more effectively about our business, individually and collectively.

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