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Monday, November 10, 2014

The fable of the professor and the bureaucrat

(((This post is re-posted over at Ordinary Times, click here to read it and the comments and to write your own comments)))

Once there was a tenured professor whose wife taught classes as an adjunct in his department.  The wife applied for another job and she had to get a transcript for some courses she had taken at the university she adjuncted at.  The day before the transcript was due she went to the transcript office.

The employee at the transcript office said all transcript orders required a two-week processing time but the adjunct could pay extra to put in a rush order and have the transcript in two business days.  The adjunct was very very sad because she needed the transcript by the next morning and she asked to speak with the supervisor.  The supervisor was very small man and wore ugly glasses and a shirt and a tie.  He spoke with a very nasally voice and he said the employee was right and there was nothing he could do and he regretted the inconvenience.

This was a very very bad thing, and the adjunct was very very sad.  She went to the tenured professor she was married to and the tenured professor went back with her to the transcript office and asked to speak with the bureaucrat who was very small and wore ugly glasses and a shirt and a tie.  The transcript bureaucrat was not friendly at all and spoke in a nasally voice and refused to change the arbitrary rules.  The tenured professor, who was very big and who worked out a lot, got very angry and lifted the bureaucrat up by his shirt until the bureaucrat gave in and got the adjunct her transcript right away.

After the adjunct got her transcript the bureaucrat said to the tenured professor in a not very nice tone but with a very nasally voice, "do you always resort to violence to get your way" and the tenured professor said, "it worked with you, didn't it?"


When I was a freshman in college, my biology teacher told that story to our class.  His point was to tell a joke that was also a true story.  It was funny because we were students at that same school and had had to deal with the bureaucracy.  It was all the more funny because we all knew the professor he was talking about and we could picture him doing exactly that thing.  He was kind of a campus legend.  He drove a Harley to school without a helmet.  One of his hobbies was weight lifting and he had the bulk to show for it.  According to one account, he had once slapped a student who had come to his office and threatened him.  (According to the account I heard, the student apologized to him.)

That was a while ago.  I've forgotten some details of the joke and added others.  I made up what (I hope comes off as) its fabulistic tone.  The small man with the glasses and the shirt and a tie and the nasally voice may very well not have been small, wore glass, sported a shirt and a tie, or spoken with a nasally voice. Further, the biology teacher who told the story didn't explain why the adjunct would need a transcript.  Maybe she got her PHD at that university.  Or maybe it had nothing to do with grades and was something like a certified work history that she just happened to have to go to the transcript office for.

So we have a joke about a tussle with the bureaucracy and it's funny because in the story the bureaucrat, who bears the sole responsibility for the situation, gets his comeuppance.  He has something someone else needs.  He has the power to supply it.  But he won't, and he won't because of arbitrary rules that he apparently is responsible for enforcing.  When he tries to hide behind whatever power his position confers on him, someone else with a different kind of power calls him on it, humiliates him, and compels him to relent.  And we're supposed to laugh.

But the moral of that joke has bothered me ever since I heard it.  Lost in that story is the adjunct's responsibility for what happened.  Why did she wait until the last minute when she surely must have known that transcripts often take a while to get?

There might be a good explanation, even though the joke ventures none.  Maybe some personal issues intervened and she just simply could not order the transcript as early as she should have.  Maybe it was a somewhat last-minute job offer and in order for her to get the job she had to turn around a transcript very quickly.  (I'm suspicious of that explanation, by the way.  Any institution from which she was likely to be offered a last-minute job would just as likely understand that getting transcripts from a largeish bureacracy  takes time, and this was in the early 1990s before it was standard practice to get certified transcripts by just hopping onto a computer, logging in, and entering a credit card number, as some schools now do.)

Your take might be different.  But I get the sense that she applied for a job, knew there was a transcript due by such and such a date, and said to herself, "okay, I'll stop by the transcript office the day before and pick it up then."  And when they said she couldn't have it, she got very angry.  It wasn't her fault.  And after all, it was a mere bureaucrat who stood in her way.  And fortunately, she had a strong husband to bring some modicum of justice to the situation.  Some people are just too important to have to abide by those rules.

There's a lot we don't know about why the bureaucrat refused in the first instance.  Did he have some incentive not to give transcripts on short notice?  Did he have a supervisor who had warned him repeatedly not to do so and would probably yell at him if he did?  If he made an exception in this case, would that have meant that over the next weeks or months he'd have to make similar exceptions for increasing numbers of requests, all to be accommodated by a short staff?  What was his role in the organization?  In my retelling I assumed he was some sort of supervisor or the public institution equivalent of a middle manager.  But he might a lowlier employee or a higher up "associate dean of transcript distribution."

None of this is to deny the bureaucrat's role here.  His job was to get transcripts for people who needed them, and apparently he was able to help, as evidenced by the fact he was able to get the transcript in the wake of the tenured professor's threats.  And while I'm more sympathetic than most to the excuse that "if I do this for you I'll have to do it for everybody," the goal should be to be able to "do it for everybody" when it comes to customer service and making discreet exceptions when necessary is sometimes a good thing.  (Even so, advocates for the "discreet exceptions" don't usually think of the person who who is timid or who doesn't know that a discreet exception is possible and therefore doesn't seek it in the first place.)

And maybe the bureaucrat really was a petty tyrant.  Perhaps he would have been more accommodating if it had been a man requesting the super-expedited transcript, or if the adjunct had flirted with him.  I happen to know the professor and the adjunct were ethnically Jewish and from New York and had the looks and accents to prove it.  For all I know, the bureaucrat took the stand he did as much to stick it to "obnoxious New Yorkers" as to stand on principle.

But that's all hypothetical  and at any rate has almost nothing to do with why the joke is supposed to be funny.  The lesson I take that when a service worker stands in the way of what you want, it's okay to do pretty much anything to get your way, even if that involves yelling or threatening.  And when it happens justice is restored.  And it's funny, too.

A related lesson from the joke is that the important people in the world are those who live the life of the mind.  (And who, by the way, have some sort of institutional affiliation.  The story would have been less funny if it had been an organic intellectual from the streets who had taken one class five years ago and now needed to a transcript right away for some reason and came in and threatened the bureaucrat.)  The particular people in this joke who so qualify are academics.  But we can find their doppelgaenger in any field whose practitioners do what they do, mutatis mutandis, "because I love it and not because of the money (but give me my money)."

Other people exist to serve these important people.  They are proles or bureaucrats--not necessarily the same thing but sometimes treated in similar ways.  Maybe they're simple people who can be patronized or whose plight can be bemoaned when the wrong party gains control of the government.  Or they are petty people who are to be distrusted and perhaps even feared because they represent the instantiation of a banality that enables and empowers the gravest and most totalizing evils the world has known.

They are to be tolerated and if necessary handled, but not respected.