administrative purpose

It’s old news I know but Higher Education is wobbling. Marina Warner’s article – Learning My Lesson – is a taut summary of the situation in the UK and the pressure that academics and support staff are under to merely stay afloat.[1]

In the article Warner cites an anonymous Russell Group professor:

Although the department was excellent, it was freighted to breaking point with imperious and ill-conceived demands from much higher up the food chain – from people who don’t teach or do research at all, or if they ever did, think humanities departments should work like science departments … Huge administrative duties were often announced with deadlines for completion only a few days later.

My dear friend and colleague Efrosini Protopapa once said that the trick would be to make something happen[2] without increasing the amount of work that anyone has to do (including colleagues, support staff, and management). Better still, she said, would be for it to happen so that our overall workloads decrease.

Thomas Aquinas wrote that “it is superfluous to suppose that what can be accounted for by a few principles has been produced by many”[3]. This principle is known as Occam’s razor, and it suggests in relation to getting stuff done, that the least is unequivocally better than more.

On the surface, administrative work is designed to organise, clarify, sort out, communicate and even make processes transparent. But what if administrative work actually functions to halt or prevent these purposes?

In their discussion of diversity and racism in academia, Róisín Ryan-Flood and Rosalind Gill suggest that the very documents written to document racism became “usable as a measure of good performance”. They write that, “Documents that aim to reveal can be used to conceal what they reveal”.[4]

In any situation we must take the greatest of care to recognise the reason why documents and tasks take the form they do, and who they are serving.


  1. Thanks to Erica Stanton for posting the Warner article on Facebook.  ↩
  2. It doesn’t matter what this something is, it applies to pretty much any situation.  ↩
  3. Trusting wikipedia as a source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occam%27s_razor  ↩
  4. Ryan-Flood, Róisín, and Rosalind Gill. 2013. Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process. London: Routledge, p.xviii  ↩
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