Some Thoughts About Institutions and Bureaucracies

April 30, 2016 • 6 min read

Out of curiosity, recently I’ve been reading through some of the reports included in Princeton University’s strategic planning framework, which “identifies key goals and major priorities for the University and that will serve as a guide for allocating University resources and prioritizing new initiatives.”

Alas, there is nothing of exceptional note to be found in these reports. They contain guidance and suggestions that, at least to someone engrossed in that bubble of higher-education right now, are exactly what you would expect an elite university would be planning to do in the next 5 to 10 years. There are recommendations to bolster study abroad efforts, to create a new interdisciplinary environmental institute, and to establish a statistics and machine learning department.

While I was somewhat disappointed that there were no juicy details to be discovered, I suppose that because universities are institutions that hope to exist in perpetuity, that necessarily demands a certain level of patience, deliberateness, and boringness in the overall decision-making process.

Points of interest

That being said, there were a couple of nuggets that I picked out that are of passing interest—mostly in the “Wow, this is how bureaucracy works” sort of way.

From the report submitted by the Task Force on the Residential College Model

Encourage Community – During “study breaks,” place board games around in order to encourage students to engage socially beyond merely grabbing food and departing.

First of all, “study break” is in quotes because it is a blatant misnomer. The correct phrase to use would be: university-sponsored-free-food-event.1 Something in this quote is just odd about how the university is so explicit in social-engineering. Of course, I recognize that everything the university sets up in its undergraduate education—even just the very idea of a centralized campus where people live and learn together—is to some degree in the name of socially engineering certain desirable outcomes and results. But is it necessary to go into such minutiae as to officially recommend placing out board games during a study break?

More from that same report:

Nomenclature: Encourage professional staff and students to refer to what is currently considered “upperclass housing” to “non-affiliated housing” to breakdown the bifurcated experience students feel as their “childhood” being in the colleges” and “adulthood” being outside of the colleges.

“Childhood” and “adulthood”? I’ve been at the university for less than a year, but I’ve never once heard anyone at Princeton classify their experience with this dichotomy. If “childhood” is living in the residential college and having a university-sponsored meal plan. Then is we “adulthood” really moving into a different university dorm and joining an eating club?2 There are many ways in which the experiences of freshmen and sophomores differ from juniors and seniors, but moving to a new on-campus dorm and paying upwards of $9,300 for board doesn’t strike me as “adulthood.”

From the report submitted by the Committee on the Future of Sponsored Research:

New internal support for research will strengthen the proposals of Princeton faculty, increasing the likelihood of positive funding decisions, with the overall outcome of a virtuous cycle of more funds for research, enhanced research activity, and improved prospects for acquiring additional funding. […] There is a real possibility that this could place Princeton at a considerable competitive advantage vis-à-vis its peers. Now is not the time to retrench. There has hardly been a more exciting time in the life sciences.

There has been much discussion recently about the flatlining of government research dollars flowing into universities. From the committee’s report, it appears that Princeton has been relatively resilient against these stresses, but the committee recommends that the university create robust mechanisms for internal research funding to foster bold research, and to better position Princeton researchers to obtain the limited government funds still available.

This plan for increased internal funding does seem quite sensible: Princeton should use its current competitive advantage to position itself for future success. That’s the general formula to creating an institution in perpetuity. However, the scale of the endeavor cannot be underestimated. In the spring of 2014, the university had 495 professors, 80 associate professors, and 180 assistant professors. Under the proposal from the committee, four internal funds geared toward both early-career and mic-career professors would fund $7.4 million to 60 faculty members per year, partially funding approximately 8% of the faculty. And I say partially because in 2013 the average chemistry professor received $596,200 in new awards, the average physics professor received $363,800, and the average molecular biology professor received $688,400. Arguably, if government funding were to hold at current levels or even decrease by 10%, Princeton would have to do more than what is proposed here to meaningfully offset those effects. Of course, the good news is that $7.4 million per year can be sustained by a $148 endowment, and $148 million is only 0.63% of Princeton’s actual $22.3 billion endowment.

This is all to say that while it’s possible for the university to become more self-reliant in research funding, it’s inconceivable in the foreseeable future that Princeton, and other universities, will not be primarily dependent on government dollars for research.

That’s all of the thoughts I have for now about these reports, but I’ll probably come back to more of the strategic planning reports in the future. I’m starting to find that these sorts of primary source documents are much more interesting to read than the news releases that surround them. There is some level of exposure to the inner thought process of the authors of the reports that you can only understand from reading the reports yourself. So wherever your interests are, I would suggest that you do the same: find the relevant primary source documents and dig in. You don’t always need a journalist to stand between you and the information. If you want to be a journalist, read journalism. If you want to be a business executive, technologist, or anything else, read what the people in the industry are writing themselves.

  1. Actually, the fully-correct phrase is more like: university-sponsored-free-food-event-that-isn’t-actually-free-because-it-comes-out-of-ballooning-student-fees. (I see how “study break” is the more attractive word). 

  2. Juniors and seniors typically join eating clubs, which, as their names suggest, are an upperclass dining option. They’re an anachronism of a time gone-by, and now occupy an often contested position as partial-substitutes to fraternities and sororities in the university’s social scene.