Ask Anonymous
By Anonymous Bosch

Dear Anonymous,

I have it on good hearsay evidence that Calvin College has become a soulless bureaucracy, indistinguishable from all other bureaucracies in its slavish devotion to the kinds of ideas that can be transformed into tepid or perfervid handbook policies. Is there any truth to that rumor?

Fully Alert in Seattle

HandbookDear Alert,

What have I done to deserve this? Here I am facing into the question of another suspicious, not to say paranoid, rumor-monger. Could it be that we’re seeing evidence of some of the collateral damage caused by the non-stop political campaigning that is now a fact of life in the USA? Is it a little healthier north of the border? Or are we all going a little mad? And are the conspiratorialists out to get me again?

Alert, kindly allow me to start my answer a second time. 

No, my sources at Calvin College assure me, the college is not a soulless bureaucracy—not now, not yet, nor will it ever be, as long as there are freedom-loving people who belong to the student body, the staff, the faculty, the administration and the college’s many constituencies. But there are some small signs, some early warning signals, that do properly cause at least a little concern, perhaps even a small involuntary shudder.

The earliest of these early signs often appear in the coded language of noun strings. My sources don’t see much evidence of noun string proliferation habits at Calvin to date, but here’s what they tell me to look out for: job titles and job descriptions that use noun strings as if they were the coin of the realm. Some examples would probably help. 

You may be working in a bureaucracy if there are job titles that have at least two nouns preceded by another noun or an adjective: institutional protocol manager, say, or college policy facilitator.  You may live in an intrusive bureaucracy that is on its way to becoming soulless if such job titles indicate that policies are going where they ought not to go: vice president of senior staff morale enhancement management; dean of obligatory institutional efficiencies; downtime activities manager; faculty self-loathing workshop coordinator; sexual harassment awareness team. You get the picture. In some advanced cases, the titles have acronyms that betray much more than they should, but I have decided not to go there for the sake of gentle readers who should not be forced to witness such brokenness.

According to my sources, the proliferation of strange institutional policies can be another early sign of institutional unease if not disease. It makes good sense, for instance, to have a college-wide Web policy, and an organization like Calvin College will, naturally, have a policy on the responsible use of technology. Again, my sources inside the Calvin College infrastructure acknowledge that policies that supplant common sense can be a bad sign. If Calvin were suddenly to create policies regarding proper ways to chew and swallow, for instance, that might not be a sign of health. If the college found it necessary to draft a policy that advised students to practice not only frequent hand washing but also cautious kissing, that too might be a sign of trouble. Nepotism policies—necessary and helpful; policies to control the unregistered and unmonitored lighting of matches on campus—not so much.

One final note, Alert: In May, the communications staff at Calvin published a document that is virtually guaranteed to bring out the best and worst of Calvin alumni—a college style guide [ Calvin College Guide to Style ].  I don’t know if this falls into the category of “tepid or perfervid handbook policies” that you refer to in your question; I’ll let you answer that yourself.  For other fretful types out there, let me assure you that this guide makes no provision at present for the use of force, but I gladly predict here and now that this guide will generate a good deal of interest, not all of it healthy. Think of it as a test, one that you can find online. Please take a look. What happens once you’ve perused it—well, I’ll leave that up to you, too.

Your question is a good one, Alert, even if you meant it for evil. The college is not a soulless bureaucracy, not by a long shot. But that’s because the good people at the college love the institution too much to allow it to turn into one.

— Sincerely yours,
Anonymous Bosch            

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