The Campus Crucible: 2. Moralists Against Managers

On Meet the Press on May 4 Lawrence Spivak asked Harvard’s President Pusey, “What do you now consider the issue which the university and the students and the faculty and the community face?" Pusey replied, “With me, the issue’s quite plain. It’s really a matter of tactics, and what are acceptable tactics and what tactics are not acceptable.” Tactics are indeed a critical issue in the current crisis facing American universities, but even more important, I would argue, is the underlying question of legitimacy. At the hectic facults meeting at Harvard on April 11, called to review the administration’s use of force to clear demonstrators from University Hall, this issue was raised in explicit terms by a black undergraduate. The crisis had occurred, he argued, because the administration had used force arbitrarily without the backing of the community, and hence in the eyes of many had acted illegitimately. Some months before the April outburst, Professor Michael Walzer of the government department had raised the question of legitimacy to a much less interested faculty meeting. Walzer spoke then of a widening gap between official norms and their acceptability to those subject to them and suggested three possible elite responses: repression, concession, or an effort to re-establish legitimacy. Repression and concession are the panic reflexes of the right and left, and can only serve in the long run to intensify conflict if no attention is paid to the third alternative. In order to re-establish legitimacy. Walzer suggested, a sense of community should be revived. Walzer’s speech was pointed and persuasive, but it was brushed aside. The need then articulated by one faculty member is now perceived by most. This was reflected in the Harvard faculty’s decision by an overwhelming margin to set up an extraordinary committee, which would be elected, not appointed, and which would include students as well as faculty, to determine the causes of the crisis, decide upon discipline for the demonstrators, and examine the university’s decision-making structure.

The best measure of the urgent need for change in universities such as Harvard is the simple fact that where a reasoned appeal failed, violence succeeded. To say that “force has no place on a college campus” is to state a wish rather titan a reality. In the absence of the genuine possibility of meaningful change, such a statement is equivalent to saying that dissent is permissible only so long as it remains ineffective. Force has a place only where all possibility of rational communication leading to peaceful change seems to have disappeared. Many people believe that just such an impasse has been reached. The relative success of a resort to force clearly demonstrates that many who have not used force nonetheless share the protesters’ feeling of frustration. Force has no place in a well-run society, everyone agrees; it follows that in a society where force has erupted, basic changes may be necessary before order can be restored.

Why have well-intentioned people—students, faculty, administrators—failed so totally to understand one another? Why has legitimacy been lost so imperceptibly yet decisively by hardworking, dedicated men? An explanation requires an examination of the convictions of two very different generations.

The generation which now holds power in American society is one which has been comfortable with the notion that we live in a post-ideological age. Many have forgotten that basic issues may he dormant almost indefinitely but can never be transcended. Those who discerned an end to ideology could do so with equanimity only because they presumed that all basic questions had been settled, and settled correctly. The observation that there were no basic differences was replaced in the minds of many by the conviction that there could be no valid basic differences.

When administrators hold such a conviction, they instinctively perceive basic challenges as simply childish or criminal, hence to be met only by a confident, definitive show of force. It is not surprising that administrators acting upon such premises often respond to coercive protests with extraordinary vehemence. Violent demonstrations are not simply deplored; they are treated as acts so reprehensible that further analysis of the situation is completely out of the question. Ernest May, in discussing American foreign policy in an article in Daedalus a few years ago, referred to a tendency of Americans to make an “axiomatic” response to foreign challenges, to assume that one can talk with enemies up to a certain point, but that once they act improperly one can throw the book at them. They become criminals, and no treatment is too harsh for them. A similar finality, a similar inclination to write off the possibility of a measured response, a similar sense that looking ahead to possible reconciliation is evil, colors the way in which many administrators have responded to forcible protest. “There is only one issue,” they say; “they used force first.” The curious result is that men with no conscious moral pretensions, who pride themselves on their managerial pragmatism, have reacted with an ironclad righteousness; men who consider violence abhorrent have employed it with little restraint.

Such an indiscriminate response reflects the administrator’s assumption that there exists a limited range of legitimate behavior and that all deviations from it, large or small, are equally dangerous. Alternatives to the status quo are depicted as frightening dichotomies. Change in the universities is thus often described as leading inevitably to one of two dire results: a university either terrorized by students, as in Latin America, or manipulated by anti-intellectual politicians, such as Ronald Reagan. In a parallel vein, some have cautioned about the possibility of an American withdrawal from Vietnam producing a stab-in-the-back mentality and a new search for scapegoats such as that which followed America’s “loss” of China. As a caution, such a concern with consequences is salutary; carried to an extreme, it makes any sort of change seem unimaginably dangerous.

Those who place narrow limits on legitimate behavior do not suppose that they are demanding a stultification of human energy. A university administrator knows that manipulation of the existing system can be satisfying, its complexity offering a pleasant challenge to ingenuity. He will probably enjoy explaining the arrangement of influence within the existing structure of authority and the methods of influencing decision-making. He will be able to explain the strategic use of language, what one has to say or avoid saying in various circumstances to achieve one’s purposes. He may take a sleuth’s delight in determining where “the real power” lies behind the drifting smoke screen of procedural detail, and an honest broker’s pride in helping people find their way to their objectives. Being profoundly aware of the complexities involved in implementing any policy, he will place great weight upon the advice of specialists. He may imply, even if he does not believe, that all valid issues are technical, and that specialists are by definition best equipped to handle a given problem.

The Harvard administration’s response to the seizure of University Hall was in several respects representative of the outlook of administrative managers. The challenge was answered only tactically. The propriety of the use of force was taken as axiomatic, and the method of its use was approached as a matter for specialists to implement as they saw fit. President Pusey explained the absence of university supervision of the execution of the police action by saying that “we had to leave it up to the professionals to do the job they were trained to do.” The result proved that moralists may act immorally, but that managers cannot manage them without a clear-cut moral mandate. The Harvard community would without question have endorsed the use of force to clear University Hall if it had been accompanied by adequate control and supervision by faculty and student representatives. By employing only specialists in violence and giving them a free hand, Pusey succeeded in isolating not the offending demonstrators, but the administration from the community. No effort was made to forestall by advance consultation the adverse reaction of great numbers of faculty and students which Pusey anticipated. This reaction was approached as another managerial problem, to be dealt with after the forcible eviction of the demonstrators had been managed.

The attitude which underlies a manager’s conduct is an aesthetic appreciation of his system as a fascinating and beautiful work of art. This sentiment is sincere, even if unconscious or embarrassing for a hardheaded pragmatist to attempt to express. If those who are being managed do not share the manager’s basic orientation, however, its superficial manifestations may seem peculiar indeed. For many students today there appears to be something perverse or covert in the tendency of those in power to speak to them in exclusively tactical terms. These students do not themselves have an aesthetic appreciation of the delicate intricacies of the power structure, nor can they discern this as a sincere motivation on the part of managers who can only maneuver because they have forgotten how to communicate their values to those who honestly cannot understand them.

Students suspect the motives of those who avoid reference to ultimate principles. An emphasis on tactics is interpreted as a disingenuous evasion by people who have something to hide. Students respect authority; they assume it must know what it is doing. They assume the present system has a rationale which its exponents are perfectly aware of and are aware needs to be hidden. They see themselves being conned by indirection and expected to devote themselves to the mastery of the techniques of applied cynicism. Those in authority are depicted as floundering captives of vested interests, contemptible in proportion to their experience and stature. A man is not respected for his experience it this seems only to remove him that much further from the possibility of independent moral action.

A dramatic indication of the difficulty of communication which these differing perspectives produce came during the “office hours for the faculty” which black Harvard students conducted in University Hall on April 18. Acting Dean Edward Mason, when recognized by the black student chairing the meeting, offered a few suggestions on tactics to the group. They had two alternatives, he said: either to make proposals to the faculty which they knew would not be accepted, or to make proposals of a type which the faculty could be reasonably expected to accept. Mason’s remarks were kindly, courteous, and well imentioned. A black student immediately rose to say that he saw no reason why they shouldn’t present the best program they knew how to devise; whether it would be acceptable or not was the faculty’s problem, not theirs.

Notwithstanding the widespread use of loose rhetoric, most radical students are almost as nonideological as the administrators they oppose. Most radicals are reluctant to conceptualize problems and solutions abstractly. The tactic of confrontation is essentially a moral witness and reproof, rather than a prelude to revolution. Radicals describe one another not in terms of their place on an ideological spectrum but in terms of their relative militance, a psychological attitude more suggestive of indignation than analytical rigor. It is not surprising therefore that radical students stress the importance of ad hoc objectives. They assert, for instance, that the Vietnam War is bad and should be opposed but are uncomfortable when asked if they would have fought in World War II, because they don’t like to admit they probably would have.

At Harvard, protesters associated with the Students for a Democratic Society referred constantly to their “Eight Demands,” which were all very specific actions the university was supposed to undertake, regarding ROTC, housing, and so forth. They insisted on sticking to these limited reform objectives, and denounced the demand of moderates for a sweeping examination of the university’s role and structure as a “Wall Street Journal plot.” Raising broad questions was seen as a diversionary tactic blurring clear-cut confrontation. Insofar as most student radicals have a philosophy, it is that everything about the existing system is bad and that consequently the only improvement one can expect will come in the form of concessions on specific tangible issues extracted from unwilling managers by force. The result, which is well suited to a fluidly organized, action-oriented movement, is a fervent attachment to a constantly shifting set of demands, combined with a fatalistic acceptance of the durability of the system they confront.

While students have intensified their demands for candor, university administrators find that institutional as well as personal orientations have made an effective response increasingly difficult. The managerial generation has understood the university’s function to be the provision of specialists: specialists in teaching and research for the university s own purposes, specialists in other fields for the society at large. The university has thus developed not only internal complexity but also subtly ramifying relations with the wider world, and in particular with the government. The university’s training of officers for the armed services is only the most visible of an almost infinite variety of types of interdependence between the government and the university. An academic administrator’s responsibilities place him in the middle as a mediator between the university and the government, which makes it difficult for him to see himself as the university’s own man; his hands are tied by contractual and other types of dependence upon outside interests. He finds it hard to be candid with his faculty and students, since he has to represent them to the government and the government to them. As men in the middle, administrative managers try to please two constituencies but may find themselves excluded by both.

The American university has evolved into the dispersed multiversity which Clark Kerr praised. The multiversity has successfully trained specialists in almost every field of endeavor. What has been forgotten by many administrators who manage these academic conglomerates is that separate spheres of authority and expertise do not hold themselves together; they are held together by a sense of community and common purpose. Students want to know why they should devote themselves to specialized studies. A university which offers its members only boxes to put themselves in will not be more appreciated because it provides a great many different sorts of boxes. In the absence of normal interaction between members of a community, in the absence of established channels of effective communication, the instigation of crises is an effective way to create instant communities, either by provoking old communities to new life or by creating altogether new entities.

Students are making an honorable request of those who hold power over them: either explain your motives or don’t be surprised if we assume the worst. Obviously, there are some students who act in a fashion which no civilized community can tolerate. Obviously, there are some who suspect more than the motives of the managerial elite and who will not be satisfied by any clarification or alteration of intent. But all dissidents who accuse are not criminals, just as all administrators who react tactically are not liars. Obviously, democratic decision-making on all issues facing an academic community is unworkable, but neither is hierarchical decision-making workable unless it is accepted as legitimate. The structure of the university—and much else in this country—needs a renewed mandate of trust, which will come only if the central challenge to its legitimacy is recognized for what it is and answered directly in moral, not tactical, terms.