The Fable of the Tenured Professor and the Bureaucrat

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52 Responses

  1. Avatar Maribou says:

    I found this fable mildly funny for none of the reasons you discuss (at least directly) but because it reflects (in my mind) the power differentials between adjuncts and tenured professors so well. If an adjunct had done exactly what the professor did, s/he would’ve been blacklisted at that campus. Professor? Well, he gets to be the hero of the story.Report

  2. Avatar Kazzy says:

    “But he won’t, and he won’t because of arbitrary rules that he apparently is responsible for enforcing.”

    Are we sure the rules are arbitrary? I know that they often are. And I certainly know how easy it is to assume rules are arbitrary or otherwise stupid when we are not the ones who made or enforce them. But often times there are good or necessary reasons for certain rules. And while it may seem as if exceptions can and should be made, this isn’t always the case. At least not in a way that doesn’t lead to chaos. Worst of all, the story as told encourages violence in the face of rules. That is a horrible lesson to teach, at least when discussing rules surrounding transcript acquisition.

    “Assume positive intent” is a good – but hard – rule to live by. If you enter into a situation such as the one described thinking, “This person would only say ‘no’ to me if they are a power-hungry jerk,” you are denying the person the benefit of the doubt and making it much harder to work with him. If you walk in assuming, “This person might have to say no for reasons I don’t understand. Maybe I can better understand them and find a way around the obstacles to get what I want,” you are in a much better position.Report

    • Avatar morat20 in reply to Kazzy says:

      My dad used to complain about arbitrary rules when he worked blue collar. Then he got promoted (decades back) and realized those rules had a reason, and ones he agreed with. He just wasn’t seeing the whole picture.

      A friend of mine works safety for guys building NG pipelines. He spends most of his time harassing workers to follow safety regs, and dealing with the injuries from workers who don’t. They hate the petty, pointless rules that they feel treats them like stupid kids who don’t know better — my friend sees workplace statistics, and knows that whether they know better or not that gear is gonna save at least X fingers this month alone, if the guys using it don’t remove it because it’s a “hassle”.

      Not to say all rules are good, they aren’t — but I’ve always taken it as a rule of thumb (as a programmer and as for life in general) — not to change anything until I understand WHY it was there in the first place. Maybe changes over time have rendered it null and void, a pointless anachronism.

      Maybe it seems useless now, because the very thing it was put into place to stop….got stopped. But before I change it or remove it, I need to know what it was there for — and if the original problem will return when I change it.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to morat20 says:

        I used to complain about the seemingly arbitrary rules handed down by the facilities department in my school. Then a friend of mine moved into a similar role at his school and was able to explain to me the likely thinking behind the rules. It totally changed my perspective. I may still disagree with the rules, but I am in a much better position when I operate from a “I recognize they are pursuing different but legitimate goals” approach than a “Clearly they have their head up their ass” approach.Report

      • Avatar Road Scholar in reply to morat20 says:

        My company has a rule that before you make any backing maneuver you are supposed to get out and circle the truck surveying the surroundings for obstacles. To “prove” you did so, you are required to send a message from the QualComm unit that just says “GOAL” for Get Out And Look.

        Mind you, they really have no way of knowing whether you really got out and looked so it’s all kinda dumb, right? Wrong. When they instituted the policy, the result was a 75% reduction in backing accidents. That’s huge. That’s millions of dollars in averted property damages. That’s the kind of thing companies pay people like Tod big money to come up with.

        But drivers still bitch and cut corners so now having a backing accident without a GOAL message is an automatic firing offense. And they spend part of the savings on performance bonuses. I really like bonuses. 🙂Report

      • Avatar Morat20 in reply to morat20 says:

        Yep. It feels dumb, because what are the odds, right? Except if you’ve got a thousand guys doing the job a day — a one in a million chance starts popping up pretty darn often (and generally expensively).

        We’re required to do safety moments before meetings of any sort start, and there’s often five minute presentations on recent accidents — or just “hey, it’s summer, be aware of heatstroke at home”. HR swears it’s made a serious dent in both on the job accidents and avoidable home accidents.

        I don’t doubt them. They’ve got a pool of tens of thousands and decades worth of recordables.Report

      • Avatar James K in reply to morat20 says:


        I’m a big believer in people understanding why things are happening (especially when I am the people in question). I suspect a bureaucracy as a whole would have a much better reputation if people were told more often why a rule exists. As a bonus, having to explain a rule to people outside your little circle will make it harder to perpetuate rules that are badly thought out.Report

      • Avatar Gabriel Conroy in reply to morat20 says:


        My father was much the same way, but he never got into a supervisory position, so he tended as a rule to complain about bureaucracy and regulations. Not that he was always, or even usually, wrong, but he usually didn’t get a chance to see it from the side of the system making the rules.Report

    • Avatar Gabriel Conroy in reply to Kazzy says:


      I agree. The rules aren’t really arbitrary, although the joke does depend on them *seeming* to be so. (It also depends on the bureaucrat seeming to be an officious a$$hole, as if that makes the rules more arbitrary.) One thing that also gets me about the joke, and something I didn’t mention in the OP, was that this particular professor was big on the categorical imperative and at other times preached against violence (in his case, violence against animals, he was an animal rights person) as usually a violation of a categorical imperative. (He was okay with self-defense and punishment for crimes and (presumably) just wars, but not other kinds of violence.) I should also add, however, that it’s possible the even the joke describes never happened.

      As you, and @morat20 , @road-scholar , and @james-k imply, knowing why the rules are what they are can go a long way toward at least making them less onerous. I think it’s actually a two-way street. The one who must follow the rules ought to try to find out why they’re in place before complaining about them. The one who enforces the rules ought to understand and be able to explain why the rules are in place. Neither is usually easy when something like a job, or cashing a check, is on the line. Also, sometimes the first order customer service people aren’t well instructed by their supervisors about why certain rules are in place.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        @gabriel-conroy and @james-k

        Excellent points. When I make rules with my kids (4-year-olds), I do just that: we make the rules together. This not only gives them ownership over the rules, but also helps them understand the “why”. It goes a long way towards not only their compliance, but how they respond when redirected.

        It is also important that the rule enforcers understand why people break rules. Teachers are by definition rule enforcers. But many default to, “Kids break rules because they are bad” type thinking. Which is really problematic. I challenge them on this by asking, “Do you ever speed? Yes? Why?” No one will ever say, “Because I’m a bad person.” They will have reasons. “I was late.” “The limit is too low.” “Everyone else was doing it.” “I can drive safely at that speed.”

        Most of the time, rule breakers have good reasons for breaking the rules. Or, at least, reasons that make sense to them. That doesn’t necessarily make their actions acceptable. But if we approach people thinking, “This person is trying to accomplish something,” versus “This person is bad and needs punishment,” our interactions are very different.

        Imagine if the criminal justice system had this mindset? At least with lower-level crimes?Report

      • Avatar Murali in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:


        Imagine if the criminal justice system had this mindset? At least with lower-level crimes?

        I think it does. IANAL but I don’t think mens rea applies to misdemeanours. If the speed camera catches you, you get a ticket. If you don’t pay the toll you get a fine. If you are caught littering you pay a fine and are maybe shanghaied to pick up rubbish found along the highways if you are a repeat offender. If the parking lady sees that you have not placed enough parking coupons she gives you a ticket. In fact, I cannot think of a low level crime in which people’s reasons for breaking the law actually mattered (except perhaps when it is a policeman who pulls you over and sees that you are a doctor in an emergency or your wife is pregnant). For the vast majority of minor crimes, there aren’t any mitigating circumstances (except perhaps diminished capacity). I don’t even think judges excuse people who shoplift or commit petty theft because they cannot afford the essentials of living.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:


        I don’t necessarily think we should adjust our response based on reasons for crimes committed. Rather, I think if our criminal justice system said, “People are inherently good but sometimes do bad things,” instead of saying, “Some people are inherently bad and do bad things because they’re bad and must be punished,” we’d have a very different system top-to-bottom.Report

      • Avatar Murali in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:


        How do you think it would work out in each case?Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:


        but I don’t think mens rea applies to misdemeanours.

        Lately it’s been applying less & less to felonies…Report

      • Avatar ScarletNumbers in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:


        But some kids do break rules because they are bad.Report

    • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Kazzy says:

      I’m with @james-k above, knowing why a rule exists is just as important, if not more so, than the rule itself. I’ve worked in some pretty entrenched bureaucracies in my time, and the most efficient ones were the ones that made the effort to not only understand the why, but to also make sure all the affected employees & customers did as well.

      Forgetting, or losing sight, of the why, is how rules/laws stay on the books long past their useful purpose & become entrenched in minds.Report

  3. Avatar Kolohe says:

    I suppose it’s funnier in the original German.Report

  4. Avatar Glyph says:

    Wasn’t this an episode of Gilmore Girls?Report

  5. Avatar dhex says:

    i normally don’t approve of beating a dead horse but you whipped this one forward and back and dissected its last meal and i’m pretty sure the head is hanging above your mantle, watching me, watching us all…Report

  6. Thanks all for your comments. I haven’t had a chance to read them yet, but I’ll try to respond soon.Report

  7. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    I am reminded of Todd’s story about his father ripping off another man’s mustache while on his first or second date with his (Tod’s) mother because of some offending conduct. When Tod was a child, the story seemed very funny. As an adult, it was… Not very funny.

    The story of the burly professor actually deploying (mild) violence in order to get special treatment for his wife now strikes me as behavior that is beyond that which is acceptable, however pusillanimous, supercilious, petty, and arbitrary the bureaucrat may have been. I don’t find it funny at all.Report

    • Avatar Morat20 in reply to Burt Likko says:

      I’ve been thinking much the same

      “So, big guy bullies guy just doing his job? Physically threatens him? And we’re supposed to applaud this? Dude, that’s assault. It’s unprofessional. It’s….what sort of screwed up workplace is that?”

      If I witnessed that at my workplace and the big guy wasn’t actively disciplined, I’d be looking for another job — no matter how annoying I found the petty rules myself.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Morat20 says:

        It’s….what sort of screwed up workplace is that?

        A university.Report

      • Avatar Gabriel Conroy in reply to Morat20 says:


        I agree. But to add a little, it’s not only just a university, it’s a university in the mountain west in the early 1990s. Things would probably be different in a different location or in the present-day. Not necessarily better, but different. (I’m pretty attuned to the pathologies of university life and to the swagger of some (but not all) members of the professoriat even though I am in the same system and probably contribute my share to the problems.)Report

    • Avatar James K in reply to Burt Likko says:


      I agree, that is not a fuuny joke.

      There is a similar joke that I do find amusing that crops up in Mass Effect. Commander Shepard is told that they can’t bludgeon their way through bureaucracy, and you have the option to respond “I can bludgeon pretty hard.” At least in that case the fate of the galaxy is at stake, and there may not be any literal bludgeoning involved.Report

    • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Burt Likko says:

      You read the story, and the petty bureaucrat becomes Mr. Huph. Which lowers your sympathy for the character.Report

  8. Avatar ScarletNumbers says:

    Why did she wait until the last minute when she surely must have known that transcripts often take a while to get?

    That’s easy. It’s because she is a woman.Report

  9. Avatar James K says:

    As someone whose job involves providing things to multiple clients, there is another reason why requests take more time than the actual time taken to do the work. I’m guessing the records office staff weren’t sitting there twiddling their thumbs when the original requester came in. They were probably working on other requests which, since they came in first, deserve to be finished first. The “fast-track” option is there so that truly urgent requests can be given priority, but the charge ensures that everyone doesn’t insist their request is urgent.Report

    • Avatar Gabriel Conroy in reply to James K says:

      I suspect that’s true, and it’s also one of those things that are true but hard to explain to someone who doesn’t or has never worked that job or a similar job.

      When I was a bank teller, there were a lot of times when others assumed I just stood around all day waiting for someone to come in to cash a check or make a deposit when that was almost never the case. As in most jobs, there were down times, but usually, we had a lot to get done on short timetables, most of which revolved around the mid-day “rollover” time, when we switched to the next day’s business and sent the paper items out to be proofed. (That was more than 15 years ago, I suppose some of that has become more automated than it was even then.)Report

  10. By the way, even though I agree the joke is not funny and the blame for the wrongdoing lies mostly with the professor and the procrastinating adjunct, I do know people who work in bureaucracies, like anyone else, can have their petty moments and their power trips. I’ve worked enough (mostly low-level and mostly customer-service) bureaucratic jobs and have been occasionally guilty of passive aggression enough times to know that there very well might be more than meets the eye than my rendering of the joke, or the original joke, discloses. Not that anything really justifies the bullying.Report

  11. Avatar zic says:

    Yesterday, I ran the food pantry, since the person who I usually assist in running it was out of town.

    We have a rule: you cannot pick food up for somebody else, unless you’ve made arrangements before our monthly distribution begins. Now there’s a lot about this rule that doesn’t make sense; these are rural towns and a car is not always available for many of our customers, people work, and on and on. Lot of good reasons to have somebody else pick up your stuff, based on last-minute changes in life. But we’ve also had problems with people picking up stuff for other people, who later, came in to pick up their own stuff; double dipping, so to speak. And we always run out of food, particularly produce, before we run out of clients; those double dippers are short-changing someone who comes in late in the day.

    So we have our rule, and we enforce it. And we make exceptions. Yesterday, a woman came and wanted to pick up for another woman, who’s pregnant and was sick, I was told. “I can’t do that; she needs to get in contact with me and explain why she can’t come today,” I said. This was simple — she could call me. I know her, I know she’s pregnant, I know she desperately needs the bags of brown rice, lentils, the few pounds of meat, and the fresh lettuce, apples, oranges, and squash we were giving out.

    So I get that rules are made for good reason; they should also be broken for good reason, and without too much judgement, because somebody screwed up. Like in this story, obviously the University either overlooked the threat of violence and the assault that was reported or the person who experienced that threat and assault never reported it. I’m guessing the second, and I’m guessing the second happened because the rule, as it was being enforced, was probably unreasonable in that particular instance.Report

    • Avatar Gabriel Conroy in reply to zic says:

      I think that’s a good example of the necessity for balancing rule enforcing with breaking the rule/making exceptions.

      However, I have a little to add to the following:

      Like in this story, obviously the University either overlooked the threat of violence and the assault that was reported or the person who experienced that threat and assault never reported it. I’m guessing the second, and I’m guessing the second happened because the rule, as it was being enforced, was probably unreasonable in that particular instance.

      I’ll start by pointing out that now that you’ve seen the story, you know as much as I do about what happened. And I don’t know why threat was not followed upon.

      I do think the second reason is more likely to have happened than the first. However, I think the reason the bureaucrat didn’t report–and here, I’m just speculating–is that he was humiliated and embarrassed to report the violation. That’s a common tactic of bullies: to make their victims feel ashamed of being victims and not willing to pursue the available remediation. In that sense, not reporting the threat because “the rule, as it was being enforced, was probably unreasonable in that particular instance” is the perpetuation of that shame cycle.

      Offering that as the reason for not reporting could have the logical conclusion that the threat was justified by the very unreasonableness of the rule or its enforcement at that time. I’m not saying you’re pushing it to that logical conclusion. But I think it lurks in the background. And while I’m not prepared to say that violence or threats of violence are never justified, I am prepared to say that the threat was not justified by almost any reading of what happened, assuming I (and the original joke-teller) related the facts correctly.Report

  12. Avatar Barry says:

    This morning, I asked an IT person about whether or not the ticket I put in (for a simple data pull) would be filled today. She replied, ‘probably not’. I was surprised, until she told me that it was #28 on her outstanding ticket list, and she’ll probably get a lot more during the day.Report

  13. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    This reminds me a lot of whatever happens when government employees or offices ever get anything.

    Like, they’ll be a story on the radio that the people in the DoT have just gotten some new chairs, and people will go ape-s**t. And then the state will have to explain that the office has been using the same chairs since the 1960s, and many are broken and they’re just replacing the broken ones, and people will go ever more ape-s**t.

    There’s something about bureaucrats that makes other people want them to have to suffer.Report

    • Avatar Barry in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      I think that it’s general to Americans, possibly to white Americans; we are really ‘crabs in a bucket’ people. Any time that somebody who we feel is beneath us gets something good, we resent it.Report

    • Perhaps it’s a combination of what Barry said–about some people believing others who are beneath them are getting something nice–and of what might be called a “middleman phenomenon.”

      By that I mean, bureaucrats often have to enforce rules that are unpopular or unpleasant, even when the one upon whom the rule is forced knows why the rule is the rule and accepts its legitimacy. Even though some bureaucrats are very pleasant and customer service minded, I suspect people generalize from negative experiences when it comes to “THE BUREAUCRACY” in general.Report