Giving management a bad name

My graduate school at UC Berkeley has raised some funds and we are embarking on a new building. This morning a group of staff and I met to kick off the programming process, the critical stage in which what we want to do in our new space, and how we want to do it, gets translated into something we can give an architect to start with. Inevitably, this needs to specify named functional spaces with sizes along with narrative material describing how we want to do our work.

There is an office high up in our organization chart called “Space Management and Capital Programs”.  As an architect who has been at the intersection of building users and designers more than once, I would welcome guidance from such a unit such as “How to decide whether you want cubicles plus a lot of small conference rooms, or private offices” or “New options for classroom design: thinking outside the lecture hall box.”  No such luck; instead we were provided this remarkable document, new since our last building project more than a decade ago (that has been widely admired as a big success). Apparently the campus administration intends it to be regulatory, not advisory.  Not surprisingly, no-one was willing to put his or her name on such an ill-informed, incompetent exercise of mindless bureaucratic pound-foolishness.

The authors obviously hail from a ruthlessly hierarchical private sector culture, where the size of one’s workspace must precisely indicate one’s place in a pecking order.  One would think the right question would be “how much value would an additional square foot of space for someone doing job X add to the organization”, but one would be wrong.  Professors are all alike (not to be confused with adjuncts and lecturers, who do more teaching and actually meet with more students in office hours), they all do the same thing, and what bricks and mortar are for is to indicate precisely how much better and more important they are (50%) than  than the staffer who manages their research funds or gets students enrolled in their courses.

This document describes a world in which all meetings are held in the office of the senior person attending, are populated in proportion to his rank, and in which peers never need to collaborate; don’t even ask about faculty meetings with student groups.  That is not the world we live in, Mr. Space Management bean counter.

The rigidity of this absurd effort by central administration to tell us how to do our jobs — jobs that differ widely across individuals, departments, and units – and its insistence that we use the precious resource of physical space to pointlessly signal status are not, however, the worst part of this fiasco. The worst part is its relentless, insistent, ignorance of the real benefit-cost facts that reasonable people would use to make decisions like, duh, “how big should whose office be?”  I railed about this a few years ago, and see no reason to revise the analysis. All of these standards are – put aside their mindless rigidity – much too stringent. Building space by these rules sabotages everything we do, from research to student learning. If there is such a thing as government waste, and abuse of personnel and citizens, this is what it looks like.

I haven’t seen the corresponding classroom design standards document, if there is one, but I await its appearance with real alarm.

We are currently under really severe financial pressure owing in part to some reckless, foolhardy, and uninformed investments in intercollegiate athletics facilities and in part to our failure to educate our legislature about how central higher education is to the welfare of the state, now and in its future.  One meme constantly rolling through our discussions is that our senior administrators seem to be paid an awful lot, and there seem to be more and more of them. I teach management and I do not tolerate mindless disrespect for public officials and people who make organizations work, but a document like this is a problem for me, because it makes a prima facie case that at least some of those very well-paid senior administrators suck at what they do.

It’s apparently news to at least some of our managers that the purpose of overhead agencies and administrators is not to save money! If that’s what we are about, we can just shut down and save it all. Guess what, folks: your job is to help shop-floor workers create the most possible value for the resources we consume, and when you get this mixed up, you do a lot of damage.  And another thing: this is a research university, and our duty to society is not to see what everyone else is doing and copy it (“based on …space guidelines from other higher education institutions and the private sector”), it is to learn from others (of course), and do our own thinking and push boundaries of habit and convention. If you don’t like that duty, please go work somewhere else, and if we’re stuck with you, well, I’ll quote Randy Newman:

“…if you won’t take care of us
Won’t you please, please let us be?”


Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

8 thoughts on “Giving management a bad name”

  1. The values in your document are similar to those used at the large university where I work. And they’re not RULES, just guidelines.

    A few years ago while being given a tour of a new building set to come on line, I noticed that some of the offices were larger and had a small, round table — 18″ or so — attached to the floor with 2 chairs beside it. I was told that those were offices for “Distinguished Professors” who rate more space.

    One of our ongoing projects related to space management is to link grants to the floor area used by the Principal Investigator. One of the things that became apparent is that some research requires more space simply because it use big equipment and usually that equipment is at least partially funded by grants. In contrast, other research requires little more than a desk and a computer. But what the Dean wants, the Dean usually gets even when it’s validity is questionable.

  2. Documents like this also, of course, ignore that on most campuses, buildings eventually end up getting used for something else once the unit for which they were built gets something new.

    …he typed from his office in a former dormitory.

  3. Ha. Don't hold your breath.

    I have a theory about the admin pay: with today's need to do more and more fundraising/private sector *sskissing, admins need to get paid more so they will feel better about themselves, vis-a-vis those captains of industry they must constantly solicit. They won't feel like real people if they aren't getting a high salary. Either that or maybe the problem is the regents. (And I have some concerns about them, given who they hired to head the whole shebang.)

    More and more I too admire real management.

    Also, funny how the academic advising is assumed to be done by lowlings and only intermittently. 'Cause as we all know, "that's* not important.

  4. The line that jumps out at me is, " . . . our failure to educate our legislature about how central higher education is to the welfare of the state . . ." That grabs my attention because you have the luxury of what is for the present on of the most progressive state governments in the union. Spare a moment to imagine the lot of people in similar positions in states, including my home of Wisconsin, that have fallen into the hands of the alt-right.

    1. In my home state, the so-called flagship university receives less than 5 percent of its operating budget from the state, last I heard. It's also got among the highest in-state student tuition in the country.

  5. A colleague of mine at the Council of Europe organised conferences of European Ministers of Education. The space requirements for such meetings were complex: you have to put the ministers on a level with each other, so the standard layout is the big hollow rectangle, though this creates sight line problems for the interpreters. She told me that the easiest space she ever had to work with was a large mediaeval hall. At the time, such public spaces had to be flexible to meet the demands of a variety of ceremonies and meetings: councils, audiences, reception of embassies, trials, even (as with Mary Queen of Scots) high-status executions. It was easy to adapt such large unobstructed spaces to her twentieth-century needs. Not so with the productions of contemporary architects.

    1. Interesting! Can they put the interpreters on bleachers maybe? Or would that upset the ministers???

      But hold the phone — sight lines??!! Does that mean they read lips too? I wish I could do that.

      An amazing photo came with this story, iirc and that's a big if:

      I couldn't get it to load today for the life of me.

  6. Michael,

    I don't disagree with your points, but am inclined to ask whether you may be placing a little too much blame on the managers. If type and size of office space conveys status, and it does, then is it at least possible that they are dealing with some status wars among faculty and others, and trying to keep the peace?

    I'm not an academic, but have seen these issues play out in business organizations.

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