Complexity and Single-Party Rule in the Modern University

Allan Stam

Bacon’s Rebellion publishes here a thought piece by University Professor Allan C. Stam, a professor of politics and public policy at the University of Virginia. Although the column describes research universities generally, Stam says that his critique applies to Virginia research universities and the University of Virginia. JAB

by Allan C. Stam

Large research universities have evolved into amalgamations of housing complexes, food service industries, semi-pro sports franchises, health systems, research enterprises, vocational training centers, and education systems. The administrative design of complex universities is such that they are nearly incapable of being efficiently managed. Running a modern research university is a bit like running a small city absent democratic accountability. Both jobs are growing more complex with layers of byzantine regulations often overwhelming their leaders.

Both types of organizations, universities and city management, are also inherently political which today means increasing polarization and conflict. Political systems distribute resources and services not by market means, but instead by power-based mechanisms. At the same time as the administrative burdens in our universities rises, they have, like most large cities, become single-party systems.

The combination of these two challenges: single-party rule combined with unmanageable complexity is leading universities down an unfortunate road. So-called administrative bloat is a direct consequence of excessive administrative complexity. Ideological intolerance and the stifling of free speech and thought is the consequence of universities’ emergent political monoculture. The combination of these two factors has created tremendous risks for the future of the American research university.

The two factors are intertwined. Excessive complexity is the major factor that has enabled the ideological puritans to take over the University. In the hyper-complex university, the left hand often does not know what the right hand is doing. Facing little local competition, exclusionary and sectarian ideas flourish and spread.

The ideological Puritans arrived first in the humanities which historically lean to the left of the political spectrum. They branched out into the social sciences under the guise of identity politics and postmodernism. They are now taking aim at the STEM fields. They have taken over the management of student-life administration and services. The poststructuralist movement is an identity-based restoration of a Marxist agenda that threatens to infect the entire university ecosystem.

There is a well-developed literature on the effects of increasing concentrations of power on the quality of city and state management. What we know about single-party political systems applies in good measure to universities as well. In single-party systems, corruption tends to be endemic. Bad ideas are rarely filtered out. Logrolling rather than merit tends to determine resource allocation. Ideologues of the leading party routinely crush Innovative ideas advanced by political minorities.

As universities have evolved from systems characterized by balances of power between competing groups to single-party bureaucracies, their leaders and interests have grown increasingly distant from the constituencies they were designed to serve. Compounding the problem is the extraordinary administrative complexity of the modern research university.

Why do universities matter so much, or put another way, why should we care? As Thomas Jefferson pointed out, education is essential to a well-functioning democratic system. If the Democratic populous loses faith in the education system, they are losing faith in democracy itself.

Lincoln advanced this vision with the Morrel Act. Vannevar Bush, the preeminent and visionary science administrator during World War II and the Cold War, was instrumental in developing the federally funded, public-private partnership that ties university basic science research to the advancement and success of American technology and business. Astute political leaders throughout American history have recognized that higher education resides at the core of American democracy. The happy trend for the past two hundred years has been towards, rather than away from, a dual commitment to open and free inquiry protected by tenure. This trend, along with an open and meritocratic admission process, has ably contributed to the bedrock of American democracy.

American higher education, for the past hundred years, served as the gold standard for the rest of the world. No other country has made a similar commitment both in breadth, scale, and excellence to research-based higher education as the United States has. So too can the United States claim a commitment to democracy in breadth, depth, and duration like no other country.

Today, however, as higher education risks its future, American democracy is at risk as well. The two biggest changes in universities since the 1960s are ideological homogeneity where previously there had never been such, and the rise of unbelievable administrative and functional complexity. Bureaucratically sclerotic, single-party institutions, which American universities are becoming, cannot support and sustain multiparty democracy in the states and countries in which they are embedded.

The free and open debate that multiparty democracy requires is at risk of disappearing from many American top universities and colleges. If it does so, universities will lose their ability to both foster and sustain the highest aspirations of American democracy.

University Professor Allan C. Stam is a former dean of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia. A former member of U.S. Army Special Forces, he has focused his academic work 0n war outcomes, war durations, mediation, and alliance politics.

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27 responses to “Complexity and Single-Party Rule in the Modern University”

  1. Rafaelo Avatar

    Thoughtful and especially credible. A university professor knows universities. One might ask, is this descriptive, but not prescriptive? Is the problem of huge universities intractable? Send your kids to small private colleges if you can? Maybe in a sprawling university some free thinkers can find bolt-holes to hide from the ideological Puritans.

  2. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    Very thoughtful piece. To the extent that the author’s arguments are true, it is disturbing. Not being enmeshed in academia, I do not consider myself to be qualified to comment on how accurate a picture this is. However, as far as the aspect of the free exchange of ideas being stifled, there are dissenting opinion. Here is an article expressing that opposite opinion in the Virginia Law Review:

    The author is a professor of law at the University of Miami and is part of a multi-author team producing a multi-part series on free speech for the Federalist Society.

    1. Interesting Virginia Law Review article. Here’s a passage that caught my attention: “The assertion that conservative ideas are being violently suppressed on college campuses is as untrue today as it was in the 1970s.”

      The author, Mary Anne Franks, constructs a strawman argument. Conservatives aren’t arguing that their ideas are being violently suppressed. As we have documented — and will continue to document in future articles — the suppression of free speech and expression takes non-violent forms.

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        The “strawman” was created by Lewis Powell. The humor in his work was to reduce State funding and increase corporate involvement, e.g., endowments, funded chairs, etc.

        Why is it funny? Because at the time, the mid-70s, the largest corporate endowed university was also one of the most liberal — MIT.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          We do have Liberty and Oral Roberts and others… Why join a school you know is at odds and hostile to your own beliefs?

          It’s not like UVA became that way recently. Conservatives have been complaining about for decades, right?

          1. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            Wasn’t it once called “King’s College”? Then, yeah, since 1776.

          2. tmtfairfax Avatar

            Disclose and advertise truthfully what you plan to teach or bring into college life. Let prospective students and their parents know what they will get for their dollars. If a college faculty is almost 100% hard left, disclose that up front. If the administration has allowed leftist students shut down guest speakers, disclose it.

          3. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            “Why join a school you know is at odds and hostile to your own beliefs?”

            To do what the writing staff has ceased to do — learn.

          4. DJRippert Avatar

            How many times have we been told by our political class that they don’t want to politicize our state colleges and universities?

            Elected officials don’t sit on the Boards of Visitors of public colleges and universities because that would be politicizing the schools.

            Of course, the pathological liars we call state politicians hand out board appointments based primarily on the level of campaign donations those supposedly apolitical board members make.

            Our politicians are unaccountable because they claim accountability would politicize higher education.

            Meanwhile, the people who are accountable couldn’t be more political and partisan.

            The man who is now the rector of UVa is the same person who donated use of his private Caribbean island to Little Timmy Kaine to use for a personal vacation. A gift valued at $18,000.

            Our political class needs to either keep the state colleges and universities truly apolitical or take accountability for those state colleges and universities.

          5. LarrytheG Avatar

            As far as I can tell, there is virtually no GOP or DEM political behavior at the public college.

            The problem is that some folks say if a behavior is “progressive” and/or not as welcoming to conservative thinking that they are “political”.

            Is that what you are claiming?

            I just don’t see partisan political behaviors in the public colleges.

            Liberty U, you bet ya… but nothing anything like that at UVA.

      2. DJRippert Avatar

        The dishonesty coming from today’s liberals is staggering. From Biden’s lies about the Doha agreements handcuffing him in Afghanistan to the Virginia Democrats hiding tax hikes in electric bills to the repeated statement that CRT isn’t being taught in Loudoun County public schools.

        Dishonesty has become the coin of the realm for liberals.

        They can’t defend their policies and actions so they simply lie about those policies and actions.

        Now comes some libtwit law professor misstating a contention and then wasting everybody’s time refuting a statement that was never made.

        Why am I not surprised?

    2. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      Dick, when you refer to the piece above, you write “to the extent that the author’s arguments are true”.

      I see no such caveat on the link to the piece in Virginia Law Review. Why?

      I too read her piece. She finished her argument with:

      “The university model of free speech … strives to achieve the “robust exchange of ideas which discovers truth ‘out of a multitude of tongues, [rather] than through any kind of authoritative selection.”

      Are you ready to characterize as does the author in the Law Review that what is going on at UVa constitutes a “robust exchange of ideas”?

      The “authoritative selection” at the modern university is the faculty and administrative hiring processes.

      Where, say, at the University of Virginia should a first or third year student go to hear conservative positions offered and supported from the front of the classroom?

      Take your time, read the entire University course guide, and tell me where you find it.

      1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
        Dick Hall-Sizemore

        i am not familiar enough with UVa faculty to answer this challenge. i would say that i assume that Larry Sabato encourages different perspectives being aired in his classes.

        1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
          James C. Sherlock

          He used to. Not sure any more. He has fallen into the deep end.

        2. Publius Avatar

          He used to be fairly neutral, but the George Allen/Webb Senate race, he broke out… The “macaca” kid was in one of Sabato’s classes. Sabato also went out of his way to imply Allen was a racist. Millions of negative ads (in $ value) disguised as WashPost “news,” and we got Webb, who at least was not crazy.
          Here is Sabato’s website, which continues to run a BLM banner…

          Dragas was the canary in the coal mine and it is too bad she didn’t succeed. You can deny the monoculture all you want, but is it really possible that not one law professor or medical doctor has spoken out against the covid vax mandate?
          In the dark old days when the school was merely liberal, (but obviously racist and oppressive), there would have been plenty of dissent, expressed and allowed (not just tolerated).

    3. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Oh, it’s for sure that the business model for universities changed between 1980 and 2005, when last I set foot on one. This is especially true for State schools forced to self-sustaining status.

      But, this whole whirlwind of suppressed conservatism is BS that has been swirling about since the 1960s. In fact, the art of the complaint is described in Justice Lewis Powell’s treatise on “taking back the universities”.

      BTW, does the fact that you have found a contradictory article not prove in itself that ideas are being exchanged?

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    If the claims were actually true, it WOULD be disturbing! And really, even if true, American Research Universities have been and continue to be the gold standard for the world. How can the gold standard for the world be an abject failure?

    Beyond that, the US is really not by itself. It is joined by many other research universities in the world in a variety of science and technology.

    Research Universities also power our National Defense and as far as I can tell, there are no politics in it. Much of our cutting edge technologies started first in the military, often led by DARPA and NASA and others.

    Virtually everything ordinary citizens touch these days got born from govt and university spawned research from the air bags in your car to the GPS chip in your phone to many of the prescription meds many of us take AND to the vaccines for COVID that many of us are thankful for .

    Scientific Research, in general, on a worldwide view does have it’s own institutional norms and governance, but I don’t think they are “party” or “single party” at all. I don’t think research in France is controlled by a party no more than I think research in any other country is controlled by a “single party”.

    And the sports thing. Geeze. College sports in the US is a perverse scourge on academia in my mind but run by a single party?

    Another field, education and research. Also done around the world. Other countries actually do a better job than us at K-12 because they don’t teach the way we teach, but again one party rule? Come on….

    1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
      Eric the half a troll

      The piece was nothing more than repetitive arm waving. No details to back up his claim – just a vague contention that it is true and another spin of trite Conservative talking points. Par for the course at BR these days.

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        Rehash of Justice Powell’s roadmap to the 1930s.

      2. Wahoo'74 Avatar

        Professor Stam service his country with honor. He has forgotten more about modern academia
        and real life leadership than you or “Nancy Naive” could ever dream to know.

        Here are his bona fides:
        1) BA Government Cornell
        2) MA/PHD Michigan
        3) Professorships Michigan, Dartmouth, Yale
        4) #1 in my mind, Army Special Forces and Armor officer. So he has practical, real world experience with literally fighting for freedom, unlike you, “Nancy Naive”, and the woke professors whom he chronicles. Here’s Professor Stam’s UVA website profile:

        Professor Stam is still a full professor at UVA’s Batten School. He was Dean of the Batten School from its start in 2014-2019, fabulously successful, universally beloved and respected by his students. President Ryan replaced him with the very liberal and fellow Yalie Ian Solomon, much more aligned with the new prevailing narrow intellectual diversity approach at UVA.

        I’ll take Professor Stam’s “trite Conservative talking points” over your and Nancy Naive’s Far Left knee jerk, predictable criticisms any day.

        Stam has fought for this country and also excelled in teaching true leadership lessons learned on the battlefield to students. Clearly you and the Administration favor leftist theoreticians whose only battles were with their divisional academic deans about how soon they’d get lifetime tenure.

  4. William O'Keefe Avatar
    William O’Keefe

    I reject the premise that large universities like cities have become too complex to be effectively managed. Everything starts at the top. The president/chancellor and board set the value system, the culture, and the vision for how the university will accomplish its objectives. Whether it’s developing first rate minds or research excellence, the free exchange of views and perspectives is essential. Recruiting first rate faculty, demanding openers in expression, and accountability should be non negotiable.
    Cities, like Richmond, allow themselves to become driven by politics, and compromise instead of setting clear objectives, clear standards, and a willingness to make hard choices. In the end, if you want to win, you have to be prepared to lose by doing the right thing and letting the chips fall where they may.

  5. Rob Austin Avatar
    Rob Austin

    The author has described to a “T” how UVa operates (?) under the clueless Ryan/Magill commissariat. That UVa has the second highest DEI employee to student ratio across the USA’s university landscape tells you all you need to know about administrative bloat and “ideological homogeneity.”

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      and before Ryan, it was Sullivan and before her Casteen, right?

      Dragan had it right…. had she stuck around, she would never had agreed to Ryan !


      Whatever happened to Jefferson’s vision for a University devoted to plantation owners male offspring?

      When they opened up to women and blacks, they were on a fast track to the highway to hell…

  6. Fred Costello Avatar
    Fred Costello

    College education is not a free-market system because the state and federal governments, the politicians, provide much of the funding for faculty and research at public institutions. Private colleges face unfair competition. Colleges are also not places for the free discussion of ideas. While I taught at the University of Delaware over 45 years ago (I abandoned tenure), no ideas flowing from belief in God were tolerated. The idea that there is objective truth was ridiculed. Everyone had his own truth, his own reality, coming from his mind, not from the world outside him. It followed that everyone had his own moral standards. Students of those days now populate our governing class.

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