Who’s a lump? Are you a lump?

A blogger for the CHE has introduced the idea of describing a kind of administrator as a lump. There are a couple of reasons why I thought it would be a good idea to discuss this a bit. For one thing, we had a short-lived post alleging that one department had lumps and that lumpishness is becoming endemic in philosophy. (The CHE takes lumps to be administrators, but faculty can also answer to many of the descriptions.) The department objected and we suspended the post. But the general charge is important. It might explain why philosophy has some shocking problems. Or not, but it is worth discussing.

Secondly, and relatedly, whenever we have grad students trying to solve a department’s problems, or to protect someone else from harm in the department, I wonder why the most vulnerable among us are taking action. Is the department just full of lumps?

What are lumps?

Lumps can seem quite passive. They do not have much in the way of (administrative, organizational) ideas, or at least they certainly are not going to try anything that might cause anyone in power above them any displeasure. Indeed, they go along with things; they are there to get the administrative salary and to advance themselves. They are many deans and provosts dreams because they will agree!

But they are not harmless:

Some Lumps are simply spineless, deathly afraid of making a decision. … It wouldn’t do any good, anyway. Some, nearing retirement, are motivated purely by reluctance to lose their high salaries and accompanying pensions.

But some Lumps are much more calculating. Lacking genuine ability and creativity, they… support whatever the higher-ups are doing, and otherwise not do much of anything lest they risk doing the wrong thing.

In any form, Lumps are incredibly harmful to an organization. They’re responsible for most of the negative attributes that people (including students) rightly associate with bureaucracy: interminable waiting, “red tape,” buck passing, narrow and rigid interpretation of policy, stubborn intransigence.

They’re also a drain on group morale. Although perhaps not as actively vindictive as authoritarian power-mongers,most Lumps will throw their colleagues under the bus in a heartbeat in order to preserve or advance their own careers. It’s not that they don’t like you. They just don’t care about you.

I don’t expect everyone to like this characterization, or at least all its parts. One problem I have is with the idea that the lumps are destructive to morale. Naomi Zack has a wonderful discussion of cronies at the Pacific APA. If a department has a group of cronies running it, they may flourish with an agreeable lump as chair or dean, who is prepared to do as they say and throw others under the bus. Indeed, on Zack’s conception, cronies hate new ideas (from the outside, that is), so they often may themselves be a cluster of lumps.