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 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?”

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Michael O'Hare

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.