I’m an intellectual, shackled by admin

As Abraham Kuyper never said: “All of life is redeemed, apart from the mundane stuff”. When Kuyper was writing the Stone lectures was he thinking about completing a bi-annual PhD progress report, doing the online fire training course again (could a fire occur in virtual space?), checking references, filing ethical permission applications, ordering paper for the communal printer or reading submission guidelines1?

How can we bring Jesus’ lordship to bear on ordinary administrative jobs2? Here our focus is on understanding the culture of administration3 to inform our response.

Attitude to the culture of administration

A Christian approach to administration takes the same theoretical form as our understanding of our disciplines. The worldview and philosophy behind the administrative framework in our universities shape the individual tasks we are asked to undertake on a regular basis and reveal something of the goals of the organisation. Admin, like scholarship, does not function autonomously; it is contingent upon presuppositions about reality.

How does administration fit into a creationfallredemption worldview? What is my response to these tasks as a culture maker? Few deny that administration plays an important role in the organization of societies and universities, and that this is its appropriate role in creation. Yet a reformed view of administration also recognizes the effects of the fall and the potential for idolatry to creep into admin (admin becoming the solution itself) as well as the redemptive potential in Christ to fulfil administration’s creation mandate.

Approaching administrative tasks critically therefore is an academic calling; it requires us to understand something of the framework for the task, and to understand what that frameworks exists for. Does completing the fire training fulfil an ethical requirement to my colleagues or is this an administrative reductionism? Does achieving an above average satisfaction rating from seminars mean my teaching has been successful? Does the number of citations reveal academic rigour? Answering these questions as a Christian pre-supposes a coherent philosophical framework founded on a Christian worldview.

Could we be subversive in approaching admin, highlighting the limitations of each approach based on its worldview presuppositions? Could we also build an approach to administration that supports and serves it as it supports creational activity within the university, organising resources efficiently (effectively, ethically and aesthetically too). Such an approach, however, might require me to return my appraisal on time and with candour?

_____

1) This paragraph is aimed at people who are not in their third year of study for a PhD. Those who are may have found that these administrative tasks are actually the most sublime distractions. Indeed this post is acting as a welcome distraction from writing up some stats for me.

2) This post has focused on undertaking tasks as part of a wider administrative framework. A more lofty position considers administration as the organization of the earth’s resources to serve creation. This is the macro-biblical view of admin. This post focuses on PhD students’ response to individual tasks (we often feel they we are not in a position to effect change or organize the earth’s resources – although we should consider our own time and energy as part of these resources!)

3) The focus here is on critiquing the culture of administration. However, if our aim is to please Christ in all we do in his creation, then all admin should be done with this aim. Colossians 3 includes the well-known passage: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord” (Colossians 3:23, NIV). Paul’s advice here follows his teaching to slaves. In this context our attitude towards the work outlined by our departmental managers and university-wide administrators should be as if working for Jesus himself.

Comments

Hello Rich. I’d like to probe a bit further what we mean by “admin” and what its place is in a created and fallen world.

I take “administration” in our context (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Academic_administration) to mean something like a set of prescribed routines drawn up by certain members of an institution for guiding the activities of other members of the institution. And I see its purpose as essentially about justice: ensuring people receive what is due to them (salary, information, health and safety, legal protection, etc.) even when, in complex institutions, personal relationships don’t exist (or are too tenuous) to facilitate this.

If admin is primarily about justice, we might think about the Mosaic law documented in the Old Testament. The problems of sin surely increase the need for good admin – as well as the potential for its distortions – and the Mosaic law was partly a means of improving social justice in a fallen society. As Paul says, the law was introduced because of sin (Gal 3:19).

Then again, as you say, there’s surely a place for admin regardless of the Fall, going back to the creational level. And here I might speculate that some parts of the Mosaic law too were necessitated simply by the development of Israelite society following creational norms. The laws about the Sabbath day and sabbatical years, for example – surely they aren’t specifically in response to sin? Or the one about putting a parapet around your roof (Deut 22:8)?

Then I think of how Jesus criticised the legalistic systems of the Pharisees while upholding the Mosaic law. The grace of God does not abolish the law – and nor, I suspect, will admin be altogether abolished in the new creation. But perhaps we won’t spend quite so much time and frustration (http://www.braveheartfund.co.uk/community/pop_printer_friendly.asp?TOPIC...) on it. Controversial?

Dr Gunton,

Thanks for your comment. I agree with your logic: flowing from justice through administration, and the links to both the Mosaic law and Jesus’ critique of applying the law.

However, does admin reduce to issues of justice? Is it solely the means of ensuring justice? I don’t think that’s its full roll. Although a necessary part of admin, could there also be economic or aesthetic functions?

Take providing feedback on a course, it does provide a legal function, if the lecturer consistently fails to do their job then we would expect a negative response from students, highlighting issues of justice. But students routinely go beyond providing criticisms to providing suggestions for how the course could be improved (e.g. If you change the order of lectures 5 & 6 it would be easier to follow – economic?).

Best,
Rich

OK – well, of course, administrative tasks can relate to absolutely anything. You can have policies, reporting protocols and feedback forms that relate to any aspect of any task you like (e.g. seeking to ensure human health & safety / improve social interactions / avoid wastage / make something more attractive). But these functions can also occur without any admin: we can also avoid wastage or beautify something spontaneously, without being prompted by administrative structures. Don’t you think the essence of admin is something to do with justice?

I did find an interesting definition of admin in The Way of the (Modern) World by Craig Gay (http://books.google.co.uk/books/about/The_Way_of_the_modern_World_Or_Why...) (an excellent book, by the way!). As I remember, Gay suggests it’s about buffering organisations against changes in personnel. That suggests it’s inherently impersonal… and maybe points to more of an economic function. But I still think the most positive justification for admin is that it promotes a baseline level of justice with regard to all kinds of functions in an organisation.

Hi Richard,

The essence of admin definitely has something to do with justice, but can not be reduced to it.

I suggested in the footnotes that I view administration as a structure supporting the organisation of the earth’s resources to serve creation. Within the university the administrators’ role is to support decisions about utilising the university’s resources to further its goals (ostensibly education and research, but could also include making a profit etc).

Each decision will include issues of justice and therefore will play a role in the administrative tasks, including gathering information to inform a decision and disseminating information about the decision. But, as you point out many of these decisions will also include issues of economics (the most obvious aspect perhaps?).

This broader definition also doesn’t require a division between personal and impersonal. In a large institution, such as a university, an impersonal administrative function is necessary to organise resources (and act justly), but administration also occurs at the more nuclear level, within departments, research teams and amongst post-docs. It seems that administration occurs at all scales of social structures.

Best,
Rich

Add new comment