Remember my rant about empty buzzwords, from a couple weeks back? Let me introduce you to Unsuck It, a web based translation service to turn corporate jargon into normal language. (Props to The New Yorker for blogging about this.)You input the term (“low hanging fruit,” say), click UNSUCK IT, and out pops the translation (“easy goal”). If the term isn’t in there, you can crowdsource a definition (twitter link: “Hey, Lazyweb. Help me define silo #unsuckit”). If you find your obnoxious term, you can “Email the douchebag who used it.”
(Sidebar: is “douchebag” a sexist metaphor?)
There are not enough terms in the Unsuck It dictionary yet (hey, lazyweb: ditch “enhance” #beforeilosemymind). What was particularly disappointing to me today is that there is no entry for “the powers that be.” Because if I could excise any particular phrase from the academic lexicon, that would be the one.
John Bull, Rasputin, Svengali, Uncle Sam, VIP, Washington,
Whitehall, access, bad influence, big wheel, bureaucracy, court,
directorate, eminence grise, five-percenter, friend at court,
good influence, gray eminence, heavyweight, hidden hand, hierarchy,
higher echelons, higher-ups, holdover, incumbent, influence,
influence peddler, influencer, ingroup, ins, jack-in-office, key,
kingmaker, lame duck, lobby, lobbyist, lords of creation,
man of influence, management, manipulator, ministry, new broom,
office-bearer, officeholder, officialdom, open sesame, prelacy,
president-elect, pressure group, public official, public servant,
ruling class, ruling classes, sinister influence,
special interests, special-interest group, the Crown,
the Establishment, the administration, the authorities,
the government, the ingroup, the interests, the people upstairs,
the power elite, the power structure, the top, them, they,
top brass, very important person, wheeler-dealer, wire-puller
Whenever you’re blaming Whitehall and the wheeler-dealer, you know you’ve lost your rhetorical way.
But my real objection is that “the powers that be,” in a university context, eviscerates an entire tradition of collegial governance. It’s a lazy shortcut, an abdication of intellectual and political responsibility that lets you bitch about – whatever – without making even the slightest effort to understand where the objectionable policy / procedure / rule / requirement comes from. I’ve worked at a university for a long time and I have yet to see any curriculum, spending, research, outreach, teaching, administrative, intellectual, or financial decision conveyed in an email from Jesus@HeavenlyKingdom. It may feel like “the administration” is ruining ___ [insert fail] ___, but the complaint at the heart of the usage can almost always be traced to specific decisions made by actual people in an institutional context at a particular historical moment. That doesn’t mean the decisions are good, but they are historical and therefore subject to change.
Our tradition of academic self-governance is precious. Canadian public universities are not corporate structures, but there are some worrying trends in that direction, and they are often conveyed through objectionable policies, procedures, rules and requirements. Object to them – please: do it for yourself, do it for your students, do it for the ideas you care about and for the common good. But please also do it as smartly as you can.