copyright notice
link to the published version: IEEE Computer, April, 2015

accesses since March 17, 2015


Hal Berghel

Have you ever wondered why really inept executives seem to collect like lint in modern organizations? I have an explanation for your consideration.

We're technologists on the move. We don't have time to wait for the latest update of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders for clues on why our organizations are run by LINOs (leaders in name only). We need to take the bull by the tail and face the frightful situation that many modern executives are evolutionary dead ends. I herewith offer a modest account of our dilemma that I'm confident will soon become the received view.

Having been an academic for most of my career, I will focus primarily on the modern university, though I predict my analysis will port over to any modern organization. Faithful to the doctrine of cognitive dissonance, I will place all blame firmly on others. In the pages to follow I shall endeavor to explain the perceived deficiencies of the executive classes by means of new mental health discoveries. As my argument unwinds, you will see the pieces fit together like the gears of an expensive Swiss chronograph. Or not.


The post-modern academy is a recent phenomenon approximately 40 years in the making. Before that time, an administration building was inhabited by scholars drawn from the ranks of the faculty each serving as executive pro tem out of a sense of obligation to the institution (‘erudit oblige' ?) . There was no permanent administrative culture in those days. Today, the administration building has become the campus repository of the flotsam and jetsam of academic life.

So how did this come about? It arose when the notion that it was in the communities' interests to have well-educated citizens fell out of favor. In its place came the idea that it was better to serve the business communities' interests to have a skilled, dependable, and inexpensive workforce than it was to provide the community with graduates who could think independently and toward great effect. This is the phenomena that Benjamin Ginsberg calls the “supply-side view of the curriculum.” (Benjamin Ginsberg, The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why it Matters,” Oxford University Press, 2011, ch. 6). On this view, education is but the means to the end of getting some job, and the students (or their parents) are fee-paying customers who are pre-paying for product –much like magazine subscriptions and Tesla customers.

The opposite “demand-side view of the curriculum” is what we senior members of the academy consider the traditional view of higher education. We may think of this as the era of enlightenment. On this view, education is the end in itself. This view held sway from approximately the time that the AAUP was formed in 1915 to first decade A.N. (after Nixon). Demand-side perspectives of note are the education cores of the University of Chicago (Great Books), Harvard University (Indispensible Knowledge), and Columbia University (Great Ideas). The AAUP's and John Dewey's Georgist overtures toward higher education have not withstood the test of time due to continuous assault from external forces. They are now considered quaint remnants of a bygone era.

If all we need is a skilled workforce, then all we need in an executive is a customer relationship manager that specializes in connecting clients (nee students) with stakeholders (nee employers) by means of a revenue stream (permanent indebtedness through student loans) while ensuring that all of the above can feel the love. Scholarship goes to the back of (if not under) the bus? No need to emphasize discovery, imagination, and critical thinking when our holy grail is a constant supply of inexpensive labor. And if the labor gets too pricey, we can manufacture an artificial STEM crisis and use H1B visas to drive down labor costs even further while casting aside any iconoclastic graduates (cf. my “STEM Revisited, Computer, March, 2014, pp. 70-73).


But there's more. The second cause of administrative dysfunction is the desire to make not-for-profit universities profitable. This is motivated by a concomitant reduction in state and local support for universities and the increasing emphasis on turning productive faculty into profit centers through research grants and contracts. In the era of enlightenment pure academic research was highly sought after independently of potential for research funding. Thanks to years of black hole budgeting by campus leaders, now there's only one kind of research sought these days: funded research with overhead (indirect costs attached to the grant that may exceed 50% of the actual budgeted expenses). Some top-tier universities may still encourage scholarship as such and in general, but the un-funded variety is rapidly becoming as unwelcome on the modern campus as an outbreak of measles.

This dependence on external funding made the academy a centerpiece of the emerging military- industrial-surveillance-political-media-prison-Wall Street-banking-energy-healthcare- academic-think tank-corporatist-homeland security-prohibitionist-complex. As Jennifer Washburn makes clear in her book University Inc. (Basic Books, 2005),Vannevar Bush's vision for the public financing of civilian academic research began to wither with the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980. Prior to that, equilibrium was achieved between public funding of basic research and the resulting public use of the fruits of this research. Jonas Salk's polio vaccine is a noteworthy example. In exchange for public support of his research, Salk labelled the vaccine a “public good” and put it in the public domain. As both Ginsberg and Washburn make clear, Bayh-Dole obliterated the distinction between rival and non-rival scientific knowledge, and encouraged a tsunami of private, exclusive licensing of publicly-funded university research that in turn produced a classic double-whammy for the public: they got to pay for the research twice – once to create it and once to use it. Of course Bayh-Dole added another revenue stream for universities from patents and licenses, but public “recoupment” of investment was gone for good. So much for preserving the taxpayer's interests. (As an aside, the absence of a federal recoupment strategy seriously undercut the public's claim for Net Neutrality recently brought before the Federal Communications Commission, and in the near future before the federal courts).

A problem that looms larger is the negative effect that market forces may play on the quality of the research conducted. The protagonists of the market-model university welcome the infusion of corporate influence for the increased efficiency in bringing research to market. For them Bayh-Dole was an inherent good because it gave universities and faculty skin in the commercialization game. Numbers in the billions of dollars per year in licensing and royalty fees are frequently adduced as evidence. Washburn cites data from a recent Association of University Technology Managers report which claims that from 1991-2000 university patents increased 238%, royalties increased by 520% and that sales of products resulting from academic research totaled more than $40 billion, supported 270,000 jobs, and produced $5 billion in tax revenues in 1999 alone (Washburn, p. 142).

I'm always suspicious about claims that are based on self-serving surveys. But let's just assume that there is some truth to this data. The important follow-on questions are (1) Did any negative externalities result? (Specifically, is there any evidence that the market-model negatively affected the quality and balance of the research?); (2) Did any conflicts of interest between participants arise?, and (3) What impact did Bayh-Dole have on research integrity and the commitment to a diversified, well-rounded education for students? A quick review of the history will reveal that Bayh-Dole was a mixed bag. It certainly changed the academic incentives, but in some cases this negatively influenced research outcomes ( ; ). The Ginsberg and Washburn books, together with Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway's Merchants of Doubt ( Bloomsbury Press, reprint edition, 2011), and Chris Mooney's The Republican War on Science (Basic Books, 2006) all confirm that the impetus for overturning the Vannevar Bush paradigm of publicly-funded, curiosity-driven research was driven by for-profit corporations and the avaricious university administrators who sought their largesse. It is far from obvious that the consequences have been on balance in the public's interest. That the impetus for Bayh-Dole did not come from the public, faculty or students should not be overlooked.



In the golden age of the academy, the university became known as the marketplace of ideas - “marketplace,” that is, in the sense of a swap meet. Now, “marketplace” has come to mean an intellectual hedge fund where all manner of community assets are bundled into something to be sold to profit-driven investors. This is not to say that the academy was ever free of partisan influence or bias, but the influence is more overt these days. The poster child for this spurious brand of academic support may be the Koch Brothers and BB&T foundations' “pay-for-play” endowments of the Florida State University economics department. (, ). In particular, the BB&T bequest even proscribed the textbook (Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged) for use in a class ( ). (That BB&T lists “independent thinking” as its fifth core value is an irony that should not escape our attention ( ).

Agenda-education is not unique to the Koch Brothers and BB&T and is not without precedent in U.S. history. However, the Koch model definitely represents a radical departure from the model of enlightened free expression that has characterized the academy for much of the last century. Curriculum that is dictated by external stakeholders and their biases rather than sound pedagogy is a better fit with indoctrination than education. Let's be clear that the fault in such arrangements lies not with the ideologues who seek to proselytize via the academy, but with the university administrators who go along with it. According to, the Koch Brothers' Foundations now support 129 colleges and universities ( , ) with or without strings attached. Agenda-gifting to universities with strings attached is but another lapse of integrity in today's market-model academy.


So the current market-based academy may be seen in part to be the product of the desire to focus on job training and making the modern university profitable. The forces behind this change were both internal and external to the university. External forces include the shift in politics away from public support of education, and the desire of corporations to profit from primarily government funded research. The internal force however was misguided university leadership, the subject to which we now turn. We seek to account for administrative behavior that was inconsistent with our MaTaHaRi core.

The symptoms are easy to recognize. First and foremost, affected administrators and executives have never heard a good idea that wasn't theirs. Further they have a serious issue with impulse control: they are inclined to engage in random act acts of management no matter how idiotic, just to keep paper flowing through the organizational veins. In addition, this impulse control leads to frequent bouts of reckless spending. Next, they endorse a boot camp mentality with regard to employee relations that undercuts any hint of esprit de corps. It goes without saying that they are universally recognized as inattentive listeners, egomaniacal and have a selective, self-promoting memory. They master the art of double-speak, particularly with respect to acronyms and technology buzzwords derived from excessive viewing of the Military and Discovery Channels and Fox News. They are easily distracted and have the attention span of a gnat.

Since BED has yet to make it into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, I have no choice but to offer the following nosology as a prolegomena to my forthcoming and likely to be much-anticipated Dictionary of Executive Disorders.



I begin with a generalization. Our present malady with Lame Leadership (L 2 in our forthcoming Dictionary) is not limited to the academy. I emphasize it because I am most familiar with the symptoms in that domain. Those of you in business and industry can confirm that it applies to your organizations as well.

We begin with the oxymoron “academic administrator.” This involves what logicians and linguists call a conflation in terms. There are at least two uses of academic, one of which has nothing at all to do with anything scholarly or cerebral. In the context of administration, “academic” should be taken in an accounting sense – that is, “associated with entities that qualify as educational institutions under 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Service code.” It is a mistake of the first order to confuse this sense of academic with anything resembling scholarship: Academic Administration is akin to Military Intelligence in this regard.

Psychologists report that obsessive-compulsive disorder may be characterized by irrational beliefs that result in repetitive and unnecessary behavior. This affliction ports over to the inept executive class seamlessly. Incapable executives discover early on that their inflated self-image fails to be supported by reality. This internal tension leads to Executive OCD which in turn leads to round after round of repetitive and unnecessary behavior in the form of pointless memos on policy, requiring unnecessary reports and purposeless planning exercises from subordinates, scheduling interminably boring meetings, and engaging in a seemingly endless array of micromanagement initiatives. The executives feel that all of this unnecessary activity justifies their existence. This is the most basic form of EOCD: the executives are clueless how they might actually improve the organization, but they do understand how to order other people to do things they don't want to do. In so doing everyone in the food chain comes to appreciate who's in charge and in possession of real power. This in turn has a soothing effect on the delusional executive mind.

EOCD is a virulent form of academia nervosa which itself is a special case of ULD. In the academy EOCD usually leads to unnecessary strategic planning exercises, SWOT analyses, curriculum revisions, impact reports, workload reporting that interferes with actual work, and other sundry distractions from core pedagogical issues. Requiring and discarding the printed fruits of such labor produces the executive binge/purge cycle that's so de rigueur in the modern organization. Make no mistake about it, the expected outcome is an improved self-image of the administrator, pure and simple. Of course, the alternative to EOCD would be an objective, arms-length measurement of organization impact by external third parties, but you can see where that might go.


Executive Amnesia (EA) is another form of BED that affects executives when they are asked to report on their activities to Boards or the media. Due to the extreme diversity of personnel in the modern organization, and their detachment from things that matter, there are always opportunities for executives to take credit for the accomplishments of others, so EA fits in well with the general reporting requirements of executives (and politicians, for that matter). A variation on this disorder is taking credit for invisible successes and triumphs – i.e., those that only happened in the imagination of the executive.   An example would be claims of profitability for the quarter without revealing that these profits came from the sale of corporate headquarters or a government bailout.

By and large, the media has little understanding of either GAAP accounting standards or academe's unique approach to “black hole financing,” so most every false or exaggerated claim that is reported by the administrator is taken at face value and acted on as such by the unsuspecting audience. Again we illustrate with the glowing reviews of corporate performance that anticipated the largest government bailout in world history recently. Such claims are not subject to veridical tests, but fall under the category of “spinfluencing.” When this infects the entire leadership team of an organization and the media that covers it it is called “Spinfluenza.” Although counterintuitive, such false proclamations produced by brittle and under-exercised minds tend to be taken by the stakeholders as gospel. This is especially true when it comes to excuses for program retrenchments and downsizing.


Also called Executive Kleptomania Disorder (EKD) when it applies to Wall Street. EICD is a conduct disorder where the individual executive comes to hold the belief that he/she is entitled to everything that he/she can get their hands on. This usually surfaces in imperial-level housing subsidies, bonuses and stock options that are totally severed from performance measures, sundry perquisites like take-home yachts and aircraft, country club memberships, and golden handshakes to name but a few. Sergei Brin and Larry Page came down with EICD after sharing a bowl of desktop hegemony with Bill Gates. It is exceedingly contagious and closely related to cyber-dipsomania or the uncontrollable desire to control every aspect of cyberspace which seems to have infected the NSA leadership. In this latter case it is associated with EOCD: NSA leaders don't know how to prevent terrorism, but they do know how to collect every bit of network data and store it at Bluffdale, UT.


Finally, we deal with pTSD which is a condition that affects executives who are preparing traumatic events for others - like termination of employment. Frequently associated with a pot pourrie of euphemisms like downsizing, outsourcing , offshoring , furloughs, restructuring, and reduction-in-force, employment pTSDs are by defiinition associated with someone else's trauma, the witness of which is, eo ipso, traumatic for the executive. As a result, pTSD is usually sufficient justification for enormous executive salary increases and over-the-top bonuses. pTSD was cited as the main rationale for executive bonuses during the collapse of the financial sector. Executive self-disclosure claims unbearable associated pain. For that reason pTSD is sometimes called mental shingles. Instances of pTSD may include events covered by acronyms such as eRIF (fired by email), smsRIF (fired by text message), USPSRIF (fired by first class mail), and roaRIF (fired in a shouting match).


So there you have it: the thinking person’s guide to the administrative dysfunction that is responsible for the decay of the modern university (and beyond). These illnesses, and their account for most of our leadership vulnerabilities, and is largely responsible for the decline of the modern organization.

So the next time you're asked to participate in a SWOT analysis, strategic plan, curriculum revision, impact assessment report or workload evaluation by your deputy associate pro-vice president of awesomeness, break out the Prozac, reread this column, and seek a Zen meeting group near you.