September 25, 2011

Take a Scissor to the Big Red Tape

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Amidst all the forms, files, deadlines, directors, departments, councils, counselors, conferences, committees and commissions, do you ever get the feeling that you are awash in a vast ocean of bureaucracy? If you do, it’s because you are. Cornell is a bureaucracy; plain and simple. Fragmented, formalistic and often teeming with indifference, it can make even the simplest task nearly impossible.

Here’s an example: buying software. Let’s imagine you need to buy a program — say, Minitab — for a class. Surely, this can be done online. However, even after going to the Cornell Store’s website, creating a Software Licensing account (because your NetID won’t suffice) and divulging your personal information, you are met with an arresting block of red text. You have erred, fool! What was your grand error? “To purchase student licensing, you must be registered for [a] CornellCard.” No, not a student I.D. card, not a debit card, not a standard credit card. A CornellCard: the OPTIONAL, now requisite, bursar-office sanctioned quasi-credit card available to those for whom cash, Big Red Bucks, City Bucks, debit, and all other forms of credit simply won’t do.For the sake of argument, let’s assume you’re as unreasonable as I am and don’t feel like opening a new credit card for the sole purpose of purchasing $17 software. What do you do? The only thing you can. Go to the Cornell store, in person, and explain your intransigence. They will begrudgingly accept payment “offline” and tell you that your software should come in “two to three days” — in the MAIL . This seems odd; but, surely they can’t be wrong about their own policies.Of course, four days later, you’re back at the Cornell store asking what ever happened to that software that was supposed to come in the mail. In the mail? No. That was never coming in the mail; all the store manager needed to do was e-mail you a link to download Minitab. Okay, well, at least everything can FINALLY be resolved. Nope. The store manager has actually been “out” for the last few days and now that he’s in he’s so backlogged that he won’t be able to get to sending you an e-mail — AN E-MAIL — today. What? Okay. Fine. Tomorrow, then. Nope. You guessed it, again: No. Full-time workers, like the store manager, don’t work weekends and literally no one else at the store can send you an email — AN E-MAIL — in that time. So, you’re not getting any software until Monday, of the next week. Needless to say, the e-mail comes Wednesday.Okay, that’s an isolated incident. It’s an anomaly. It does not typify Cornell, right? I think we can agree from experience that this is it not the case. But, for the inexperienced, here’s another example.This summer, I needed to find out how many students are in each class year (e.g. how many students are in the class of 2013, 2014, etc.). So, naturally, I called the “Office of the University Registrar.” Despite the complexity of my request, certainly someone would be able to provide me this information.The person who picked up at the Registrar told me she didn’t have the information I was looking for, but surely she could connect me to another person in another department who would. The other person in that other department told me she didn’t have the information I was looking for, but surely she could forward me to another person in another department who would. The person she forwarded me to was the very first person I spoke with, who was about to ping-pong me right back to her. An infinite loop! Now, that is truly artful bureaucracy in action. (And no, I never got that information.)Let me leave you with one last example. Sophomore year, my laptop broke. No problem, I will simply use the computers on west campus. Well, in Flora Rosa, there are actually only a total of three computers for a few hundred residents — a tally I arrived at by counting up the mailboxes in the lobby (the registrar couldn’t provide a more exact estimate). And second semester, the mouse on one of those three computers broke, rendering it unusable and making the supply of computers even more scant.You might think that the staff would restore the computer room to full functionality within some reasonable length of time. Of course, this is not how the story goes. I filed a work request. In fact, I filed several. But, just yesterday (of my JUNIOR year) I stopped by the Flora Rose computer lab. I noticed two computers were occupied but one was not. Yup. The mouse is still broken. You can go there and see it yourself. It’s like a little shrine to Cornellian bureaucracy.These problems aren’t just endemic to Cornell, though. They’re endemic to bureaucracy, in all forms: courts, banks, corporations, legislatures, and so the list could go on infinitely. While these institutions serve necessary functions, we give them too much slack, overlooking, rationalizing or at the very least accepting their grossest absurdities. Why? The appearance of legitimacy. That is the foundational pillar of all bureaucracies.But, here’s the problem: if you don’t serve your purpose, you have no legitimacy. So, let’s tear the unmerited veil of legitimacy from the face of those bureaucracies that have ceased to serve their purposes. Expose them. Expose their inner nothingness. Don’t be scared to defy them. Don’t let the store manager brush you aside with convenient excuses if he is unable to procure the goods which his store was created to provide. He’s just a guy in a polo. He has no legitimacy. Likewise, don’t kneel before the judge because he sits upon his throne of righteousness, clad in a black gown of piety, if he’s willing to punish the powerless but except  the exalted. He’s a stooge in a costume. He has no legitimacy. None of these bureaucrats and bureaucracies have any legitimacy — aside from that which we confer upon them. Make them earn it.

Sebastian Deri is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at sderi@cornellsun.com. Thought Crimes appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Sebastian Deri