This is absolutely true in my industry of higher education. Universities all have varying levels of conflict, of many types. One of the most common is conflict between faculty and administration. Much of this conflict is unnecessary and stems from a lack of knowledge.
I have been reminded of this in many ways in recent weeks, but most proximately by a social media post from a friend which read in part:
My school has an "enrollment management" office with a multi million dollar budget that seems to go up every year. I have no idea what the hell they do, and why that money is spent, especially when my scholarship and other support dollars are at an all time low and will not go up anytime soon. Meanwhile, enrollment at the university as a whole has gone down, and continues to plummet, even while [our department's] enrollment grows each year. ... Bureaucrats will multiply and take all the money, meanwhile, people in [our field] will continue to connect and develop life long meaningful relationships.To be clear: I have great respect for the faculty member who wrote this post, which also included excellent examples of the work going on in that person's department. I also have great respect for the department as a whole, and the ways in which it has succeeded despite having few resources at its disposal. I think these are excellent people doing great stuff.
My concern, as is often the case, is the characterization of the faceless "they" and the conflict which this needlessly perpetuates. The post above has a few problems caused by a lack of knowledge:
1) The budget of the enrollment management office in question has been going down, not up. The phrase "seems to go up every year" hides the fact that the author doesn't really know, but suspects. Often times, what we suspect to be true isn't. In this case, the office in question has been pushed to do more and more with less and less, just as (perhaps even more than) the academic departments have. And unlike some faculty, nobody in the enrollment office has tenure - many can be (and have been) fired.
2) The phrase "I have no idea what the hell they do, and why that money is spent" is honest, but conveys a suspicion that those efforts are wasted. Not knowing should be an occasion for either humility or research, or both. Negative speculation is harmful.
In this case, the work of enrollment management is extremely difficult. If it were easy to control enrollments, more universities would do it - most except for the very elite struggle with this constantly. Moreover, the university in question has historically under-invested in marketing itself (an assertion which faculty might dispute but which in fact holds up under scrutiny if you take the time to look comparatively and to understand how marketing works).
3) The claim that "[b]ureaucrats will multiply and take all the money" is both broad and inaccurate. The contrast with the second half of that sentence reveals a broader narrative: faculty are the ones doing the important work of the university, whereas "bureaucrats" are wasted money whose work does not contribute to the education of students or the health of the university as a whole. Professional staff see these comments and know this attitude is out there.
Again, to be clear: faculty DO very important work. I agree that the work that faculty do directly with students is THE work of the university. It is in those relationships that education happens.
But it is also true that without the work of the "bureaucrats", the work of the faculty would be impossible. There is a vast amount of effort that goes into recruiting, admitting, housing, advising, scheduling, and providing for the needs of that student before she ever reaches the classroom. Most of this work is invisible to both students and faculty, as it should be. Ideally, all of this is as seamless and efficient as possible.
But seamless and efficient does not mean free. And while I believe that everyone within a university, at all levels, should be accountable for the quality of their work, the conflicts that arise between faculty and administration often aren't about accountability. They're about tribalism, about them being "them" and us being "us". They are always wrong, and we are always right. And because we are always right, I don't need to know anything about them, because they are wrong anyway, so why learn?
This is the very essence and root of our conflict. Yes, there are disagreements over interests and policy directions and so forth. But if we really understood each other, if we understood how things work on "the other side", and if we ceased doubting (or assuming) each other's motives, the concrete disagreements would be vastly easier to resolve.
Now that I have the position I do, I have few avenues to make these kinds of arguments. Faculty at many institutions are allergic to being "told what to do" by administrators, even if all we're saying is that we would like to develop a common understanding of how the world works. The narratives that drive these conflicts on our campuses are rooted in a fundamental mistrust about motives, but they are fueled and maintained by our steadfast refusal to learn more about each other. That's a problem we can fix - if we want to.
This is, of course, true in our broader society as well. I have previously argued that we don't really have an "America" anymore, but a feuding set of tribes that know less and less about each other. The antidote is always knowledge - not knowledge of facts so much as knowing and understanding people. We claim in our universities to be laboratories for solving society's problems. Perhaps we should start with this one.