A box full of family values

Deconstructing Butte College and its predilection for dysfunction

EDUCATION CUBED The new Butte College Center.

EDUCATION CUBED The new Butte College Center.

Photo Illustration by Tom Angel and Carey Wilson

A Butte College administrator was on TV a couple of weeks ago at the dedication of the new Butte College outbuilding, that big tin shoebox next to Wittmeier Chevrolet. He was talking about how Butte College prides itself on being a family. That “family” metaphor is one of the shopping bag of clichàs people in management learn in seminars taxpayers are made to pay for. It’s where they go to learn how to make the noises that make them sound like leaders.

In those seminars, they learn to spout words like “excellence” (they’re for it) and “shared governance” (they’re for that, too, though not to any excessive degree) and “shaping the culture of the workplace” (whatever the hell that might mean). They also learn words like “modalities” and “synergies” and “paradigms,” and they learn to use those words on any and all occasions.

If they face a budget crisis and have to speak to the trustees on that matter, they say something like: “The modalities of the current fiscal synergies have created a set of new paradigms that have put us in the position of seeking improvement in our modalities.” (Translation: “We’ve overspent the budget, and we’re trying to figure a way to cover our butts.")

Administrators and managers are also sure to encourage everyone to “think outside the box,” a bit of advice that comes from so deep inside the box that it’s a wonder they can find it, but they always do. If they need a clichà that points employees toward original thinking, they can come up with that clichà at a moment’s notice.

For instance, if they are giving a motivational speech to a captive audience of staff members who would rather be working, they will encourage those staffers to be good “team players” and “team builders” at virtually the same time they are encouraging those staffers to “think outside the box.” To those of us who aren’t leadership material, it can often seem contradictory and even a tad confusing.

But aside from the boxes, the modalities, the synergies and the paradigms, the thing that most characterizes bureaucratic thinking is the idea that people who work in the same place are really just “families.”

I’ve been a member of the Butte College “family” for 16 years now, but I’ve had the feeling for much of that time that I might have been adopted. For one thing, my allowance is markedly less than some of my “brothers and sisters” who do no more chores around the place than I do, and who are no older. In fact, some of my siblings do a great deal less than I do, and their allowances are a good deal bigger, so it’s no wonder that I sometimes suspect that I might be adopted.

My status as an adoptee has guaranteed my status as poor relations. Poor relations don’t sit very close to the head of the table, if they’re invited to the banquet at all.

The Butte College “family” is overseen by a single “mom” plus a whole bunch of aunts and uncles who fill all the dean positions. Beneath the deans are all the “children,” who are, I guess, the faculty and the classified staffs. Keeping all those unruly children quiet makes for a lot of work for the aunts and uncles because Mom is often away on business, and the kids are so often squabbling among themselves.

Actually, most community college families are headed by moms these days, as women have stepped in to fill more and more of the top management positions. There are some college families with a single dad at the helm, but what you never find in college “families” is a traditional mom-and-dad situation, which may be why so many of those college “families” are more than a little bit dysfunctional.

Part of that dysfunction is caused by some of the children who are enablers, the ones who encourage the worst excesses of the moms, the dads, the aunts or the uncles. These are the kids on the faculty who are inclined to tell the grownups just what they want to hear, such as: “You really need to take more professional-development trips to Maui for those administrative retreats that are paid for by the district.”

Boards of trustees often serve as enablers, too, granting big salaries, perks and retirement benefits to the parental unit while holding the line against increases in allowances for the kids.

The “family” comparison is a bit of shopworn sentimentality that rides on an idealized notion of both families and work environments. The next time you hear a boss extolling the idea of the workplace being just one big, happy family, you might think about Edmund Leach’s decidedly less sentimental view of the family. He said: “Far from being the basis of good society, the family, with its narrow privacy and tawdry secrets, is the source of all our discontents.”

Most places I’ve worked have been closer to that definition of the family than the sanitized view so frequently extolled by bosses.

Anyway, that new building Butte College just opened in Chico is one ugly box, and I sometimes wonder how much money the architectural firm was paid to design it and how much “outside the box” thinking it took to think up that design. For an enterprise led by people who are so anti-box, it’s surprising that nearly all the buildings where teaching gets done are so resolutely boxy.

If we take that “think outside the box” metaphor seriously, I guess students at the new Chico Center for Butte College are going to have to step outside in order to engage in the activity colleges are meant to encourage.

Mr. O’Neill teaches English at Butte College and contributes often to the Sacramento Bee and San Francisco Chronicle.