The University Mafia: Roles and Analysis

In our conversation yesterday concerning — Why Do You Hide Your Identity? — we shared a great discussion about owning what you write online by using your Real Name.

That conversation then devolved — as it always does — into a new conversation concerning how the American university system is really a glorified mob family when I said:

Yes, academe is a nasty business of cohorts, collusion, back-stabbing, sexual promiscuity — and that’s all in the faculty and not the student body!You will be asked to join sides and to take up fights that aren’t yours. You will be required to prove your worth. It’s very old-fashioned and mafia-like in many ways. You’ll be your own thug soon enough!

That quote of mine then prompted a request for more detail on how the university system breaks down into a mob family. Now, with some help from Wikipedia, here are the roles of the “mafia” in the university system as I see it followed by my analysis in BOLD:

  • Boss
    – The head of the family, usually reigning as a dictator, sometimes called the “don,” or “godfather.” The Boss receives a cut of every operation taken on by every member of his family.

The “Boss” of an American university is its president. The president earns the big money and success is tied to how much money is raised and brought in to perpetuate the myth that higher education is really about education and not grabbing federal research funds and private endowments.

  • Underboss
    – The Underboss, usually appointed by the Boss, is the second in command of the family. The Underboss is considered the Boss that is in charge of all of the other Capos, who is controlled by the Boss. The Underboss is usually first in line to become Acting Boss if the Boss is imprisoned or dies.

The Underboss is the university Vice-President or Chancellor or College Deans and they all play the Scooter Libby role of deflecting criticism and unwanted attention away from the Boss’ guilty deeds. They get their money from the Boss and are beholden to the Boss’ wishes, dreams, and commands.

  • Consigliere
    – Consigliere is an advisor to the family. They are often low profile gangsters that can be trusted. They are used as a mediator of disputes or representatives or aids in meetings with other Families. They often keep the Family looking as legitimate as possible, and are, themselves, legitimate apart from some minor gambling or loan sharking.

University Consigliere are the politicians that place their friends on the university payroll in exchange for publicly supporting higher tuition rates and increased student fees. You have to pay to play — so you become a part of the university system without becoming an actual employee — because to be on the payroll disallows your under-the-table graft in exchange for employment favors for friends and associates.

  • Caporegime (or Capo)- A Capo (sometimes called a Captain) is in charge of a crew. There are usually four to six crews in each family, possibly even seven to nine crews, each one consisting of up to ten Soldiers. Capos run their own small family, but must follow the limitations and guidelines created by the Boss, as well as pay him his cut of their profits.

Capos in the universities are the Department Chairs. They have very little actual power, but because they are a “Chair” their perceived power can be omnipotent if one doesn’t realize any decision made by any Chair anywhere can be changed, dictated and recanted by the whims of any Consigliere or Underboss. Capos are there to manage crises and feelings — they never touch any real money that matters — and to keep the Soldiers in line and behaving.

  • Soldier
    – Soldiers are members of the family, and can only be of Italian background. Soldiers start as Associates that have proven themselves. When the books are open, meaning that there is an open spot in the family, a Capo (or several Capos) may recommend an up-and-coming Associate to be a new member.

Soldiers are the university faculty and their “Italian background” is their meaningless Ph.D. The faculty actually have great power but do not recognize or understand how to wield it in the system because they are intellectuals and not politicians. The faculty run the university on the ground but do not share in the profits at the top.

The faculty do not realize they are the university because the Boss and the Underbosses have convinced the faculty the students are the university — and without the students and their tuition dollars and extensive student loan devil bargains — the university would not exist. What the faculty fail to recognize is students are fleeting and fluid and the best of them and the worst of them only exist for four years and then they’re gone.

The faculty are forever in tenure and they should be setting the vision of the university with research mandates, but none of the faculty are prescient enough to see that long and powerful end and so they are doomed to consume each other and bite those lower than them on the food chain of deceitful power.

  • Associate
    – An Associate is not a member of the mob, but more of an errand boy. They’re usually a go-between or sometimes deal in drugs to keep the heat off the actual members. In other cases, an associate might be a corrupt labor union delegate or businessman.

Associates in the university system are the part-time Adjuncts. The Adjuncts are the Fall Guys, the Dirty Pool players and the sacrificial lambs. Adjuncts are expendable and readily available for virginic volcano-tossing if the university needs a convenient scapegoat. If you need someone to get their hands muddy in the muck by enforcing a Grade Inflation Policy or by pressing the agenda that students are actually responsible for their own behavior, the Adjunct is the perfect foil — both willing to please and totally unwitting to the dangers of complying with the damaging desires of others.

Yesterday’s discussion also brought forward several questions I will endeavor to answer now:

What is the most interesting thing that a student would want to know about academe, but didn’t realize they should ever ask?

Students need to realize they really do not matter even though they’re told they do. Students are the rope in the ongoing tug-of-war between the Administration and the Faculty. They are ultimately expendable in any sort of power purge.

If students want to get an education, and not rope burn, they need to remove themselves from the back-and-forth and set their own learning agenda for success by finding a sympathetic and interested Administrator to soothe the red tape process as well as a Faculty member who can point the student into and out of the political morass of finding good teaching versus those who teach on tenure.

Who really has the power at universities? The academic department or athletic department?

This answer depends on the school and it always has to do with money and power. If you have a successful football team, the athletic department sets the goals of the university. If you have a powerful business school or law program, they dictate future maneuvering. English Departments — the necessary intellectual core of the university experience where All Things Converge — never have any power or money and so the department instead concentrates on attacking each other and in devouring Adjuncts for entertainment in the guise of professing power and influence.

What is the key to student success — beyond the basics of reading and studying? How does a student really impress the professors?

The key to student success is to read the assigned work and to participate in course discussions. Students should also always be on time to class and sit in the front row and help lead discussions if they want to impress their instructors. Do not hand in late assignments. Reach above ordinary expectation.

I always tell my students the syllabus describes the minimum requirements for the class and that it is up to each of them to find out how to create passion and magnitude beyond the simple syllabus.

Now I have a few questions for you… What has your experience been in the university system? Did it ever feel like you were part of a mob family or not?

If your experience is beyond the American university system — what similarities and differences have your found with the mob mentality and higher education?