Previously, I wrote about an upcoming meeting with the chancellor of UNC.

It was audacious of me to just call up and make an appointment with the head of a large, prestigious institution like mine.

But I like to live life on the edge.

My goal was to discuss entrepreneurialism within the university – and how the university bureaucracy squashes entrepreneurial spirt.

The layers of bureaucracy are thick here, layered like a truffle embedded inside a wedding cake….

The chancellor was surprisingly receptive to my visit.  He’s obviously a smart guy, and a scientist.  He wants to do right by the University and its faculty.

He clearly understood the problems of bureaucracy at UNC.  He said it is his number one mission to reduce it.

But every time he tamps down the bureaucracy in one division, it lasts for a little while until he turns his attention to something else.  Then it grows right back, like weeds in a place with plenty of water and sunlight.

Perhaps that is an apt analogy.  Cutting back the weeds never solves the problem.  They just grow back.

The only ways to kill weeds are to cut off their water or sunlight – or to poison them.  Since “poisoning” is not going to be an acceptable solution when it comes to bureaucracy, we have to implement one of the other solutions.

The sunlight and water of bureaucracy are money and rules.

Rules serve a purpose – at least in someone’s mind, at the time they are conceived.

Once they have served for a while, they grow stale, old, and smelly.  Bureaucracy thrives on them – while everyone else chokes.

And money helps support the beast.  One might try to choke off the money, but I guess that the people at the end of the food chain – the scientists – would starve before the bureaucracy does.

Every grant that a researcher brings in comes with “facilities and administration” (F&A) money.  That money is supposed to pay for things that support the research environment.

But it is all sucked up into the voracious beast before it gets to the place where it benefits the researcher.  Various people have pointed out to me various “worthwhile” things that it is used for.

Is 5 levels of bureaucracy to approve a hire, “worthwhile?”

It doesn’t matter whether it is “worthwhile,” even in the rare instance that it is.  It is not benefiting the research.  It is not benefiting the science that the grants are supposed to be supporting.

I work in a 30 year old building that is crawling with cockroaches.  I’m not sure who that benefits, except for the cockroaches.

The way to starve the beast is to bypass it.  The F&A money should go directly to the researcher’s most immediate unit (e.g. department).

The department then could apply it to do things like get the space that we need.

I can hear many people in humanities say, “but wait, that would starve our side of campus.”

I am very much in favor of supporting the humanities and many other non-science departments.  I have a personal fondness for philosophy.

But I am not in favor of supporting those departments with F&A money from grants that are given to me to do specific research.  That is misdirection at best.  The state and tuition should be supporting the teaching mission of the University.


I was thinking about all the hiring problems we seem to have.  It can take (many) months to get a hire completed, because it has to go through so many levels.

Why is that?

My department seems to have an HR person (a “facilitator”) just to navigate the bureaucracy at higher levels of the system.

Instead, why not train her in the rules, and just let her do the work directly?  Then we wouldn’t need 5 levels above her (or however many it is).  It would be faster, cheaper, and would starve the beast.

Don’t get me wrong.  I think that many of the people that work within the beast are very well meaning and trying to do their jobs.  But when one is trying to do their job in a dysfunctional organization, the job is, unfortunately, promoting more dysfunction.

Out of date rules need to be removed.  But there would be massive resistance to that.

Money needs to flow around the bureaucracy, not into it.  There would be massive resistance to that too, but perhaps not quite as much.

Ideally, both would happen.  That would really take care of the problem, once and for all.

I hope the Chancellor is listening

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