Question: What do these two current events have in common?
Answer: These dubious developments, and myriad others in municipalities and on college campuses nationwide, are due in large part to the proliferation of administrators that overtook American higher ed beginning in the mid-1980s, which has become a veritable flood in the past five years. It's anybody’s guess how much damage this flood will do — to our educational institutions and the cities and towns that host them — before the bureaucratic tide can be pushed back, if push-back is even possible.
The Children’s Hospital expansion is perhaps the easiest to wrap one’s head around. The world-renowned pediatric facility associated with Harvard Medical School — all of the physicians associated with the hospital, for example, also hold faculty positions — announced in 2010 that it planned to expand. Then in 2014 it announced specific plans for an 11-floor building that would house private patient rooms and a neonatal intensive care unit.
There was push-back from two quarters. The Massachusetts Health Policy Commission, an independent watchdog agency, and others were concerned that the facility would increase the cost of caring for ill children in Massachusetts because Children’s, the most expensive pediatric hospital in the state, would shut out competition from other local pediatric hospitals like Tufts Medical Center and Massachusetts General Hospital.
Children’s response was to downplay those fears by assenting to cost-control measures set by the state — to which the hospital will hold itself accountable.
There was an even more profound objection by a group of present and former patients and their families, who since 1956 have in trying and all-too-often tragic circumstances found solace underneath the shady dawn redwood trees and beside the fountains of the famed Prouty Garden, which the development plan has slated for demolition. The garden was given by author and poet Olive Higgins Prouty in honor of her two daughters, Anne and Olivia, both of whom died young.
Supporters, organized as Friends of the Prouty Garden, fought in court and in the media. Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, a giant of pediatric medicine who has worked at the hospital since 1948, joined a long list of Children’s physicians in calling on hospital administrators to spare the space.
“Some children’s ashes have been scattered in that garden,’’ Brazelton told Boston Globe columnist Thomas Farragher, also among those who have taken up the cause of the Prouty in a series of Globe columns that refused to allow the issue to fade away. “I think it should be treated as a sacred place. Kids beg to get out there. Kids are isolated in the hospital for a long time, and they just want to touch something out in the air that’s natural.’’
As Farragher pointed out in a recent column, a plaque outside the garden promises it will exist as long as the hospital serves patients and families. That is no longer to be the case.
Likewise, Harvard' bureaucracy is leading the charge to remake Harvard Square into a space more amenable to tourists who spend money on Harvard-insignia hats and students who are constantly demanding not more labs and libraries but more “social space.” This summer, Harvard began redeveloping the old Holyoke Center, now re-named the Smith Center in honor of a large contribution for “naming rights," with prominent student social space. The plans include a two-story façade that will replace the moderately priced Au Bon Pain and the adjacent Forbes Plaza, where faculty, students, and locals often mingled over food and games of chess.
New York-based real estate investment group Equity One recently purchased the block on the corner of Brattle and JFK Streets, quickening the pace of “mall-ification” already begun by Harvard Real Estate Office bureaucrats. Equity One plans to gut most of the building, replace the iconic Curious George toy store with an elevator lobby, and add a glass roof-top pavilion, completely changing the traditional New England character of the previously brick-and-wood Square. The there's the threatened shuttering of Out-of-Town News, which has occupied its iconic kiosk in the Square since 1984.
Many sectors of our society suffer from the proliferation of bureaucracies. They're expensive to support, whether they're in public or private institutions. But within the academy, they've caused a vast shift where bureaucrats have assumed ever-greater control at the expense of professors. As a result, academic control has vastly declined.
As administrators increasingly take control at these institutions, the quality of life at our teaching hospitals, our colleges and universities, and our public spaces will continue to suffer.
Harvey Silverglate, a criminal defense and civil liberties lawyer and writer, is WGBH News’ regular “Freedom Watch” columnist. Nathan McGuire is his research assistant.