9. THE MATRIX as a metaphor for academic institutions

Academia comprises two parallel universes; most of us know only one.

MORPHEUS: What is real? How do you define real? If you’re talking about what you feel, taste, smell, or see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.[1]

Seen The Matrix?[2]

[SPOILER ALERT!!!]   If not, here’s the elevator version: It’s science fiction about a dystopian symbiotic society in which computers create a virtual environment (the Matrix) that keeps humans happy without their consent or even knowledge, in exchange for which humans’ bio-energy powers the computers. The protagonists believe that computers have enslaved humans and seek to liberate them. The action plays out in both the virtual and real worlds.

Academic institutions are kind of like this. The creative energy of the faculty – in scholarship, education, and practice – powers the institution. As faculty play in their institutional sandbox, their creations ideally can be rented or sold to underwrite their own costs and that of ‘the administration’. In exchange for this, ‘the administration’ (comprising institutional non-faculty and private, governmental, and philanthropic patrons) provides a virtual world in which the faculty happily carry on their creative activity.

MORPHEUS: [There is] the programmed reality of the Matrix. It has the same basic rules. Rules like gravity. What you must learn is that these rules are no different than the rules of a computer system. Some of them can be bent. Others can be broken. Understand?

The rules of faculty world:

  • Resources (money and space) are infinite; scarcities are only apparent or due only to others’ mismanagement of the resources.
  • Life is fair, and proceeds either spontaneously or by rules/norms the faculty devise (or claim to have devised or inherited).
  • Academia, the ‘life of the mind’, ‘academic freedom’, is the real world.

‘The administration’, by contrast, operates in what non-academics think is the real world, and must sustain the resources for the faculty world, satisfy creditors, fend off threats, manage risks, and devise strategies that will perpetuate the operation. Also, it must manage the faculty (also known as ‘herding cats’) when the creative process goes awry or the real world intrudes.

Who is ‘in charge’? Unlike in The Matrix, no one; it’s a symbiosis. ‘The administration’ can only survive if it maintains an adequate virtual reality for the faculty, and the faculty cannot create if their illusory world crumbles. (and, with it ‘the administration’). Although the faculty believe that ‘the administration’ has power, because the creativity of the faculty is the ultimate source of this power, prudent members of ‘the administration’ limit their exercise of power so that it does not disturb the creativity of the faculty.

[These are, of course, oversimplifications, the most serious of which is that there are as many faculty worlds as there are faculty, each with its own rules/culture, and with each world believing its is the only [right] one. Unless a colleague is a collaborator, the more intellectually distant the colleague the more likely the colleague is viewed as an unjustifiable sink for resources.]

In both The Matrix and the academy, the action occurs when the worlds collide. In the academy, the collisions often involve resources. In the reality of faculty world, because resources are infinite, because ‘money can always be found if the rationale is sufficient’, because there is a huge pot of money in the dean’s office, all scarcities are an artifact of administrative stupidity, incompetence and/or greed.   In fact, money spent on administration or administrators is money wasted.   Despite this, faculty “should not need to worry about resources” because “it is the job of ‘the administration’ [not the faculty] to provide all needed resources.”

CHAMBER MUSIC and the ambiance of wealth soak the restaurant around us as we watch a serrated knife saw through a thick, gorgeous steak. The meat is so perfect, charred on the outside, oozing red juice from the inside, that it could be a dream. A fork stabs the cube of meat and we FOLLOW it UP TO the face of Cypher.[3]

CYPHER:You know, I know that this steak doesn’t exist. I know when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, do you know what I’ve realized?

He shoves it in, eyes rolling up, savoring the tender beef melting in his mouth.

CYPHER: Ignorance is bliss.

[Lest this seem like a fool’s paradise, do remember that the players in the academic sandbox have produced the advances in knowledge that shape today’s world, and educated those who will shape tomorrow’s. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.]

These realities puzzle or frustrate ‘the administration’, which lives in a different world with its own realities and rules. Often, its fundamental error is to believe that a sufficiently good explanation or ‘business case’ can cause faculty world to set aside what it knows is real.

You may wonder: What’s all this got to do with faculty development?

Although success is possible in either faculty world or ‘the administration’, success is easier when one understands the realities of both worlds. [4] The worlds are not transitive, however. Those who begin and remain in ‘administration’ may never fully grasp the reality of the faculty. But the reverse is not true. We faculty can learn to comprehend the realities of ‘the administration’, and exploit them.     [Such learning is often called ‘executive leadership training’, and is available from many business schools and professional societies, from written and electronic resources, through interaction with ‘the administration’, and experientially. It often comprises management techniques and philosophy, social psychology, human resources management, rudimentary legal and financial training, negotiation, crisis and risk management, and so on.] Knowledge is power.[5]

Morpheus opens his hands. In the right is a red pill. In the left, a blue pill.[6]

MORPHEUS: This is your last chance. After this, there is no going back. You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and you believe whatever you want to believe.

The pills in his open hands are reflected in the glasses.

MORPHEUS: You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.

 MORPHEUS: Remember that all I am offering is the truth. Nothing more.

 But a warning to faculty readers reaching for the red pill: If you take it and learn of both worlds, you will forever after be frustrated in interactions with those who insist their world is the only one. Red pills are not for everyone.


[1] Quotations from the script are from http://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Matrix,-The.html . This quote: 0:50 in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AGZiLMGdCE0

[2] Warner Brothers, 1999. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0133093/

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7BuQFUhsRM

[4] This entire post follows in the footsteps of Tom Gilmore, one of the founders of the appropriately-named CFAR. Tom’s writing predated The Matrix, and he wrote of ‘church’ and ‘state’. See http://www.cfar.com/sites/default/files/resources/Leading_Planning_Ed.pdf

and http://www.cfar.com/sites/default/files/resources/Leading_Planning_AMC.pdf

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientia_potentia_est

[6] 1:25 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zE7PKRjrid4

©Martin E. Feder 2015

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