ESSAY: Bureaucratic and Ideological Control Processes at Ryerson University

Universities are highly complex and interdependent systems, incorporating tens of thousands of students in addition to faculty, administrative staff, and alumni. Coordinating such a system requires enacting forms of organizational control to achieve institutional objectives. Most higher learning institutions, including Ryerson University, adhere to two central themes of control based on structure, hierarchy, rules, and creating a culture that perpetuates the institution’s values. As a student at Ryerson University, I recognize that bureaucratic and ideological control processes regulate my behavior and organize my university experience.

Bureaucratic control refers to a system of organization that employs a hierarchy of authority in addition to rules, policies, formal documentation, merit systems, and other behavioral control mechanisms.

Universities are one of the clearest examples of bureaucracy in action. As a professional communication student, I ‘report’ assignments to my various professors and adhere to their class structure. In turn, these professors report to their faculty (Faculty of Communication and Design), which reports to the broader university. The hierarchical aspect of Ryerson dictates the communication processes that occur between the institution’s stakeholders. Ryerson’s communication generally occurs in a top-down manner, with little opportunity for the students, which make up the bottom of the hierarchy, to engage with the institution’s key figures.

Ryerson’s bureaucracy provides structure, coordination, and logistical support for its student body, but it also offers challenges. The slow-paced nature of bureaucracy is often in contention with the time-sensitive schedule of a university student.

Organizations and institutions have increasingly offered expanded services, resulting in bureaucratic sprawl (Tahir, 2020). A Stats Canada analysis found that for every dollar spent on instruction in universities, roughly 20 cents is directed to cover administrative costs. In 1994, this ratio was 12 cents per dollar (Smith, 2010). Additional income for Canadian universities increasingly goes to expanding bureaucratic processes, not maintaining the institution’s quality. This is occurring even as post-secondary students face a debt crisis, in large part because of tuition increases deemed necessary for ‘quality maintenance.’ Ryerson’s bloated bureaucracy wastes money that otherwise could have been spent on teaching and reducing tuition costs. As a student who has occasionally struggled to meet my tuition, I find this particularly vexing.

Whereas bureaucratic control refers to a system of organization characterized by behavioral control mechanisms (i.e., bureaucracy), ideological control focuses on the organizational members’ sense of self (Mumby & Kuhn, 2019, ch. 1). Ideological control focuses on cultivating a set of feelings among the membership that will emotionally connect them to the organization and each other.

Like other academic institutions, Ryerson attempts to cultivate numerous shared feelings among its student body and faculty. Community, inclusion, diversity, and self-improvement are all values perpetuated through Ryerson’s stakeholder communication. Self-improvement is the most salient example; the institution’s ‘anchor’ is that it offers a more practical, hands-on university experience that provides students a competitive advantage over their peers. This messaging is evidenced by Ryerson’s website, where the first line of the ‘about’ page reads: “Ryerson University is at the intersection of mind and action” (Ryerson University, 2020).

In today’s post-Fordist organization, emphasizing self-improvement as an organizational cornerstone is a particularly effective way of enacting ideological control. Increasingly, individuals tie their intrinsic value to their economic worth. This is a result of the blurring of work and personal boundaries, a cornerstone of the post-Fordist era of organization (Mumby & Kuhn, 2019, ch. 6). A university education offers significant opportunities for self-improvement, which boosts individual intrinsic value and institutional loyalty.

Ryerson’s culture (i.e., its values and traditions) reflects the institution’s relatively successful enactment of ideological control over the student body and faculty. This is not necessarily bad; I love attending Ryerson because of the values the institution has chosen to perpetuate (i.e., diversity, inclusion, hands-on academia etc.). The student body and faculty have broadly accepted these values, creating a relatively harmonious campus setting. That being said, ideological control never guarantees a certain set of predictable behaviors. For example, Ryerson highly emphasizes inclusivity and diversity; the student body generally accepts these values, with one broad exception: diversity of opinion. Numerous times throughout my three years at Ryerson, I have witnessed individuals with more conservative-leaning attitudes be subjected to exclusion. This demonstrates that although ideological control can undoubtedly impact a population, there can be no accounting for human agency at times.

Bureaucratic and ideological control processes structure my life as a student at Ryerson University. This structure dictates how I operate my day to day, both in an organizational sense and a cultural sense, and provides me the opportunity to make sense of my rapidly changing world. Bureaucratic and ideological control processes are neither benign nor malevolent inherently; rather, it’s the application of the methods that determines such a thing. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time at Ryerson so far, with my only complaints being occasional student censorship and the overbearing nature of the institution’s bureaucratic control.

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