The Oregon Experiment at Fifty
by Greg Bryant
The Oregon Experiment is the name of an excellent small book written in 1975 by Christopher Alexander and his colleagues at the non-profit Center for Environmental Structure (CES) in Berkeley, California. It describes the motivations, intentions, and early results of a process put in place, starting in 1970, at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon .
The process initially intended to put the power of planning, design, and construction in the hands of the people: the entire campus community. It was a radical experiment in direct, grassroots-driven democracy and collaborative work, intending to make use of everyone's ability to contribute to the creation of places and spaces that are humane and natural.
It's easy, but perhaps not completely accurate, to say that, over the last fifty years, the process itself has become powerless, as the institution's control concentrated into the hands of the executive administration, backed by wealthy elites who wield barely-challenged political power in the state. But the meeting of opposing forces, which the Experiment was meant to mediate and resolve into high-quality results, are still present on campus, everywhere and everyday. So the story is never over.
I first became aware of aspects of the Oregon Experiment (which it had just started to be called) when I moved to Eugene in 1973. I studied it more intensely in the late 1980's. In the '90s I met Christopher Alexander, partly because I'd been among the many people who had pressed the campus planning department to bring him back to the UO for a large project. After we'd worked and written together over the course of many projects for several years, he reflected on how we'd met, after I'd written an essay for RAIN called "The Oregon Experiment after Twenty Years".
I'll paraphrase his opinions on the topic, in his voice (he could be quite colorful) as best as I remember: "I have to admit ... it seemed you were trying to reanimate something long gone from the university, like someone reviving a dead language." "The experiment was promoted originally by a few well-placed advocates, most of whom left the campus ages ago." "All that's left of the experiment is a kind of residue, long buried inside a life-killing, bureaucratic machine." "The Oregon Experiment is like faded graffiti on a forgotten wall in a back alley of a neighborhood slated for demolition."
His conclusion was that the university community would need to build an engaged, motivated, living culture -- and a flattened power structure -- to make participatory planning and collaborative design work as it should.
In 2018, I became a voting member of the University of Oregon's Campus Planning Committee (CPC), a key component of the experiment. I was representing one of the few bits of democracy remaining on campus: the University Senate. I'd like to share something about the distance Alexander is describing, but that's hard without painting a picture of the modern institution, and a hopeful path towards transforming it.
Uprisings against Executive Harm
Oddly for a story about the built environment. I'll start with a story about computing at the University of Oregon.
By 2016, computer technology had spread to every corner of the campus, and into the pocket of every member of the campus community. There was a campus IT department, which provided optional services, such as network infrastructure, administrative systems, and licenses for other software. Across the campus, individuals, groups, departments, and schools had developed their own software and configured their own computer systems, in order to solve their enormously different problems. They had occasional troubles with this process, but these were mostly due to managerialism: budget silos that officially prevented people from working with each other, but they would anyway, whenever an important problem needed solving. This "skunkworks effect" was good decentralization, actually good anarchy. It would have been better, of course, if it could have happened openly. But there was a worse problem on the way.
The university is owned by the State of Oregon, but unfortunately it was "going corporate". In the new configuration, it had a board of trustees almost entirely comprised of business people. The chairman of that board had hand-picked the university president, and they conspired continually on various schemes: to privatize campus operations, and please the business and billionaire class. They were neoliberal colonizers of a public trust.
The chairman 'intuitively' saw that new business opportunities at the public expense would be unclear if computing was dispersed across campus. It needed centralization, for privatization. So he pushed for that, of course disguising the real class interests behind the move.
It seemed like a classic 'arbitrary re-org'. Only executive administrators were in favor of it. Everyone else was against it. It was the wrong approach. The executives hired executive-friendly consultants to back up their claims, but they did a terrible job -- studied incompetence and irrationality are hallmarks of sycophantic consultancy -- essentially interrogating and alienating all the workers on campus who kept the campus going. Everyone was frightened.
Many people simply quit the institution. The remainder began to rebel -- after all, this was a unionized campus. The university senate also became involved. After arguing with countless executives administrators who had no idea what they were talking about, there was a 'managerial compromise', where managers were essentially assigned to each worker, and would need to be consulted if the workers saw a need outside of their regular work. Which just drove the cooperation, innovation, and creativity further underground into the 'skunkworks'. And this battle continues.
The administrative executives, of course, were not there to 'do the right thing'. They were there to exercise power, quite arbitrarily. In the university senate, we were constantly in 'reaction' mode, because literally every new action by these expensive executives was harmful. This gave us little opportunity to help move the university in the direction of a public-interest institution.
The Right Way
What is needed is really quite obvious. The executive administrators -- the president, provosts, deans, etc. -- should be fired, and not replaced. The campus community would be far better at self-governing the institution, democratically. This would allow for maximum transparency, cooperation, and flexibility in resolving problems. Every group would self-manage. The IT workers would have meaningful jobs, finally, because they would be equal partners with the people they provide service to. Creativity would be everywhere, and the campus would experience a true renaissance.
At the time I tried to express my experience from the heart of the dotcom boom in silicon valley, in the late 1990's. The burst of creativity came from a world turned upside-down, where the people without 'credentials', with no 'business' or 'management' training, were mostly in charge of the new direction. Of course, the plutocrats fought back, bought or coopted people, privatized the Internet, etc. But for a few years, the formerly simmering creative forces, the 'skunkworks' underclass, took the reigns and provided the genuine innovation.
There's no reason this couldn't happen anywhere. Especially in a potentially vibrant environment like a university campus. But people need to fight for it. They need to take back their institutions from the plutocrats and the technocrats.
The Campus Planning Committee
Representing the University Senate, I joined the Campus Planning Committee for the first time. I'd attended meetings and written about this organization for decades, but this was the first time I could really examine its problems as a voting member.
The first story to tell centers around the biggest problem: the effect of power and money on the campus.
The State of Oregon requires that smaller governments within its purview have a process by which citizens can have input on plans that effect them. This would seem to fit directly into the driving ideology of the Oregon Experiment.
The funny thing is: the State of Oregon itself is not required to follow this policy. And in fact, it does not.
So the Oregon Experiment, or any open process at all, is not campus policy for many projects, particularly projects which are known as "Track C", that is, determined so important by the President and the Executive staff, that they can be built with no transparency, no advice, and no consent.