The Oregon Experiment at Fifty

by Greg Bryant

After we'd worked together for a number of years, Christopher Alexander reflected on how we'd met, after I'd written an article for RAIN on "The Oregon Experiment", the participatory planning package he'd left at the University of Oregon in the 1970's.

"I have to admit to you ... it seemed you were trying to reanimate something long gone, like reviving a dead language. But, frankly, the process was promoted at the time by a few enthusiasts, who left campus ages ago. All that's left at the University of Oregon is a kind of written record, a residue of watered-down ideas, buried inside an overwhelming bureaucratic machine. It's like faded graffiti on a forgotten wall in a back alley." He said you need an engaged, motivated, living culture to make something like this work.

In 2018, I became a voting member of the Campus Planning Committee, representing on of the few bits of democracy on campus: the University Senate. I'd like to share something about the distance Alexander is describing. But that's impossible without painting a picture of the modern institution.

Uprisings against Executive Harm

I'll start with a story about computers at the University of Oregon.

By 2016, computing had spread to every corner of the campus. 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 very different problems. They had occasional problems with this, mostly due to budget silos that officially prevented people from working with each other, but people did 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. It had a board of trustees almost entirely consisting of business people. The chairman of that board had hand-picked the university president, and they conspired constantly on various schemes to privatize campus operations and please the business and billionaire class. They were neoliberal colonizers of the public trust.

The chairman 'intuitively' saw that business opportunities for his class 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 intentions of 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 is the nature of sycophantic consultancy -- essentially interrogating and alienating all the workers on campus who kept the campus going.

Many people simply quit the institution. The remainder began a rebellion -- after all, this was a unionized campus. The university senate also became involved. After arguing with countless executives 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. It gave us little opportunity to move the university in the direction of a public-interest institution.

The Right Way

What was needed is really quite obvious. The executives should have been fired, and not replaced. The campus community can better direct the institution democratically. They 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 watched 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.