Speaking Volumes: Catch-22

June 5, 1998

Tom Cannon on Joseph Heller's Catch-22 .

Initially, I chose The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli. It is the kind of book an academic interested in management ought to choose. My main research interests are change and entrepreneurship, and Machiavelli has lots to say about change and the challenges the royal entrepreneurs of his time faced.

It does not, however, ring true. Maybe I should choose The March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman. My life as an academic especially in university management has shown me enough of this. I have even developed a sneaking affection for my folly and that of my colleagues, but I read it too late for it to guide much of my life.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller has probably been with me longest, meant most and given me the most comfort. Initially, there was pure pleasure. Reading it as a teenager in Liverpool gave me unadulterated joy. The teacher who introduced me to Catch-22 started a love affair with books that has never left me.

Later, I almost came to view Catch-22 as a primer in management - at least in higher education. I can remember the vice-chancellors who reminded me of Major Major.

They never seemed to know why they were in post, sought salvation in invisibility and, if all else failed, probably sought escape through a window. They were not "born mediocre" - most were outstanding academics. There was, however, the same sense that Henry Fonda would have done a better job - and if not him, Cary Grant.

The sense of deja vu that Major Major created is dwarfed by the feelings I get when I see parallels between a new generation of academic leaders and Colonel Cathcart. He was "slick, successful, slipshod (and) unhappy". Academic leaders face the same pressures as he - "more and more, for less and less".

The temptation is to respond in the same way, by raising the missions from 35 to 45 and on to 85. Hike up admissions, decrease student:staff ratios. Can't you produce two refereed papers a year? Catch-22 not only highlighted the dilemma for me, but it spurred my research and management interest in the solutions.

Milo Minderbinder offers some options. I was impressed on my visit to universities in the United States at the quality of meals in the campus restaurants. An entrepreneurial future for universities beckoned.

Most of my recent academic career has centred on taxing efforts to understand the paradox at the heart of management in modern institutions of higher education. Knowledge, our stock in trade, has never been more valued, but the people and institutions that create the knowledge have seldom seemed less valued.

I have become more aware of this as my children have started university. The pressure of more for less has hit student support. Student failure and withdrawal are commonplace. Some vanish so quickly and anonymously that they are like the recruits who disappear from Yossarian's tent.

There is some comfort that everyone in higher education faces a Catch-22 - from the minister who tries to introduce some structure to a failing system of student support to the first-year student who wants to enthuse his overworked tutor. Heller describes it well in the passage that summarises Yossarian's position:

"'They're trying to kill me,' Yossarian told him calmly.

'No one's trying to kill you,' Clevinger cried.

'Then why are they shooting at me?' Yossarian asked.

'They're shooting at everyone,' Clevinger answered. 'They're trying to kill everyone.'

'And what difference does that make?'"

Tom Cannon is professor of commerce, Gresham College.

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