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Once upon a time, I thought that a successful university needed only intelligent professors and motivated students to thrive.

It was a time when I, like many of you, was new to Penn and even newer to the world outside my hometown. It was a time when I thought 24-hour diners and academic health systems and nursing school deans were far from fodder for front page news. A time when I equated the word "bureaucracy" only with suit-wearing drones toiling within the drab municipal building of Anytown, U.S.A.

Three years at this university have changed the way I feel. I realize, now, that diners mean an awful lot to people who stay up late and have few other culinary options; that academic health systems can make or break a university's precious finances.

And, oh yes, it's now readily apparent that tiresome bureaucracies don't just afflict federal taxpayers and stressed-out civil servants.

Penn isn't just a university, a school or even a center of research. It's also a restaurateur, a property developer, a landlord, a police force, an investment house and, lately, a bureaucratic, multi-tiered, decision-making machine.

It's a machine of many parts that works not through motors and gears, but through committees, task forces and administrative decree. And it's a machine, unfortunately, that has become increasingly closed off from the community it serves.

You've likely already seen it on the pages of this newspaper, and you're sure to do so even more as the semester progresses.

Here at Ben Franklin's University, it takes 17 months for a committee and the appropriate administrators to name a new Nursing School dean -- even though the pool of capable applicants is relatively small.

Here at U.S. News' sixth-best institution of higher learning, decisions on major student life issues are bathed in spin and obscured as long as possible, to lessen potential student backlash.

Take, for example, the changes which Penn made last spring -- in virtual silence, by the way -- regarding undergraduate meal plans. With a student body fuming over the moves, one key administrator actually said that the response could have been softened had Penn's spinmeisters been able to handle the news on their own terms -- and on their own timeline.

"All of [the proposed changes were] intended to be a single rollout," then-Associate Vice President for Campus Services Larry Moneta said. "It was all a single effort that would have had a much more recent and reasonable presentation."

Moneta's candor was unprecedented -- a bold statement, even from the highly esteemed administrator who led Penn through much of the tumult of the 1993 "Water Buffalo" incident. But the response it elicited from the higher-ups within the University's bureaucratic monster was likely less flattering.

Bureaucracies falter, though, because the flow of information is too slow. Memos hit too many desks. E-mails go in circles before decisions at made.

Here, the issue is one of transparency.

Penn is indeed a thriving, energetic institution -- by almost any measure. But through all of the recent growth, it seems that our process of collective decision making has come to a standstill.

When an issue arises here, after all, the matter is typically handled in one of two ways:

It is discussed in secret by a handful of administrators, and announced quickly and with little fanfare.

Or, it is handed off to a deputy provost or associate dean or assistant director. He or she convenes a committee, which invariably meets for weeks or months before issuing a "recommendation," which bears no substantive power. The report is then mulled over by said senior administrators, who either throw it out because it is no longer appropriate or adopt it word-for-word.

Symbolically, these committees represent attempts to bring various constituencies -- staff, faculty, students -- to the table of change. They are inherent to academia, and offer the only manageable means of including so many people in processes which could be easily handled by far fewer.

Too often, though, committee meetings are held in private or sparsely attended. Administrators address the media -- a group which now extends far beyond the architects of this newspaper -- only when it suits their needs. And the information-sharing process, though well-intentioned,is continually dragged through the bureaucratic channels familiar back in Anytown, U.S.A.

There is no simple solution. But improvement can begin only by opening up the processes of policy making and policy change to further scrutiny and further public involvement.

There is evidence that such initiatives are on the horizon. Provost Robert Barchi's "Fireside Chats," for example, have the potential to be extraordinary forums for discussion, debate and improvement. But their success is heavily dependent upon the participation of students and the open-mindedness of administrators. Otherwise, they add up to little more than administrative window-dressing.

Opening up the decision-making doors brings more ideas to the table. It forces greater accountability upon our leaders.

And it emphasizes the involvement of this university's greatest assets, so that -- once upon a time -- intelligent professors and motivated students can again be what Penn is truly all about.

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