2 min read

God-Emperors of Nonprofits

God-Emperors of Nonprofits
Self-conception of a university president / Photo by iam_os / Unsplash

Welcome back to Anarchist Hot Takes, the weekly newsletter from Everyday Anarchism! This is another in my series on Democracy as Peril.

I once worked at an institution that had an absolutely tyrannical president. This person was a cruel and vain bully, and eventually resigned after a faculty revolt, but not before years of tyranny. Many, many faculty members (including me) left the school during this reign.

What made this experience revelatory for me is that it was a public institution. A democratic institution, that is to say, one that is run by a part of the American government, and thus allegedly of the people, for the people, and by the people.

And yet it seemed like there was nothing we could do about this bully. There were no votes or public forums on the president's behavior or position. It was years before the faculty moved as a body; in the meantime, everyone was scared they would lose their jobs (and some did).

So where was the democracy? It wasn’t there. The principle that leaders of communities are answerable to the members of those communities is the basic principle of American democracy. And our educational and nonprofit institutions don’t follow it. Here’s Randolph Bourne:

“Our universal American practice of organizing our institutional life in every department with Boards of Governors, Directors, and Trustees, ruling in many instances rather by divine right than by the direct authority of those whose actions they control, and responsible in only a perfunctory fashion to those dependent upon them, shows how little our inherently oligarchic 'spirit of American government' has recognized the truth of this last great principle.”

As you can see, this isn’t democratic at all, in that there's no responsibility to the people. It’s oligarchic, even religious. The average president of a school or nonprofit is closer to a god-emperor than to a democratic servant. The “democratic” process for a state school is that the state government selects the board, who select and can remove the president. The government, of course, is not made up of “the people,” who don’t know anything about the school. And this particular president destroyed all other sources of power at the school by firing any administrators who opposed the agenda, while also wooing both the board and the local representatives. Rumor had it that any faculty member who went to the board without going through the president first would be fired. (True? No one that I know of found out).

So that’s how our “democracy” runs its “public” institutions. A few elected officials, a few appointed placeholders, and a single executive can rule unquestioned over the lives and jobs of hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of people. And keep in mind that more or less every nonprofit in America (from your public university alma mater to your local high school to the elite colleges to that charity you give to) are run the same way. And it’s called democracy! No wonder democracy is in such peril.