October 09, 2002
A Concise Model of the University: The Structural Model

ABSTRACT. A University, normally thought to be educational institution, is in fact susceptible to a formal description. In the model presented here, the University is seen to be composed of two fundamental Groupings, in which are found various Units. The first Grouping is composed of units consisting (usually) of students, faculty, clerical staff, offices, and plants that are considered emblematic of the Unit's underlying Gestalt. On occasion animals are also found, but they are not likely to survive. These units are differentiated according to the Structural Model: In units of high esteem, people obtain money or study money. Sometimes other things are obtained and other subjects are studied, but at great personal cost. As these Units move through time, their dynamics are described by the Processual Model, which consists of two social dramas: the Witch Hunt, and the Purge. The second Grouping consists of the Athletic Program, which defies rational analysis and is not examined here. This article describes the Structural Model; the Processual Model will be described in a forthcoming number of this Journal.

Bryan Pfaffenberger, Ph.D.

Dr. Pfaffenberger occupies the Bryan Pfaffenberger Chair at the University of Virginia. He specializes in the study of scholarly obscurity, using a methodology called "self-examination." The Chair was purchased at Office Depot, to which Dr. Pfaffenberger wishes to convey his heartfelt thanks.

APOLOGIA. The present analysis endeavors, as do all works of sheer theoretical brilliance, to provide a parsimonious model that, in spite of its apparently idiotic simplifications, is capable of explaining an unbelievably wide range of observed phenomena. The present author challenges the reader to deny that it indeed accomplishes this task.

AUTHOR'S NOTE. The present author wishes to avoid becoming the absent author. For this reason, he wishes the reader to understand that this model derives from his patient, and somewhat painful, study of Universities other than the University of Virginia, which currently provides his paycheck. Anyone familiar with the University of Virginia will immediately see that this model could not POSSIBLY apply to that great institution.


The model is actually two interlinked models, a Structural Model (which embraces a logical subset containing Derived Principles), and a Processual Model, which describes the behavior of the Structural Model over time. The Structural Model is described first.

Despite their sequential presentation, it must be understood that these two Models are inextricably linked, as if they were two intersecting planes, perpendicular to each other, rotating in a relatively frictionless universe devoid of meaning or feeling.

To grasp this relationship fully, a "thought experiment" should prove helpful. First, purchase an air conditioner that is known to break down periodically. At each breakdown, have the unit repaired. Continue by spending thirty-seven years watching this process as carefully as possible. Finally, die.

Because this paper presents only the Structural Model, it is, therefore, incomplete. The structure to be described becomes significantly more vivid when the two key processes explained in the Processual Model, the Witch Hunt and the Purge, are brought into view.


The University holds some Units in high esteem, and some Units in low esteem.

Esteem is determined by a Unit's association with money, considered as an abstract entity that can either be obtained or studied -- or, in the most delectable cases, both.

Principles of Differentiation.

The following may be readily observed at any University:

(i) Units of highest esteem study money AND get money.

(ii) Units of high esteem either study money OR get money.

(iii) Units of low esteem neither study nor get money

(iv) Units of the lowest esteem not only fail to study money, but they also are seen to expend atrocious amounts of money on high-salaried faculty when, it is judged, their functions could easily be replaced -- at substantial savings -- by people drawn randomly from the streets surrounding the University.
Units of the lowest esteem are therefore termed DISPENSABLE UNITS (DU). When the next Purge occurs, the DU may suddenly disappear.


Highest esteem: business school, law school.

High esteem: economics (study $: yes; get $: no)

High esteem: computer science (study $ no; get $: yes)

Low esteem: French, Spanish, Italian, etc.

Lowest esteem: Any unit with a name containing the following words, whether alone or in combination: "sports studies" (aka "leisure studies"), "communication," "writing," "education," etc., notwithstanding the fact that faculty in these Units may in fact produce some of the best scholarship and research in the University. Sadly, there is very little they can do to win praise for their accomplishments.

Anyone familiar with any University (except the University of Virginia, of course) can easily supply additional examples. Try it!


There are various odd Units that, for apparently inexplicable reasons, appear to defy the Structural Principle. Nevertheless, the behavior of these Units becomes fully explicable when additional Principles are presented.

In reviews of previous versions of this paper, the present author has been viciously attacked -- often in harmful, ad hominem language -- for offering the Derived Principles. One commentator noted, "The model's claims to parsimony are easily refuted by the author's own exposition -- viz., the so-called Derived Principles, which are nothing other than a contrived patchwork quilt of exceptions intended to disguise the so-called model's inability to cope with the observed range of empirical phenomena."

This is complete nonsense, and is to be fully expected from a commentator who sleeps in his clothes, spends his weekend gambling, and once drowned his son's pet rat in a swimming pool.

Still, an open-minded reader will quickly perceive that the Derived Principles are by no means a "patchwork quilt of exceptions." On the contrary, the Derived Principles, so far from contradicting the Structural Model's parsimony, decisively confirm it. All of the Derived Principles represent a variety of logical maneuvers that are instantly recognizable to any reader of Claude Levi-Strauss: they are derivations, permutations, manipulations, inversions, or transformations of the Structural Model. As will be seen, they are ineluctable unless one accepts that the Structural Modal underlies all of them and, in turn, that each of the Derived Principles reinforces and further energizes the Structural Model.

(i) The Principle of Posterior Pain

A unit of high esteem may become a unit of low esteem, or a unit of low esteem may become a Pain, when the following conditions are present: its faculty despise one another, are reputed to have "sharp elbows," display their dirty linen (so to speak) in public, and threaten to file numerous lawsuits, including lawsuits against one another (the most popular choice), lawsuits against the Chair or Dean, or, at the extreme, lawsuits against the President of the United States, the Unfair World, or the Ungrateful Universe. The present author, desirous of remaining present, prefers to omit an example and begs the reader's forgiveness.

When a Unit becomes a Pain, a remarkable transformation occurs, which has been termed "psychedelic" by some observers and "shamanic" by others. To understand this transformation fully, it should be conceded that the Esteem in which most Units are normally held is grounded, to a reasonable extent, in Reality.

It is important to understand, however, that within a University Reality means something markedly different from the way this term is generally understood, viz., “the empirical world as disclosed by the evidence of the senses.” In a University, Reality refers to world in which Units derive their status by means of observable indexes of Esteem. Such an index is a sign, or symbol, that is taken to indicate the Unit's Esteem. As the Structural Model dictates, the two most prominent Esteem Indexes are (a) the amount of money retrieved, and (b) the percentage of faculty who actually study money.

To be specific, then, when a Unit is declared to be a Pain, those in other Units begin to discount the evidence provided by empirically observed Esteem Indexes: it is though such indexes no longer matter, or were falsely presented in the first place: e.g., "They didn't bring in THAT much money," or "I don't know what they're doing, but it isn't economics."

As this mystical transformation occurs, those in other Units are aware that these altered assessments are flatly contradicted by the previous praise of the Dean, flattering profiles in the Faculty News, and faculty Awards and Prizes; however, having the temerity to point this out is one of many unwise actions that may result in a Witch Hunt. The Unit's research focus, once described as Essential, suddenly becomes Trivial or, at the extreme, a downright threat to the University's survival. Of course, faculty within the Unit continue to point to their Reality, the Esteem Indexes that they perceive to be right, just, and holy, and plead with onlookers in an increasingly pathetic way. They are shunned, regarded with disgust, and treated like lepers. In the end, they stop coming in, and remain at home, sulking and drinking.

It should be noted that a Pain's destiny may not be so tragic, but merely constricting, if it is Penniless (see "Penniless Principle," below).

So far from contradicting the Structural Model, then, the transformation described here can be best described as a logical transformation of the Structural Model: When a Unit becomes a Pain, the University has, in effect, (a) detached the Unit from the Ladder of Esteem, (b) caused it to enter a magical but painful world in which Reality no longer counts, and (c) moved it -- lock, stock, and barrel -- one rung down. If the Pain's new status is that of the Dispensable Unit (DU), it may be wiped out in the next Purge (see "Processual Model," below).

It remains to note that, although Universities are quite good at this trick, their accomplishments are overshadowed by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which is known to have practiced and refined this process to a level that can only be described as perfection.

A stern warning should be issued for those who imagine that, by walking from a Pain to a normal Unit, they can experience some of the effects of a psychedelic drug. Within the Pain, Reality is irrelevant; however, when one moves a few doors down the hall to a normal Unit, Reality reappears. Would be trippers have seriously damaged their sanity by toying with this phenomenon. It is now broadly acknowledged that even one exposure to this transformation places one at an elevated risk of moderate to severe depression or more serious and potentially psychotic disorders.

(ii) The Penniless Principle

A unit of low esteem may be treated, in some ways, as if it were a unit of high esteem. This remarkable elevation can occur only if (a) a majority of Ivy League Institutions deem its presence, however paralyzed by abysmally low funding or irrelevance to the world around the University, to be an essential element of a World Class University (WCU). These units are called Penniless Units.

Typically, but not exclusively, Penniless Units are grouped together in a larger Unit called the College or School of Arts & Crafts. Such a College or School strikingly conforms to Carpenter and McLuhan's definition of a museum: "A place where we display a way of life that we have made impossible." It is, however, extremely impolite to point this out, and could at the extreme bring on a Witch Hunt (see Processual Model, below).

So far from contradicting the Structural Model, the Penniless Principle in fact represents its precise structural inversion. In the Structural Model, pennies bring prestige. In the Principle of Penniless Prestige, pennies not only fail to bring prestige, but in fact are felt to undermine or otherwise pervert a Unit's quality. Only by remaining Penniless can the unfortunate faculty of such units ensure that their Esteem remains high. (The administrators of such units are, it should be noted, not subjected to the Penniless requirement.)

A Penniless Unit must ensure, at the pain of losing its Esteem, that its faculty and students refrain from getting or studying money. This is most effectively accomplished by focusing the Unit on a Topic that has Maximum Irrelevance (MI).

There are three variant forms of Maximum Irrelevance: the Dead, the Foreign, and the Abstract.

In terms of relative ranking within these MI variants, the Abstract is by far the best because it cannot possibly have anything to do with Money. An example is Postmodern Studies. (Economics, although it is indeed Abstract and may even be found in the College of Arts and Crafts, is not Penniless, so it is irrelevant to this generalization.) This penniless outcome of abstraction helps to explain the relatively high Esteem in which Philosophy and Linguistics departments are held, a phenomenon which is otherwise inexplicable and has long puzzled observers.

The Dead and the Foreign rank somewhat lower owing to the fact that, on occasion, someone pulls off the unbelievable feat of getting Money to study the Dead or the Foreign, or manages to persuade other Units that studying the Dead or the Foreign discloses the essence of Money (e.g., economic history and economic anthropology). Such feats may seem, on first appearance, to be astonishing and praiseworthy – the perpetrators tend to see them this way – but they contradict the Penniless Principle. In such cases, of course, the University is only to glad to benefit from whatever money is obtained by the Penniless, but if the Penniless prove too successful in winning Pennies, they may find themselves the target of a Witch Hunt generated from within their own Unit. After all, Penniless faculty have been trained to believe that their Prestige inheres in their Pennilessness.

Sometimes, impoverished Penniless faculty attempt to perform what amounts to an "end run" by seeking riches on their nights and weekends. But this activity must remain concealed; mysteries must be published under pseudonyms; faculty-founded rapacious Corporations must be incorporated as Limited Liability Corporations so that the names of their principals and investors are not accessible to the public. (In such cases a hapless Graduate Student can be drawn from the ranks of the Penniless to serve as the Corporation's apparent Director; only too late will the Director discover that he possesses very little of a thing called Equity, that for some reason was never mentioned in the curriculum.)

When great wealth is under secret development, the perpetrator must appear to remain most abjectly Penniless, eschewing the Large House, Yacht, and BMW that normally accrues to the wealthy, unless such Luxuries can be positioned so far away that they are unlikely to be discovered. Well do they know the risk. If a Penniless person is found to have secretly worshipped Mammon, it is likely that a Witch Hunt will occur. These Witch Hunts are unusual for their intensity and the degree of violence that is inflicted on the Witch.

It remains to note that this phenomenon explains why, on occasion, elderly faculty long thought to be Penniless are found, despite having lived what to all appearances was an exceptionally humble lifestyle, to have accumulated tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. It is sad to note that only rarely are such funds bequeathed to the University. This is a fact that this Analysis is helpless to explain.

A Brief Note on Penniless Pains

It should not prove surprising that a particular unit's status within the College of Arts & Crafts is perilously unstable. A commonly cited reason is that these units are prone to statistical extremes, such as the lowest salaries, the highest incidence of depressive disorders, and the loudest whining. Such a unit can quite easily become a Pain.

When a Penniless Unit becomes a Pain, the University is placed in an extremely awkward position, because the Unit -- Pain though it may be -- is essential to the University's bid for acceptance as a World Class University (WCU). In such cases, the Pain may be tolerated. It will be said, "What do you expect when you pack so many brilliant people into such a tiny building?" The faculty of a Penniless Pain should not, however, expect to receive a larger building.

(iii) The Principle of Past Practicality

Some apparently Dispensable Units seem immune to the Purge. Once again, this puzzling phenomenon is readily explicable in the light of the Structural Model.

These units are anachronisms; they hearken back to an age long gone, but have somehow managed to escape notice. Still, they teach something that the greater World deems of value, even though it is no longer regarded as such within the University.

In the following example, it must be understood that the Cow to be mentioned below is not necessary an animal; it is, rather, an abstraction or a symbol that can stand for a wide range of things that have the qualities attributed to a Cow within the University.

Consider, then, a Unit which well understands how to take care of a Cow so that it is shielded, as far as possible, from sickness and death. In fact, the faculty in such Units truly love their Cows and care for them; as a result, the Cows thrive, and they are beautiful. On occasion, a Cow can be seen wandering about the grounds of the University. Indeed, when the Public visits the University, they want to see the Cows.

To understand how Cows and Cow-like Units could survive in a University, it is essential to introduce one of the processes to be more fully analyzed in the forthcoming paper on the Processual Model: the Great Transformation.

In a Great Transformation, a State School that is generally held in low repute rapidly becomes a World Class University (WCU); thus does the State Normal School, the College of Agriculture, and the School of Mines suddenly become the Universities of Such-and-Such. Yet the Great Transformation may have been so rapid that the University's poorer cousins -- they of the Normal School, the Ag School, and the School of Mines -- may have hopped on the wagon, keeping a very low profile. Embarrasingly, they have brought their Cows along.

One would think that such Units would be quickly erased by a Purge -- and indeed, sometimes they are. But the University will think twice before undertaking such action. That is because Cows happen to be of particular importance to the State that directly surrounds the University, and the Public might not take kindly to any actions that are seen to be an attack on the Cow, or the Cow's place within what the people of the State believe to be the proper scheme of things. This is a particularly dangerous situation when the University's Football team has been on a prolonged losing streak. And so the Unit is left alone, and Cows continue to graze, to the infinite embarrassment of Esteemed Units.

Yet that which the University declines to do in the short run by Purge, will be done in the long run by Death, as the University wields the sword of Attrition.

A full description of this process awaits the next publication, but suffice to say that Attrition is based on University administrators' careful study of Medieval battles that sometimes resulted in a great victory. This was not due to the warriors' courage, nor their superior weaponry, nor yet their leadership; on the contrary, it was found that enemies could be far more easily and safely vanquished by surrounding their cities and preventing the entry of food and water.

By analogy, then, the University sees to it that when a Cow dies, or a member of the Cow faculty leaves the institution, or indeed this earthly plane, no replacement is made. The process is sufficiently slow that the Public does not perceive it; the frog, after all, does not realize that it is being boiled. In time, no more Cows will appear, no one will speak of them, and no one will pound on the door of the University demanding that Cow Studies return. In the end, the Cow's invisibility becomes total because, in the State surrounding the University, there is no longer a Cow Industry, because Cows are produced far more cheaply by foreign competitors.

(iv) The Principle of Peradventure

Owing to dramatic changes in the University's external environment that function to make a certain discipline’s topic Highly Relevant, a unit of low esteem may be suddenly raised to a level of high esteem. For example, the faculty of Middle Eastern Languages units throughout the United States have suddenly found themselves, after years of concerted attempts to subject them to starvation, to have become -- quite deservedly -- the object of great affection. (In truth, most Penniless units are just as deserving; yet the Penniless have learned to take what they can.) In the brief window of opportunity that emerges, a crafty Penniless unit may be able to expand its Unit, with the understanding -- of course -- that any such accretion or expansion must also remain Penniless.

It is but a small wonder that the faculty in such Units are heard to exclaim, like Malvolio in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night,

"Some are born great; some are made great, and some have greatness thrust upon them."

(v) The Party Principle

There are certain apparently Dispensable Units (DU) that, despite the low esteem in which they are held, survive all periodic purges because they are beloved by legions of fanatically devoted alumni.

Although the reasons for such devotion vary, it is widely suspected that low academic standards play a significant role in the great esteem which which Alumni hold these Units. This is a complex and frequently misunderstood subject that will necessitate some explication and careful attention.

The unenlighted onlooker may conclude the Units adhering to the Party Principle contradict or, at the extreme, negate the very idea of a University. In this they are quite mistaken. It is an error likely to have been made by those who lack long experience at a University. Those with such experience know perfectly well that it is not the best, but on the contrary the worst, students who are most likely to become obscenely wealth after they graduate.

A sardonic aphorism, known to all faculty, sums up the situation: "The A students teach; the B students work for the C students."

The conclusion is quite simple: the Party Principle is a proven survival strategy. If the University wishes to get money in the future, it must allow some Units adhering to this Principle to survive periodic Purges.

To render the above aphorism in the terms provided by this analysis, A students are learning to become Penniless, B students are learning to become Dispensable, while C students – who are obviously considerably smarter – have correctly perceived the University’s basic message: Get money.


The reflective reader may conclude -- correctly -- that the Structural Model decribes a system that is inherently unstable. The instability stems from the unfortunate realities of faculty experience. An exception must be made for those who manage to get money and study money. Theirs is a delicious life; they strut about the University like lords, which in fact they are.

It is in the lower ranks that instability sets in.

Faculty who get money (but do not also study it) soon learn that, apart from their higher salaries, they are unable to keep any of the money for themselves; the money they get enriches the University, not them. (In contrast, in the Business and Law Schools, various arrangements are made to make sure that this is not so.)

Faculty who study money, but do not get money, may eventually realized that they are on the outside looking in, and may have missed their chance for a little of the action.

Penniless faculty may begin writing mysteries or business plans. At the extreme, they may mount a suicidal campaign that is intended to reverse their Pennilessness within the University, a goal that cannot be reached.

Such perturbations cannot be tolerated. And that is why the Processual Model must be taken into account if one wishes to grasp a University.

As faculty commitment wavers, the processes detailed in the Processual Model come into play, and they are extremely effective. The Processual Model will be explained in a subsequent paper. For now, it should prove sufficient to indicate that the most prominent of these processes, the Witch Hunt, the Purge, and Attrrition, are deployed periodically to ensure that faculty get money, study money, or remain penniless, as the case may be.


The present author regrets that, on the advice of his attorney, appropriate references cannot be included here. As prepublication drafts circulated and various individuals learned they were to be cited, they threatened legal action if their names and works were to be included here. It is indeed sad that these individuals lack the present author's courage, but it must be admitted that nearly all of them lack tenure.

Posted by Bryan at October 09, 2002 09:05 AM
Original, updated version here .