Memo to University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise: Please call John Dempsey, the executive director of the Facilities and Services department, and order him to stop acting like a bureaucrat.
We've railed many times in this space about the tyranny imposed by bureaucrats who engage in behavior that makes sense only to them. Well, here we go again.
In a few weeks, the University of Illinois plans to demolish two houses on East Armory Avenue in Champaign and dispose of the rubble the destruction creates, presumably by dumping it in a landfill. Rather than allow members of the Preservation and Conservation Association of Champaign County to salvage and then recycle usable pieces of property before demolition, the university is prepared — based on a mindless interpretation of law — to destroy what need not be destroyed.
Say what? It's true. Those who think it doesn't make sense are not adequately suited to occupy bureaucrat-world, that bizarre place where exercising sound judgment based on the facts at hand plays second fiddle to blindly following a tortured interpretation of rules.
The News-Gazette wanted to talk to top administrators at Facilities and Services, including Executive Director John Dempsey, about this head-scratching situation. But, like many bureaucracies, it has walled itself off from public inquiry and hides behind a designated spokesman whose job it is to make the oh-so-stupid sound oh-so-sensible.
Here's the department's defense as explained by the clearly underpaid Steve Breitwieser. Following state law mandating that state-controlled property can't be disposed of without approval from the state's Department of Central Management Services, UI bureaucrats had no choice but to seek permission from CMS before allowing PACA to scavenge the doomed property for reusable waste material.
If CMS doesn't grant an exemption, destruction goes forward as planned.
While there is a surface appeal to Dempsey's defense, even a wee bit of scrutiny renders it incredible.
For starters, the properties are to be destroyed. That's the plan. If there is reusable property in them — this is the perfect example of the credo that one man's trash is another man's treasure — nobody affiliated with the state officially cares. What are the bureaucrats thinking?
Clearly, they aren't. If that reality isn't sufficient to make them see the error of their ways, they might look to precedent for guidance on how to address this brain-twister.
In the past, the UI worked closely with PACA to ensure that properties scheduled for destruction were inspected and that some features of them — things like oak columns, staircases, cedar shingles — were removed for reuse.
(By the way, isn't that past practice entirely consistent with the concepts of recycling and sustainability to which the university pays so much lip service?)
Although it's recyclable, whatever can be salvaged from these houses isn't reusable in the conventional sense. Shingles stripped from a house scheduled for demolition aren't the equivalent of desks, chairs or pieces of equipment that can be shifted from one university classroom building to another.
Even the most dedicated UI bureaucrat couldn't take a stairway from a nearly 100-year-old house and find a place for it to fit in the newly renovated Lincoln Hall. Property like that either will be smashed to pieces and dumped in a landfill or spared destruction and possibly given new life as a onetime sow's ear converted by hard work into a silk purse.
Why are we even having this discussion at a world-class university that is supposed to be home to great thinkers? Here's why — a bureaucrat is a bureaucrat, and many of them revel in their (we repeat) mindless despotism.
That's why Wise must act. It's her job to protect the UI from those who would do it harm by, among other things, making the institution and the people who run it look foolish. She's smart enough to see the folly here. That's why she has to make that call.