portrait of the icon as a young man
“No question he was the leading reformer of the 20th century.” Wow! Talk about a legacy!
So pronounced Kenneth J. Meier, Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Chair of Liberal Arts at Texas A&M University, at an “Ode to Luther Gulick” symposium at New York University on Dec. 4, 2009. And thanks to an audio transcript of more than two hours, it’s preserved for posterity. http://wagner.nyu.edu/podcasts/130
The salute, at NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, brought together leading academics in public administration and political science, united in veneration of a pioneering civic leader, social scientist and organizer par excellence who transformed modern government, making Democracy work.
And yet not above criticism. Speakers grappled with the fallout from a slashing 1946 attack on Gulick from a formidable critic — Herbert A. Simon, who would win the Nobel prize in Economics in 1978. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economic-sciences/laureates/1978/simon-bio.html
Simon had faulted Gulick for his foundational principles of public administration, as outlined in the hugely influential anthology Gulick compiled with the British management expert Lyndall Urwick. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lyndall_Urwick
The book, “Papers on the Science of Administration,” opened with Gulick’s iconic essay, “Notes on the Theory of Organization”
which Gulick wrote in 1937 while serving on Roosevelt’s Brownlow Committee that reorganized the federal government and created the powerful modern Presidency, as we described in an earlier blogpost. https://blogs.baruch.cuny.edu/ipaprocessing/2014/11/fdrs-ghostwriter/
In his essay, Gulick discussed the division of labor — how to divide tasks for maximum effect — and the span of control: how many workers can be managed by a supervisor, depending on the scope of the work. He warned against overtrust in experts —caveamus expertum, keep experts on tap not on top. And, most memorably, he coined the signature acronym of public administration — POSDCORB for the key functions of Planning, Organizing, Staffing, Directing, Coordinating, Reporting and Budgeting. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/POSDCORB
Simon derided such pithy formulations as “proverbs of administration,” dismissing them as empty and meaningless as contradictory pairings like “Look Before You Leap” and “He Who Hesitates Is Lost.” Instead, he formulated a new science of decision-making based on sociology and psychology. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Administrative_Behavior
The dispute, too complex for easy summation here (and to tell, the truth, we ourselves have trouble wrapping our minds around this) left Simon as the fresh new face of modern public administration and Gulick as the orthodox and outmoded old guard. Gulick himself realized he had opened himself up for criticism by underplaying the role of politics and strategy. But over the years his reputation recovered, as scholars like Thomas H. Hammond of the Political Science Department at Michigan State University argued that Gulick was less vulnerable to Simon’s critique than commonly portrayed.
For sure, Gulick’s defenders were out in force at the NYU symposium in 2009. Leading off was Prof. Daniel Williams of Baruch’s School of Public Affairs, who had then just succeeded in securing the archives of the expiring Institute of Public Administration, including the records of its predecessor Bureau of Municipal Research, and the Gulick papers, for the Baruch Library Archives. He had not yet examined all 700-plus cartons of the collection, he said, “but even if half turn out to be duplicates, the other half will be an amazing trove.”
Particularly valuable, Williams went on, were some 1,000 surveys of governments around the nation and world conducted by the BMR and IPA. “I don’t think there’s any other collection of them anyplace in the world,” he said.
Williams credited the BMR with beginning the centralizing of executive power by strengthening the mayor’s offices at a time in America when cities, not the states or federal government, were “where the action was.” This was an era that produced giants like Gulick, Robert Moses and Charles Beard. The reformers unleashed a formidable weapon: the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 that revolutionized the funding of government and amounted, Williams said, to a “secret Constitutional Amendment.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Budget_and_Accounting_Acting
Another scholar, H. George Frederickson of the University of Kansas, told of meeting Gulick at a professional conference in Philadelphia in 1968, when the nation, and the conference itself, was being torn by anti-war protests, ghetto riots and campus violence. Although 76, Gulick fell in easily with the young anti-establishment rebels, seeing in them perhaps, some echo of his own questioning youth. http://kupa.ku.edu/h-george-frederickson
It was left to Prof. Meier to champion Gulick as a social scientist after all, not the dry theorist or pinched drafter of organizational charts but a robust pragmatist who “attempted to fix real world problems.”
“He didn’t attempt to establish a philosophy of social science but he practiced a consistent philosophy of science,” Meier said. “A science of the artificial, not just how things are but how they might be.”
Contrary to Simon, Meier asserted, “an organization for Gulick was not a machine — it was an organism.”
And Meier quoted what could be Gulick’s best self-assessment, modestly stated, to be sure, of his towering achievement: “My main responsibility has not been the development of a consistent and scholarly intellectual edifice. My job has been to persuade the politically responsible decision-makers to take a sensible step foreword in governmental management. This approach leads more to an optimistic marshaling of concepts and words designed to appeal to the client than a philosophical structure.
The final and perhaps most affecting words came not from an academic but a woman of 83 named Pearl Hack who stood and said: “I met Luther Gulick in 1946. I was 20, a graduate of Hunter.” She was one of five students — and the sole woman — to win a scholarship to study at the IPA with Gulick. “He was dynamic, filled with spirit, a fascinating teacher,” Hack recalled. “Can you imagine what it was like to sit around with five students and Luther?”
“He was a teacher, which to me is the highest role in society,” she concluded. “He was an extraordinary human being, which is number one in my book.”
Another woman with a gripping personal story was in the hall but did not speak. She had an interesting name — Lisa Gulick. An assistant commissioner in the New York City Department of Youth and Community Development, she is a granddaughter of Luther, one of five grandchildren. Her father was Gulick’s son, Luther, Jr., a geographer who died in 2000. You will be hearing more about her in subsequent posts.