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Cecil (on institutional memory)


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There is a sociological phenomenon called Institutional Memory Theory, which Wikipedia introduces this way:

Institutional memory is a collective set of facts, concepts, experiences and know-how held by a group of people. As it transcends the individual, it requires the ongoing transmission of these memories between members of this group. Elements of institutional memory may be found in corporations, professional groups, government bodies, religious groups, academic collaborations, and by extension in entire cultures.

I’ve worked at one of those places for forty-five years and I can tell you I.M. has not always been valued. The ability to identify policy, pinpoint its implementation, who created it, and how it has been applied can be “inconvenient” for administrators, who prefer to invoke precedent only when it serves their immediate purpose.

In the 1980s [oops!] when Cecil Elliott was our chair, “policy” was often whatever any two administrators remembered, and it just as often sounded like Tommy Flanagan (the SNL character played by John Lovitz; not the Scottish film director) making it up on the spot and giving away his stream-of-consciousness lie with the phrase: “Yeah….that’s the ticket.”

Cecil attended meetings — many of them with our dean at the time; an engineer who supported Intelligent Design! — and would then return to his office, review his notes, and write a memo to others who had been present, saying essentially this: “Thanks for contributing to our meeting this afternoon. These are my recollection of what we discussed, the decisions reached, and the action(s) to be taken. If they differ from your recollection, please reply as soon as possible so we can resolve the difference and move on.”

The department made headway during the “Elliott Years” because he played the administrative game better than they did.



  1. James verDoorn says:

    I don’t think Cecil was chair in the 1908’s…. 😉

  2. Mr. Black says:

    Otto Helweg. What a peach of a person. Favorite memory: NDSU GenEd committee, where he thought that, maybe, there should be “English for engineers,” so the engineers wouldn’t have to read poetry.

    • In Otto’s case, it was Institutional Dementia. Otto was a Creationist who believed the Earth was created more or less on the schedule Bishop Ussher had devised (though I wonder if he knew who Ussher was). He attended a local church stylishly constructed of concrete double-Ts, bringing to mind the comment of British architectural critic Rayner Banham about Coventry Cathedral: he called it “a gosh-awful ring-a-ding God-box.” Perfect environment for Otto’s sense of spirituality.

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