How Institutions Evolve

This week I went to the UPP Foundation’s annual dinner, at which the President of Tulane University made a speech. This was interesting for a number of reasons, not least that I have strong family connections to New Orleans, but what I’ll be picking up here is a comment he made about how institutions change to stay relevant.

We’ll be exploring universities, faith organisations and the Conservative Party, amongst other things, as well as what it means to stay relevant at too high a cost.

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It’s a dreaded term, ‘stay relevant’. So much institutional vandalism is done under its banner, the good so often swept away, unthinking, with the bad. Cut down that timber! Bells, too many and strong…

Yet at the same time, it is necessary. If we think of the institutions that have lasted the centuries – universities, parliaments, nations, churches, organisations – they have all had to change. Yet what distinguishes the successful and the unsuccessful?

The maxim given was that an organisation has to know what its true purpose is. This sounds trite, but is true – the difficulty can be in knowing what that true purpose is – and what supports that purpose. The example given was about Lords, and it’s true purpose being to be a home for amazing cricket. While I know nothing about cricket, this seems indubitably true, and one that no doubt most people who care about Lords would agree with. I was, ironically, less convinced that the true mission of Tulane – something about being socially embedded in its community – was either sufficiently unique or clear to provide the same sort of lodestar, however well it may be flourishing under his current leadership.

The challenge is that, without such a core purpose, an institution may change so much that it is unrecognisable to its founders. It is like a case of My Grandfather’s Axe(1), but instead of replacing each part with an identical part, it is replaced by something entirely different. At this point it is no longer the same institution, in any meaningful way. If ‘staying relevant’ overtakes your prinary purpose in importance, you may evolve into something entirely different – and what is the point of that? Better to decline gracefully. I will diminish, and go into the west, and will remain Galadriel.

Institutions that have evolved successfully are those that have managed to avoid either fate.

Take the University of Cambridge, an institution over 800 years old. The core of what it is – of what it always has been – is an institution of scholarship and learning. At times it has fulfilled that better than others (the early 19th century decline being a less glorious period), but there has never been doubt that that is what it is. I feel confident that a Fellow from 1205, or Newton’s era, or Darwin’s, or today could be put down in any of those times and – once they got over their shell-shock – feel that they stood in something that was recognisably the university they knew.

One could argue that for the 13th century scholar, it would be appalling that the university was no longer focused on Christian studies – or that it admitted women. Maybe they would be appalled. But the defining characteristic of 13th century Cambridge wasn’t that it was Christian – every major institution in England then was steeped in Christianity – it was that it was a place of learning and scholarship. And that it what it still is, visibly, overwhelmingly, obviously, today.

Of course, being united about the vision and purpose doesn’t stop arguments. People might disagree about whether certain admissions policies, or research structures, support or undermine excellent scholarship. There might be heated arguments about other matters, traditions perhaps, which contribute to the character – how often to have formal dinners, perhaps – in which claims that it supports or undermines the core purpose are weaponised spuriously. And the institution will make mistakes – sometimes big ones, over long periods. But if it knows what is important, it has a chance of recovery.

Other organisations have done this too. I think that Baden-Powell would still recognise the Scouts today, and – whether not he agreed with some of the changes – still see that they were carrying on his vision. Some other charities have done less well. Without wanting to put too fine a point on it, when you get to the stage of publicly denigrating your founder, you’ve probably lost the plot.

Faith organisations – churches, and so forth – constantly have to face this challenge, not least because they usually want to attract new worshippers (and retain their old ones). This can take the form of anything from styles of worship, to bitter disagreements about doctrine. Many religions have been around for literally thousands of years, and have of course seen some changes in those times.

I only really have knowledge to speak about Christianity, but my observation there is that those churches that have evolved their outward forms of worship (music, service style, etc) while holding fast to their core doctrines – evangelicals, pentacostals, many Baptists – are managing to hold their own, or even to grow, whereas those who have done the converse, preserving the outward forms but evolving the doctrines and values to ‘stay relevant’ – liberal Anglicans, Methodists, United Reform – are in rapid and likely terminal decline. After all, if your religion offers you exactly the same morality as secular society, why bother?

As a digression, I have always been more impressed – whether or not I agree with them – with the moral stances taken by people of faith when they are noticeably distinct from that of their non-religious peer group. Before the 2019 general election I read the policy document of the Board of Deputies of British Jews – basically, the document they used to lobby politicians from all parties as to what their community wanted(2). I can remember being struck by how little it matched our traditional right and left divisions. There were large chunks on faith schools, home schooling and freedom of religion, but also strong sections on ending poverty and helping refugees. It was clear that the guiding moral light of the document was not conservatism, or socialism, but something else.

Similarly, when I see Brexit-voting, socially Conservative Christian friends personally taking in refugees, or getting upset about cuts to international aid, it speaks to the fact that they are being genuinely motivated by something different from many who hold the first two stances. On the other hand, if someone says their morals or politics are motivated by their faith, but that turns out to be essentially identical to an existing mainstream position in society – whether that’s Bible Belt Republican or progressive Grauniad-reading middle England – it’s much harder to give credence that their faith is really playing any serious role.

Of course, nations evolve too – and so do political parties. When we look at the ‘fundamental British values’ that are supposed to be taught in English schools, what should we make of them? Some, such as democracy and the rule of law, genuinely do have a long pedigree, even if the way in which we speak about them may have evolved over the centuries. Tolerance can also make a claim. But if something would have been unrecognisableto anyone in Britain living 40 years ago or more, can it really be described as a fundamental British value? It may – or may not – be a good value, but it is hardly either fundamental or British.

Similarly, when Penny Mordaunt calls on the Conservative Party to start talking about building more and taxing less — and not talking about culture wars, that’s a call that goes to the heart of what the party is. Certainly, the Conservative Party has a strong theme running through it about economic growth and lower taxes – but is that all it’s about?

Not talking about the culture wars does not mean they will stop happening. It is not conservatives who are rewriting Dahl, Fleming and Wodehouse, ‘decolonising’ the curriculum, promoting radical gender ideology or seeking to tear down statues and rename buildings. It’s only called a ‘war’ when we fight back. But it needs but one foe to breed a war, not two, and those who have not swords can still die upon them. Not fighting means unconditional surrender.

For some Conservatives – perhaps some of those who would identify as Thatcherites(3) – that might not be a problem, if it allows them to win elections and pursue the economic programme they wish. We should, after all, be building more and taxing less. But for those Conservatives who believe the party is about more than low taxes and big business – those who believe it is about our preserving our heritage, our society, our institutions and history, about a defence of the values of the Enlightenment and traditional English freedoms – the call is unacceptable.

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(1) Or the Ship of Theseus, for those of you who insist on learning philosophy from philosophy books rather than Terry Pratchett.

(2) Something I’m sure wasn’t hard to find agreement on at all.

(3) Though Thatcher herself always had a strong sense of moral, not just economic, purpose.

4 thoughts on “How Institutions Evolve

  1. Typos spotted (I assume you would like to know about these?):
    ” however we’ll it may be flourishing under his current leadership” has a bonus apostrophe in we’ll
    “institutions that have evolved successfully are those that have managed to avoid either fate.” is missing a capital at the start.
    Footnote 1: Ot the Ship -> Or the ship

    Do you have a policy on linking to paywalled articles? You do it reasonably frequently, and I don’t know if this is because you’re totally fine with a third of the time people follow links in your articles they go “Oh, I can’t read that” or if you mean to put a paywall note/preferential choose sources everyone can read, but find it hard to notice something is paywalled once you’ve subscribed?

    1. Yes please – thank you!

      I don’t have a policy on linking to paywalled articles in general posts. Very few people click on any link (c. 5% of readers) so I see them as very much bonus material. In the ‘Links’ posts I try to avoid paywalled stuff as then they’re the main content.

  2. Well argued. I did think “would scholars from Cambridge’s first 400 years feel that the point of the scholarship was to know God better, and that the purpose of the Univeristy has been diverted?” so was impressed you addressed that in the next paragraph (while I think ‘in order to …’ is not quite so easily erased from a purpose as you argue, I liked your reasoning that Cambridge today is to our society as Cambridge then was to theirs).
    Loved footnote 2!

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