Gary K. Clabaugh, Emeritus Professor, La Salle University

Edward G. Rozycki, Widener University, Retired

“Power tends to Corrupt. Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely.”  Lord Acton’s axiom is famous. But is it true? Does power actually corrupt? Yes it does; by changing our conceptions of the people over whom we have authority, or who have authority over us. In both situations we tend to deal with “the other” in ways that subvert both our individual and common interests.

Smith’s research indicates that when power is monocratic — top-down, not shared  — distinctive ways of perceiving subordinate and superior groups evolve that cause difficult problems. He labels these  “encasements.”

Smith divides organizations into three groups: “uppers,” “implementers” and “lowers.” The “uppers” control resources, money, and other’s jobs. “Implementers” struggle to adjust the decisions of the uppers to the realities of the situation. “Lowers,” are subject to the will of the “uppers” as well as the efforts of the “implementers.” Barring unionization and work stoppages, they lack power of their own. They make do.

Smith stresses that the monocratic relationships of “uppers”-“implementers”-“lowers” shift. What category you belong to depends upon a particular setting. The principal is an “upper” within the school building. But within the broader school district, he or she is an “implementer”. The superintendent is the principal’s “upper,” but an “implementer” in relation to the “uppers” on the board of education. Teachers are “uppers” in their own classroom, but “implementers” within the building and “lowers” within the total power structure of the district. These shifting roles put a premium on one’s ability to adapt.

Remember, Smith found that all three groups have distinctive ways, “encasements,” of perceiving their own group and the others. In a monocratic situation, the “lowers” distrust both “implementers” and “uppers.” They have a reactive attitude toward them. They struggle to maintain their own group unity by withholding information, distrusting the white crows among them, and suppressing internal dissent. In extreme cases they appear apathetic and to have a don’t care attitude.

“Implementers” must somehow relate to both “uppers” and “lowers” — an often difficult task. Generally, however, they tend to be hopeful, systematic thinkers who, as best they can, ground their decisions in moral and ethical frameworks. They are information sharers and brokers. But when faced with conflict, they can become disoriented, indecisive and impotent.

“Uppers” tend to delegate responsibility, but typically fail to provide sufficient resources. They have little insight into into the consequences of their own behavior. They typically withhold information to create dependencies on them, the power holders. They react to conflict with other groups by being punitive and assertive and by withholding resources. Within their own group, however, they tolerate disagreement and try to ignore conflict.

All of these encasements are an outgrowth of top-down, monocratic governance. And in both basic and higher education power often flows from the top downward, and sets the stage for perceptual encasement pathologies. 

How can you check if your educational institution suffers from these distinctive troubles? By observing the behavior and attitudes of its “uppers,” “implementers” and “lowers.” Are attitudes encased? Does the institution manifest the pathology of domination? If so, their educational mission is being badly compromised.