I was at Eulogy a few years ago with some Penn State friends. I shared a framework for how to think about universities that has been helpful for me in thinking about Penn State, but also thinking about the realpolitik of any major institution.

In short, it’s about remembering that a single kingdom has many fiefdoms. What were fiefs? Land grants, basically.

At Penn State for instance there might be a central brand and identity, but that it’s more practical to think of the university as a large and diverse kingdom, and each academic college, research department, administrative unit, etc. as functionally independent fiefdoms each with their own incentives, motivations, and ways of doing business. In many cases it will be in the interests of these independents to align themselves with what the king is saying, or with the prevailing sentiments of the kingdom. Other times, less so.

The president of a university can develop and promote a common institutional vision (“the world’s most student-centered research institution” or “teaching, research, and outreach”), but how that translates into policy in each administrative area of the university will be different. Collaboration between colleges or departments might not happen if both deans don’t get what they want in the way that they want it. Not every one of the independents operates with the same incentives.

A personal example: As an advocate for Penn State radio, alumni like me deal with many different departments. They’re not all aligned, nor are they uniformly helpful—though they do share the same Penn State letterhead. Here are a few:

Penn State Alumni Association. Alumni operate and rely on their influence for official, sanctioned access to campus facilities. Without its assistance and support, we can’t easily raise funds, access alumni records, host events, etc.

Office of Student Affairs. The student radio station exists under the patronage of the Office of Student Affairs. The Office of Students Affairs, on the one hand, has no real cause to support alumni efforts, even if alumni work to raise funds to benefit students. Their development staff operate independently of Alumni Association development staff, meaning there’s a perpetual conflict between short term fundraising (to benefit students immediately, but short term) and long term fundraising (to create sustainable endowed funds to perpetually support students). In this example, the two development efforts are divorced, and both sides are worse for it.

College of Communications. The students (and alumni, visa vis their financial support) rely on the goodwill of the College of Communications dean and staff for engineering and technical assistance to students to keep the station on the air. But the College will only do so much, because the station’s needs aren’t one of its core priorities. Why? As an entity housed under the Office of Student Affairs, and as a student group open to students of any academic major, there are no concrete incentives for the College of Communications to do more than the minimum to keep its facilities operational. In fact, the “faculty adviser” to the station is in fact a salaried staff person who’s partly funded by the Office of Student Affairs. Without this payment from one fiefdom to another, it’s unlikely the College of Communications would have any incentive to encourage its staff to assist the station.

What is the common thread in this example? It’s that each area is aligned only in the most general sense. In this case, sustaining the student radio experience. As a result of non-aligned goals especially in terms of financial development and engineering, the conversation ends up being about status-quo checkins rather than real growth in terms of improving the student experience.

The point of a single kingdom having many fiefdoms is that the easiest way to get things done on campus is by determining what the specific goals of the department you’re working with care about. Each dean or administrator will have a vision for his or her area—the things that make a career noteworthy, or will bring prestige or research dollars or whatever to distinguish their tenure.

Appeal to those more specialized desires, and you can make an impact.