So Long, Mariann (Or, Stinchcombe Was Right)

On Saturday afternoon, I attended a funeral service for Mariann Hoag. It was my second funeral in a week*, and the longest I’d ever attended – over two hours. Mariann was a legend, you see, at my grade school – a K-12, independent school, founded by two refugees from the Holocaust with a particular humanist philosophy, and named Roeper. Mariann worked at Roeper from 1948 to 2009. 61 years – more than twice as long as the founders, after whom the school is named. Mariann was not a teacher, but rather she was everything – secretary, bus route planner, fundraiser, and above all in recent years, the guardian of financial aid (and thus guardian angel for many families). More specifically, Mariann was the guts of the institution.

Let me explain a bit what I mean by guts of the institution, and then a bit more about Roeper as an institution. In organizational theory (within sociology), two overarching groups of work take on the label “institutionalist” – the so-called “old institutionalism” most associated with Selznick, and the “new institutionalism” associated with folks like DiMaggio and Powell. The old institutionalists focused more on how particular organizations and practices came to take on powerful meanings and value beyond their original, rational purpose. The new institutionalists focus more on the question D&P opened with in 1983 – why do organizations look so similar? That is, how do certain practices and forms become dominant, the way things work. New institutionalist explanations emphasize culture and cognition (often at the expense of power – cf. Mizruchi and Fein 1999), but focus much less on individuals or individual organizations.

In 1997, more than a decade after the new institutionalism picked up, and 6 years after the publication of the agenda setting Orange Book, Arthur Stinchcombe wrote a fascinating and contentious review article, On the Virtues of the Old Institutionalism. Stinchcombe criticizes the new institutionalism for focusing too much on representations and legitimacy and ignoring the everyday work, and the everyday workers, that make organizations possible. He concludes the essay eloquently:

In short, the trouble with the new institutionalism is that it does not have the guts of institutions in it. The guts of institutions is that somebody somewhere really cares to hold an organization to the standards and is often paid to do that. Sometimes that somebody is inside the organization, maintaining its competence. Sometimes it is in an accrediting body, sending out volunteers to see if there is really any algebra in the algebra course. And sometimes that somebody, or his or her commitment, is lacking, in which case the center cannot hold, and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

As I sat and listened to students, teachers, administrators and parents talk about Mariann’s life, which in turn was the history of the Roeper School, I could not but think of this quote. The Roeper School was founded on a very specific philosophy, one that embraces interdependence and empathy, and rejects nationalistic pride and naive self-interest. For many years, the school was entirely non-graded, and even in my time there were no class ranks, GPAs were not calculated or discussed, and students were given written evaluations for each class (in addition to letter grades to appease college admissions boards – coercive isomorphism much?). Students call teachers by their first name, and after 8th grade are allowed to leave campus on their own simply by signing out. These are just a few examples that come to mind – it’s hard to pin down exactly how Roeper works, and why it feels so different from other places. Anyway, the school’s philosophy was articulated and re-articulated by its founders – George, an educator, and Annemarie, a child psychologist***. But the philosophy was just a series of documents and ideas, the Roeper School was a living, breathing institution staffed by devoted people, and Mariann was first among equals.

Mariann was committed to the school for itself, and she demanded that the school stay true to itself. The new head of the school mentioned in his speech at the services how, when he first started, he had a few ideas about how to reform financial aid. The other administrators nervously told him that he’d have to ask Mariann. Financial aid at Roeper was more than just a tool for recruiting talented students, rather, it was how the school managed to maintain an eclectic mix and not simply educate the smartest children of the richest parents. More than half the school had some sort of financial aid, last I looked, and in each grade something like 10-20% (of 40-50 students) were on full scholarship. The new head, with his new ideas, dutifully went to Mariann to ask her opinions of his changes. She thought about it for a moment, and said, “I don’t like it… but we’ll try it, and see how it works.” And so it went with many other changes. Mariann was the guts of the institution – not the power center, but a force that made it work and that kept it on course.

I have more to say – about how the death of institutions in the contemporary world (at least some institutions, cf. Jerry Davis’ take on the death of the firm-as-organization) means that we no longer have powerful, stable communities to buffer us from the winds of the perennial gale of creative destruction (cf. Schumpeter), and that gale has grown ever quicker such that the rate of change may overtake many of us, especially if the government fails to meet the challenge (cf. Polanyi). But that’s for another time, another post perhaps. This post is about Mariann, and others like her, who hold us accountable to our beliefs and help make our communities real and long-lasting. She devoted her life to her institution, to her community, and to its beliefs. With her gone, many others will have to step up if Roeper is going to stay the same sort of community it has been for the last 61 years****.

So long, Mariann. And thanks.

* The first was for my grandfather. He was 87**, and I thought about including more about him in this post, but I’m not ready yet. I’ll just say that he was an amazing man, and I miss him, and I think his life too has hidden wisdom about organizations, but the opposite of Mariann’s, so I’m not going to present it here.
** Or maybe 88. It’s not clear when in August he was actually born, as the doctor did not visit for several weeks.
*** Annemarie published some of her work in a book, here. George never did, as far as I know, though there is a scholarly publication, The Roeper Review dedicated to gifted education.
**** Which is not to say that Roeper was in any way perfect, or stable. Rather, it was and is a process, a continual movement to understand itself and its goals and implement them better, and that process has had plenty of bumpy moments. But it’s hard not to romanticize a bit, at a time like this.