Grappling with academic politics

There is a famous quote, attributed to Harvard professor Richard Neustadt, that ‘academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small’. It is certainly true that personal hostility and intrigue are not wholly unknown occurrences in universities. In my experience, this becomes a dominant culture in some departments, or on some committees, while it can be completely unknown in others.

In its most recent issue, the US Chronicle of Higher Education has an article from a senior academic in the University of Iowa in which he classifies the different types of people you can find in academic life and who may be best avoided by those not wanting to become the embroiled in fighting or intrigue. These are the ‘turfmaster’ (easily offended when someone offers a contrary opinion relating to their area), the ‘prickly pear’ (nursing chips on their shoulder), the ‘big bully’ (essentially cowards), ‘Dr Chaos’ (with a fondness for random battles), the ‘deal maker’ (horse traders by temperament), and the ‘smiler’ (duplicitous and manipulative).

In my experience most academics don’t belong to any of these categories; but it is easy to identify someone we have met or known who does, and it is easy to see how much damage they can do. The academy will always be a place where unusual personalities appear; but ti would be better that they were eccentrics rather than manipulative or aggressive.

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13 Comments on “Grappling with academic politics”

  1. Perry Share Says:

    Perhaps the best account of academic politics is found in the description of the staff meeting at the fictional Watermouth University in Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man. Always worth a (re-) read. The fact that some of the participants are sociologists only adds to the excitement!

  2. anna notaro Says:

    The literary genre of the ‘campus novel’ is very interesting in this sense, I enjoy reading David Lodge’s work myself but there is a lot more to chose from, see

  3. Jilly Says:

    For a wonderful overview of campus novels (and some insightful analysis of the way they’ve changed as the university has changed), see Elaine Showalter’s book _Faculty Towers_. It’s great.

    One of my own favourites is _The Straight Man_ by Richard Russo.

  4. copernicus Says:

    My late father who was a professor used to say that academics play the worst kind of politics. I can give a list of those, but I wouldn’t, who have effectvely destroyed their departments more often through their cabals. When our heads and deans formed committees and when we met, we knew that these were mere talking shops, and consummate politicians like them have their own “real committees” when they meet in their favourite waterholes, and the decisions were taken there. I have heard my Scottish academics in medical schools say that the real decisions were taken within God’s premises in Sunday gathering of a cabal in a local church!!

    Laurie Taylor’s column in the Times Higher Education about goings on at the mythgical Poppleton University is interesting to read. But then he has been New Labour and his columns reflect that philosophy.

  5. Fred Says:

    My most relevant experience in this was in a Uni department outside UK, where most academics didn’t have any publication record or any research degree (probably not master’s either). Frankly, the very few who had at least a doctorate were forced outside their “group” at best or outside the department at worse. These decision weren’t taken in formal meetings of course…

  6. Vincent Says:

    Why is there a E7000ish difference between pre and post 1995 hiring at a given level. I can tell you if I held a professorship since ’94 I would be POed.

    • Jilly Says:

      Because (as I understand it) academic staff appointed before 95 did not have to make a contribution to their pensions, whereas those appointed after 95 have always made a fairly substantial contribution. This is all pre-pension-levy, of course.

      One of the most infuriating things about the ‘debate’ (I use the term loosely) about the public sector pension levy was the way in which supposedly well-informed journalists in supposedly reputable publications kept blithely stating that the pension levy ‘now’ meant that public sector workers were contributing to their pensions. In fact, all of us hired after 95 have always contributed. But with regard to the salary scales, pre-95 workers are MUCH better off, as the difference in their pay is less than the pension contribution made by their colleagues hired after 95.

      • kevin denny Says:

        Its because those of us appointed pre ’95 paid & continue to pay the low rate of PRSI (c. 4.5% at the time) the theory being that one could never be sacked so would never have a claim on unemployment benefits. During one’s probation year one paid the high rate for that reason (9% I think). When it was decided that new academics should pay the high rate, they were paid more to compensate exactly.
        I think because of subsequent changes in the PRSI rates, the post 95’ers may actually be better off.

  7. Jason Michael McCann Says:

    If only we could limit such antics to the university, wouldn’t it be so wonderful to simply erect a high voltage wire fence around it? Sadly this is a human reality that is merely accentuated by the ‘respectable’ environs of the academic life. The Church, the bank and most other institutions attract like pathologies. A friend once advised that such people are attracted to such-and-such a social situation because the real world would not tolerate them. There may be some truth to this, but one suspects that it is just part of the human condition.

    • kevin denny Says:

      Ok so the universities, churches, banks and other institutions attract people with pathological behaviour because they would not be tolerated in the “real world”. So were exactly is the dividing line between the real and the un-real world and how is such a demarcation decided upon?

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