Monday, June 11, 2012

84. The politics are vicious.

 “Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so low.” Endlessly repeated, the ironic expression has become a dictum on college campuses, though whether the stakes are actually low depends on your perspective. Virtually every work environment plays host to office politics, but academe takes politics to a new level. In most offices, the human scenery changes somewhat from year to year; people start jobs, leave jobs, lose jobs, and get promotions. In academe, unless you’re willing to give up your whole career—or you’re a superstar (see Reason 67)—once you’re ensconced in an academic office, you can’t leave. The senior faculty members are trapped by their tenure, and the junior faculty members are trapped by the tenure track (see Reason 71). Jean-Paul Sartre may as well have had a typical university department in mind when he wrote No Exit. Professors can rub elbows with the same colleagues for thirty years or more, which is plenty of time for minor grievances to grow into intense hatreds, for factions to form, and for battle lines to be drawn.

Because their fate is subject to the whims of the faculty, graduate students are often pawns in the petty wars that develop within departments. When professors scheme to undermine each other, they sometimes target each other’s graduate students, because the success or failure of a graduate student reflects on his or her adviser. If you are a graduate student, various faculty committees decide everything from whether you should receive funding (see Reason 17) to whether you have successfully defended your dissertation. Your progress, therefore, can be hindered not only by your own adviser (see Reasons 44 and 45), but also by your adviser’s rivals. Incoming graduate students are usually unaware of the hostile rivalries, and in many cases become aware of them too late for the knowledge to protect them. If you manage to survive the political minefield of graduate school, survive the academic job market, and survive the tenure track, then you had best hope that you get along with your fellow tenured professors, because they aren’t going anywhere, and neither are you.